Robert Sarver allegations in ESPN report, explained: Suns owner accused of racism, misogyny

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An in-depth report from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, featuring interviews with more than 70 current and former Suns employees, has painted a picture of a “toxic and sometimes hostile workplace” under team owner Robert Sarver.

Sarver, who bought the franchise in 2004, has allegedly used racially insensitive language and made misogynistic comments on a regular basis.

“There’s literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me,” one former Suns executive told Holmes.

Here is everything we know about the allegations against Sarver and how the Suns have responded to the ESPN story, which was published on Thursday.

MORE: Who is Robert Sarver? Background of Suns owner

What are the allegations against Robert Sarver?

Sarver, who is white, allegedly used the N-word in multiple instances, including in a conversation with former Suns coach Earl Watson, who is Black and Hispanic, after a 2016 game against the Warriors. 

Watson told Holmes that Sarver entered the coaches’ locker room and said, “You know, why does Draymond Green get to run up the court and say [N-word]?” Watson told Sarver that he couldn’t say that, and Sarver allegedly responded, “Why? Draymond Green says [N-word].” (Sarver denied this version of events, saying that he “never once suggested” that he should be able to say the N-word because a Black person had used it.)

One high-level executive told Holmes of a separate incident in which Sarver allegedly used the N-word in order to explain to a staffer why he had hired Lindsey Hunter instead of Dan Majerle as the team’s head coach in 2013. “These [N-words] need a [N-word],” Sarver said, according to the executive. (Sarver also denied this allegation, saying that he never used the N-word.)

Several employees reportedly voiced their issues with a lack of diversity within the organization, particularly at the highest levels. Current and former employees also said that members of the front office other than Sarver “contributed to the workplace toxicity of the organization.”

One example of the inappropriate behavior from the ESPN report:

In 2017 two former employees said that a white male executive repeatedly called a Black co-worker “Carlton,” in reference to the character from the ’90s TV show “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” In at least one instance, he jokingly told the co-worker to “do the Carlton” for him. The employees said the Black co-worker on multiple occasions told the white executive to stop calling him by that name and that he was not going to dance for him. “Super racist,” one former employee said.

The executive, when reached by ESPN, denied telling the employee to dance and said he was never asked to stop calling the employee “Carlton,” describing their relationship as “jovial” and “one of friendship and respect.”

Additionally, Sarver allegedly made vulgar comments during staff meetings, including explicit references to his sex life. Multiple former employees told Holmes that Sarver claimed he “needed to wear Magnum or extra-large condoms” and asked players about the “sexual prowess of their significant others.” (Sarver denied talking about his sex life with employees.)

Before the 2008-09 season, Sarver allegedly made inappropriate comments to a pregnant employee, telling her that she wouldn’t be able to continue in her current role. He said that the woman would be breastfeeding and needed to stay home with her child, according to multiple employees with knowledge of the conversation.

“It was so out of line and so inappropriate,” one of the employees familiar with those comments told Holmes. (Sarver denied making those comments, saying that the Suns “were prepared to provide support for her.”)

A former human resources representative told Holmes that employees were told not to file complaints and that they were encouraged to meet outside of the office. Another former HR representative called the environment a “culture of complicity,” telling Holmes that multiple staffers feared retaliation if they spoke out.

According to Holmes, following the allegations, Sarver’s wife, Penny, reportedly sent threats to Suns’ employees, beginning with, “This is Penny Sarver, I know a lot of bridges were burned between you and Robert and you are very bitter. I want to remind you real lives are at stake here.”

She continued, adding, “Please put your hatred aside and realize the hurt you are causing by spreading lies and fabrications. Is your time in the spotlight that important? If something happens to one of my children, I would hold you and Earl Watson personally responsible. Think about your own children for a second and imagine the tables turned.”

One former employee who received the message reportedly stated, “I don’t know how to interpret it other than as a threat.”

You can read the full ESPN report here.

How did the Suns respond to the allegations?

Through his legal team, Sarver denied using racially insensitive language, telling Holmes that he “never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by the N-word.” However, he noted that he did use the N-word once years ago. An assistant coach told him that he shouldn’t say the word, even if he was quoting another person. Sarver claims that he apologized and never said the N-word again.

Sarver also released a separate statement on Thursday, saying that he was “shocked” by Holmes’ “false reporting,” which he believes was based on “misrepresentations” from Watson and other sources. He added that he would welcome an “impartial NBA investigation.”

Prior to the ESPN story being published, the Suns released multiple statements on Twitter responding to the allegations. You can read those statements below.

Suns’ statement (Oct. 22)

“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. 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 judgment here. Especially based on lies, innuendo, and a false narrative to attack our organization and its leadership.”

Suns owner Robert Sarver’s statement (Oct. 22)

“I am wholly shocked by some of the allegations purported by ESPN about me, personally, or about the Phoenix Suns and Mercury organizations. 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 or personal or organizational racism or gender discrimination. I despise language that disrespects any individuals, 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 allegations 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 and all suggestions that I used disparaging langauage 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.”

Suns general manager James Jones’ statement (Oct. 22)

“None of what’s been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn’t.”

Suns president and CEO Jason Rowley’s statement (Oct. 22)

“The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization takes very seriously our commitment to promoting a respectful, fun, competitive and enriching work environment, and we are proud of our track record relating to employee wellbeing. We also take seriously any allegations of racism, sexism, or harassment of any kind, which have no place in our organization and are not tolerated.

“With respect to recent reports about a forthcoming ESPN article regarding Robert Sarver and our organization, I will simply say that we are aware of the false narratives it contains, and plan to respond accordingly. This story is completely outrageous and false. It doesn’t represent — at all — the Robert Sarver I’ve worked alongside of for 15 years. He’s not a racist and he’s not a sexist. I will also say that reporter in this instance has shown a reckless disregard for the truth. He has harassed employees, former employees, and family members; used truths, half-truths and rumors to manufacture a story in which he’s heavily invested and then perpetuate a completely false narrative within the sports industry to back it up.

“His tactics throughout this process have been without any basis in journalism ethics or even morality.”

How did the NBA respond to the allegations against Robert Sarver?

The NBA announced Thursday night that it has launched an investigation into the Suns and the allegations against Sarver.

“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 league’s statement said. “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.”

NBA spokesperson Mike Bass (per Holmes)

“[The NBA has not] received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence.”

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts (per Holmes)

“Apart from [Suns guard Chris Paul] and James Jones, we have not had much official contact with the team and none that I can think of with Sarver.”

How did Suns players and coaches react?

Suns coach Monty Williams

“As someone who’s a caretaker of the program, I find all of these things that are being said serious in nature. These allegations are — sensitive is an understatement. At the same time, they’re just not clear yet. An article was written. Many opinions were shared. Many feelings were shared, but all of it happened before I was here. Based on what you all know about me, the little you know about me, if any of that stuff happened while I was here, I wouldn’t be in this seat.”

Suns guard Chris Paul

“The powers that be, they look into it. They do their investigations and whatnot, but I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned in all these years is that us, as a team, we’ve got to talk. It’s not about what everybody else is saying or what everybody else is telling you to do or what you should do. It’s about how we feel as a team, as a unit, coaching staff, everybody within the organization.”

Suns guard Devin Booker

“In my seven years that I’ve been here, I haven’t noticed that, but that doesn’t make me insensitive to the subject. I think the NBA opened an investigation, and they’re going to do their due diligence of bringing out facts instead of ‘he said, she said.’ I’m sure the NBA has it in good hands and will do the proper research to find out the truth.”

Former Suns coach Earl Watson

“I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact. Instead, I want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harrassment, 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 I 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 I am not willing to relive it every day. But I will not forget it, and I will address it more fulsomely at a point in the future when I feel ready.”



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