PHOENIX — An ESPN report detailing racial and misogynistic allegations against Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver released Thursday morning has prompted an investigation from the NBA.
ESPN RELEASES EXTENSIVE REPORT ON ALLEGATIONS AGAINST ROBERT SARVER
ESPN released a report Thursday accusing Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver of racism, and sexism.
The article is surely sending shockwaves through the sports world. Right off the bat, ESPN’s story says Server allegedly used the N-word multiple times when talking to then-coach Earl Watson.
The report says ESPN talked to more than 70 people who worked in the organization, who painted a picture of a hostile work environment. Sarver allegedly used racially insensitive language, and the article included references to instances of misogyny, and situations when employees felt cornered and belittled.
"Through his legal team, Sarver denied using racially insensitive language," the report says. "Sarver did acknowledge using the (N-word) once many years ago."
A current business operations employee reportedly told ESPN, "If the commissioner comes in and investigates to see what the f--- is going on in Phoenix...[he] would be appalled."
The NBA says they have not received any complaints of misconduct at the Suns organization through their confidential hotline.
"This story is completely outrageous and false," current President/CEO, Jason Rowley, said ahead of the report's release.
Sarver purchased the team in 2004 for what was then a record $401 million.
Over the years, many former coaches and players have criticized Sarver’s financial moves, and level of involvement in coaching decisions.
In 2018, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Sarver "has earned a long-standing reputation for aggressively involving himself in basketball decisions," and that coaches "became accustomed to regular beratings and demands of strategy and lineup changes.”
None of the allegations mentioned in Wojnarowski's 2018 report included claims of racism or sexism.
NBA TO INVESTIGATE SARVER ALLEGATIONS
Following the release of the ESPN report, NBA leaders released a statement announcing an investigation into the claims made against Robert Sarver.
"We have directed the Wachtell Lipton law firm to commence a comprehensive investigation," the statement reads, in part.
Read the full statement from the NBA below:
“The allegations contained in today’s ESPN article are extremely serious, and we have directed the Wachtell Lipton law firm to commence a comprehensive investigation. The NBA and WNBA remain committed to providing a respectful and inclusive workplace for all employees. Once the investigation is completed, its findings will provide the basis for any league action.”
REACTIONS TO ESPN REPORT ON SARVER
In a statement following the article's publication, Rowley said defamation counsel has been retained, and the organization has been "put in the position of trying to disprove things that didn't happen."
In a Thursday morning tweet, Suns Vice Chairman Jahm Najafi said the allegations "have stunned and saddened me."
ESPN says they have attempted to reach Sarver for an interview multiple times.
Following the report's Thursday release, Sarver did issue a statement, saying in part, "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."
He went on to say he welcomes a full investigation by the NBA, "which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud.”
HEAD COACH MONTY WILLIAMS RESPONDS:
Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams says the Sarver report is a lot to process, and that the facts are not clear at this point.
“I find all of these things that are being said, serious in nature and [to say] these allegations are sensitive, is an understatement. But at the same time, they’re just not clear yet,” Williams said. “An article was written, many opinions were shared, but all of it happened before I was here. If any of that stuff happened while I was here, I wouldn’t be in this seat.”
Williams says he wants to wait until the league’s investigation is done and the facts around the serious allegations are learned.
Monty Williams was also asked before Thursday’s game against Houston what his reaction would be if any players felt uncomfortable playing given the report.
“If you don't want to play, that's fine. All of the leaders I’ve had over the years gave me the same advice. So I’m ok with anything they want to do, they’re free to express themselves. That’s part of our culture.”
Monty says that as of Thursday afternoon, he has not heard from any players that didn’t want to play.
Former Suns head coach Earl Watson, who was heavily cited in the report, released the following statement Thursday:
"I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact. lnstead, | want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions with their truth. Basketball and 17 years in the NBA has allowed me the financial privilege to speak my truth, but we can't forget about those who must remain silent for fear of losing their jobs. While our fortitude assists with progress, there is still more work to be done in the name of equality, and | believe that one of the strengths of our league is its ongoing commitment to justice. This has been a traumatic experience, one that has affected me profoundly, and | am not willing to relive it every day. But I will not forget it, and | will address it more fulsomely at a point in the future when I feel ready."
Statement from Andy Kohlberg, Vice Chairman - Phoenix Suns:
“I have known and been business partners with Robert Sarver in multiple businesses for more than 17 years. I have been Vice Chairman of the Phoenix Suns since 2011 and have attended regular meetings with the Suns senior management team and Robert Sarver since that time. I’ve attended hundreds of Suns games in person, and I’ve had conversations with staff at all levels of the organization, and no one has raised with me any issues about any sexist or racist behavior from Robert, and no one had ever made comments to me alluding to the culture of the organization that were consistent with allegations made in the ESPN article released on Nov. 4, 2021. In addition, I have never seen nor heard Robert make any statements that I experienced as racist, sexist or misogynistic.
I was never contacted by the author of the article or ESPN to provide comments on these allegations. As stated in the article, only after the Suns attorneys requested that a wider group be interviewed did the author reach out to Steve Kerr and Lon Babby, as both were key people in the Suns organization at the time many of these allegations were alleged to have occurred. In my many years of working alongside both Steve Kerr and Lon Babby, I’ve known them to be people of exceptionally high integrity and character, and neither they nor I would have remained part of an organization that had a culture like what was described in the article.
I have focused my entire business career building organizational cultures based upon integrity, dignity and compassion. In all my experiences with Robert Sarver, he has been a person of honesty and integrity, and I have never witnessed anything approaching racist or sexist behavior from him.”
Statement from Members of the Suns Legacy Partners LLC Ownership Group, including Glen & Lynn Carlson, Larry Fitzgerald, Sam Garvin, Heckmann Family, Steve Hilton, Jaffe Family, Andy Kohlberg, Steve Pidgeon, Rogers Family, Byron Roth, Scott Seldin, Mark Schlossberg:
“We are members of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury ownership group, along with managing partner Robert Sarver. We have reviewed the article published by ESPN about the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization and Mr. Sarver. To a person, we dispute the characterization of Mr. Sarver and the organization as racist and sexist. We support Mr. Sarver’s leadership and stand with him. To that end, we join Mr. Sarver in welcoming Commissioner Silver’s investigation of the allegations presented by ESPN, and will fully cooperate in the investigation and any suggestions the league may have. It is our sincere belief that this inquiry will demonstrate that our organization and Mr. Sarver are faithful stewards of our employees, our franchise, our fans and the game.”
ALLEGED VICTIM SPEAKS OUT
David Bodzin, a former Phoenix Suns account executive, is one of the few people fully on the record, sharing both his name and story about Sarver’s inappropriate behavior, in the ESPN article.
Bodzin said he was with Sarver and dozens of other employees in August 2014 while participating in the ALS “ice bucket challenge.”
“I was soaking wet,” Bodzin said. “I went off to the side and then Sarver came behind me and pulled my pants down.”
Bodzin described his reaction as shellshocked, and he added there had been a toxic culture inside the basketball organization.
“The head of [Human Resources] came up to me - kind of tongue in cheek - with a smile on her face and said, ‘Hey don't press charges, please, for harassment.’”
Bodzin said he did not speak up in 2014 because he didn't want to lose future sports industry opportunities. He was also about to leave the Suns for a different job.
ESPN reports that Sarver, through his attorney, now wants to apologize for the incident, and he did not mean to harm or offend Bodzin.
CIVIL RIGHTS COMMUNITY REACTS
Members of the Black Owned Business Alliance spoke out Thursday, saying that they want to support the Suns and its players, but don’t want to endorse the owner if the allegations are true.
“You need to make a change. Go into our community and see how we are living,” said Kristie Winston, President of the Black Owned Business Alliance.
Members say Sarver should be using his position of power to make a difference in underserved communities.
“Use that energy and your money to make a difference, to make a change!" another member of the alliance said.
Local civil rights leader Reverend Jarrett Maupin says he plans to meet next week with a group of approximately 30 team employees, including some current players from the Phoenix Suns to discuss the allegations and discuss how to move forward. No current players have confirmed that they would be involved in the meeting.
Maupin says he has also asked national civil rights leader, Reverend Al Sharpton, to lead in the effort, but it’s unclear if Sharpton plans to get involved at this time.
FANS REACT AFTER RELEASE OF REPORT
Prior to the Suns game on Thursday night, most fans were focused on cheering on their reigning Western Conference Champs as they took on the one-win Houston Rockets.
For some fans, the constant stream of news out of ESPN’s report on Sarver was hard to ignore ahead of tip-off.
“Obviously, this isn’t what you want to hear on game night,” said one fan headed into the Footprint Center.
“I think it would benefit (the Suns) if they changed up ownership a little bit,” said fan Damien Hinijos. “There’s no place for that in sports or any other facet in life. Especially, at the ownership level. They need to be respectful to the guys playing the sport.”