Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver allegedly used racist and misogynistic language in front of Suns employees and fostered a "toxic and sometimes hostile workplace" during his 17-year tenure, according to a report from ESPN's Baxter Holmes.
More than 70 current and former Suns employees spoke to ESPN about Sarver and their experience working for him, accusing him of various offenses, including using racially insensitive language, discussing sexually explicit activities in the office, going on verbal tirades aimed at coaches and meddling in on-court affairs to the detriment of the team.
“We are continuing to review the allegations in today’s ESPN story. We view these allegations as serious and applaud the League’s decision to conduct an investigation. We will defer any further comments until that process has been concluded.”
Accusations of racist language
Several of the people ESPN interviewed were former Suns executives and even a current co-owner. Via ESPN:
"The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale," one Suns co-owner said about Sarver. "It's embarrassing as an owner."
Said a former Suns basketball executive: "There's literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me."
Former head coach Earl Watson described an incident in which Sarver used the N-word several times, asking him why players like Draymond Green can use it but he can't. Sarver, who is white, denied the incident ever took place.
Sarver also denies ever using the N-word, but multiple current and former employees refute that in the story.
At least a half-dozen Suns staffers recounted to ESPN instances of Sarver hearing a story from a Black player and then using the same language when retelling it, down to the usage of the N-word.
"You're like, 'Whoa! Robert, you can't do that,'" said one former basketball executive. Another former Suns head coach said such instances were commonplace. A Black basketball operations staffer told ESPN he has heard Sarver say the N-word multiple times.
Former employees accuse Robert Sarver of misogyny
One former executive recalls a meeting early in Sarver's tenure in which Sarver passed around a picture of his wife in a Suns bikini.
One former executive who was in the meeting said, "We're passing it around like a hot potato. Like, what in the hell are we supposed to do with this? That was just, you know, one early glimpse at the man."
Sarver, through his legal team, confirmed to ESPN that he did pass around a photo of his wife in a Suns bikini, but claims it was only to show people in charge of merchandising what the bikini looked like.
Numerous employees accused Sarver of using inappropriate sexual language and discussing his sex life during meetings, even allegedly mentioning the size of condoms he wears.
More than a dozen employees recalled Sarver making lewd comments in all-staff meetings, including discussing times when his wife would perform oral sex on him. Four former employees said that in several all-staff meetings Sarver claimed he needed to wear Magnum or extra-large condoms. Former employees said he asked players about their sex lives and the sexual prowess of their significant others.
"Women have very little value," one female former staffer said she felt. "Women are possessions. And I think we're nowhere close to where he thinks men are."
Two employees accuse Sarver of allegedly trying to oust a pregnant employee during the 2008-09 season because she would be "breastfeeding and would need to be at home with her newborn." Those employees say they believed firing her for those reasons would be in violation of employment and discrimination laws and "rebuked Sarver," along with several members of Suns management.
Through his legal team, Sarver has denied all of these allegations. He claims that he never discussed sexually explicit topics at work and fully supported the pregnant employee, saying he was "discussing potential temporary adjustments to her schedule."
Two employees allege Sarver berated that same employee over a video she created to honor then-Suns executive Rick Welts. He was allegedly upset that Jerry Colangelo, who hired Welts, was featured more prominently than he was.
At one point, the woman broke down in tears, to which Sarver said, "Why do all you women around here cry so much?"
That incident allegedly led to a lunch between a number of female Suns employees and women who worked at another of Sarver's businesses, arranged by Sarver.
Soon after the incident, multiple female former Suns employees said Sarver asked some of them to have lunch with women who worked at a bank he oversaw as CEO. The perception among some female employees was that he believed some women with the Suns weren't as tough as the women who worked at the bank.
"So humiliating," one female former employee said she felt about the arranged lunch.
Through his attorneys, Sarver denied ever berating that employee or being upset that Colangelo was featured in a tribute video. He also said the lunch between female employees at two of his businesses was for "networking" purposes.
Executives allegedly contributed to 'toxic' environment
While Sarver's alleged actions affected numerous staffers, current and former employees told ESPN that the "workplace toxicity" of the organization was also the fault of the Suns executive team.
The incidents described run the gamut. Two employees accused a white executive of repeatedly calling a Black employee "Carlton," a character from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and asking him to do the famous Carlton dance despite him asking numerous times to stop. When contacted by ESPN, the executive didn't deny he did those things, but he did deny that he was told to stop, saying their relationship was "jovial."
A female employee who had allegedly been physically assaulted by a male coworker told ESPN that she went to HR for help, since his desk was directly next to hers. The solution was to move her desk so she was now 10 feet away from him. She told ESPN that to her knowledge, the Suns never conducted an investigation. According to the Suns, that's because both parties declined to speak with HR. They also denied advising the employee to move her desk to resolve the problem.
Another female employee told ESPN that a former Suns VP once asked her about her sexual history with male Suns employees, even asking about the genitalia of one specific employee.
"It was terrible because I had not had sexual interactions with anybody on [the staff], so that was very weird," she told ESPN. "And [it] also made me uncomfortable because my VP is asking me about my sexual history with other co-workers? That kind of thing was almost normal."
The executive denied asking those questions when contacted by ESPN.
Other female employees described witnessing or being the target of verbal tirades from male executives, or hearing executives make sexist and demeaning comments about women during meetings. They said they were ignored when they objected, giving them the feeling that they as female employees weren't valued by the organization. Many told ESPN they didn't feel safe going to HR out of fear of retaliation. To avoid employees suing and making issues public, the Suns allegedly gave those employees severance packages to leave or settled any bourgeoning legal disputes, always sealed with a non-disclosure agreement.
The alleged toxic workplace environment caused a number of female employees to seek mental health treatment.
"It breaks you," said another female former employee. "I'm hard to break, and it broke me."
"It wrecked my life," said a third female former employee. "I was contemplating suicide."
A current executive is among nearly a dozen who acknowledges seeking professional help to cope with anxiety, sleep loss and overall declining well-being working for the Suns.
"When I went to the psychologist, I cried a bucket of tears," the executive said. "And it's like that with a lot of us. It's just sad."
Robert Sarver denies claims in ESPN story
After the ESPN report was published, the Sarver released a statement through the Suns again refuting the claims:
“I continue to be shocked by the false reporting from Baxter Holmes. While there is so much that is inaccurate and misleading in this story that I hardly know where to begin, let me be clear: The N-word is not part of my vocabulary. I have never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by that word, either verbally or in writing. I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in. The way I lead my personal and professional life makes that clear. Instead of reporting the truth, Holmes’ story is based on misrepresentations from former Suns coach Earl Watson and other unnamed “sources.” Mr. Watson created an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization. He is clearly not a credible source. Despite hearing from witness after witness that disputed Mr. Watson’s stories, Mr. Holmes completely disregarded the truth here. Now we are in the position of trying to disprove things that did not happen.
“At this point, I would entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud.”
Suns, Mercury deny 'baseless claims' against Robert Sarver weeks before report
The Suns and Mercury responded to the allegations before the ESPN story even broke, calling them "baseless claims."
Both teams posted the same statements to Twitter in late October.
"We understand that an outlet is considering publishing a proposed story that makes completely baseless claims against the Suns organization concerning a variety of topics," the teams said. "Documentary evidence in our possession and eyewitness accounts directly contradict the reporter's accusations, and we are preparing our response to his questions. We urge everyone not to rush to judgement here. Especially based on lies, innuendo, and a false narrative to attack our organization and its leadership."
The Suns issued three additional statements in a lengthy Twitter thread from Sarver, general manager James Jones and team president Jason Rowley.
Sarver denied all allegations, saying he was "wholly shocked" to hear about the report.
“I am wholly shocked by some of the allegations purported by ESPN about me, personally, or about the Phoenix Suns and Mercury organizations,” Sarver said. “While I can’t begin to know how to respond to some of the vague suggestions made by mostly anonymous voices, I can certainly tell you that some of the claims I find completely repugnant to my nature and to the character of the Suns/Mercury workplace and I can tell you they never, ever happened.
“First and foremost, I reject any insinuation of personal or organizational racism or gender discrimination. I despise language that disrespects any individual, regardless of race, gender, preference or choice. Such language has no place in business or at home in what I consider Suns and Mercury families. I am proud of our record of diversity and inclusion on both teams — whether on the court or in the front office.
“I don’t begin to know how to prove that something DIDN’T happen, and it is difficult to erase or forget ugly accusations once they are made. Even hints of racism or sexism in our culture today are toxic and damaging and should not be lightly raised. I categorically deny any and all suggestions that I used disparaging language related to race or gender. I would like to think that my actions and public record regarding race, gender or discrimination of any kind, over a lifetime in business and community service, will adequately answer any questions anyone might raise about my commitment to equality and fairness.”
Jones' statement was just one sentence.
"None of what's been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn't," he said.
Rowley called the ESPN story "completely outrageous and false," and said the team is committed to "promoting a respectful, fun, competitive and enriching work environment."
Suns coach Monty Williams was asked about the situation before a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 22 at the Staples Center.
He did not get into specifics, but said he was confident the allegations against Sarver would not impact the locker room.
Suns coach Monty Williams on why he believes the Robert Sarver accusations won’t affect the locker room pic.twitter.com/lWoB2zBgJg
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 23, 2021
"Nothing will invade or erode our culture," Williams said. "That's something that we've said from day one. Wins, losses, we get to play basketball, we get to hoop. And that's not going to change."
All of those statements — and Williams' comments — were made well before the ESPN story was published or details of the allegations were known.