Phoenix Suns majority owner Robert Sarver has long displayed shockingly insensitive racist and misogynist tendencies, according to current and former employees who say they have witnessed it since Sarver bought the team in 2004.
According to a bombshell ESPN report published Thursday, Sarver’s inappropriate behavior has created a “toxic” workplace culture, with off-color sexual remarks, degrading comments about “owning” staffers, and flagrant use of the N-word on multiple occasions.
“The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,” one unnamed Suns co-owner told the outlet. “It’s embarrassing as an owner.”
Sarver went to great lengths to get ahead of the ESPN piece, issuing a preemptive denial in late October after independent NBA analyst Jordan Schultz tweeted about the forthcoming story. Sarver quickly fired back, saying he was “wholly shocked by some of the allegations.”
“I reject any insinuation of personal or organizational racism or gender discrimination…” the statement said. “I categorically deny any and all suggestions that I used disparaging language related to race or gender.” The Suns also issued a statement of their own, dubbing the as-yet-unpublished story as “lies, innuendo, and a false narrative.”
These are some of the most glaring examples of Sarver’s alleged misconduct, which ESPN said was detailed in interviews with more than 70 Suns staffers.
The N-Word, Pt. I
After a 2016 loss to the Golden State Warriors, Sarver approached Suns head coach Earl Watson in the coaches’ locker room, Watson told ESPN.
“You know, why does Draymond Green get to run up the court and say [N-word],” Sarver allegedly asked, repeating the N-word several times.
“You can’t say that,” Watson, who is Black, told Sarver.
“Why?” Sarver reportedly replied. “Draymond Green says [N-word].”
The N-Word, Pt. II
Sarver allegedly also used the N-word when explaining his preference for a Black coach. “These [N-words] need a [N-word],” Sarver told a staffer, ESPN reports. He allegedly used the same reasoning in pushing for Watson to be hired, saying that a Black coach could “speak their language,” referring to the Suns players, who are mostly Black.
Former Suns account executive David Bodzin told ESPN that Sarver “pantsed” him in August 2014, with more than 60 employees looking on. Two other staffers confirmed Bodzin’s account, according to ESPN, which reported an HR rep approached Bodzin, then 25, after the embarrassing encounter with a smirk, and said, “Please don’t sue us for sexual harassment.”
Oral Sex TMI
More than a dozen Suns employees told ESPN that Sarver made off-color remarks in staff meetings, such as discussions of his wife performing oral sex on him. Four ex-employees said that Sarver had also spoken in staff meetings about his claim that he needed to wear “Magnum or extra-large condoms.” He also allegedly asked players intrusive questions about their own sex lives. In one alleged incident, Sarver asked reserve forward Taylor Griffin if he “shave[d]” his “balls.”
Sex for Wins?
Two former staffers recalled a wildly inappropriate incident during the 2012-13 season, when Sarver seemed to offer sex for wins, ESPN reported. According to the ex-employees, Sarver told players—who he believed were partying too much in Los Angeles—that he would “fly women” into town for them if they promised to get to bed on time before playing the next day. Although the employees said the “implication was clearly sexual,” the “gesture wasn’t taken seriously,” according to someone who was there.
Sarver allegedly told a pregnant Suns employee that she would no longer be able to help coordinate the 2009 NBA All-Star Game because she “would be breastfeeding and would need to be home with her newborn,” two employees with knowledge of the incident told ESPN, with one decribing the remarks as “so out of line and so inappropriate.”
‘He Wants People to... Beg Him’
One former member of the Suns’ marketing department claimed Sarver “frequently” said things like, “Do I own you? Are you one of mine?” Others told ESPN that he referred to players and employees as “inventory.”
After Sarver became offended over a comment by point guard Eric Bledsoe’s agent, he demanded Watson sever ties with the firm, which was also representing the head coach. Watson refused. Shortly after, Sarver fired him.
“It’s almost like an ownership thing,” Watson told ESPN. “He wants people to call him and beg him.”
Both current and former employees told ESPN that female staffers were devalued and ignored more often than not by the Suns organization. One said she went to HR after being physically assaulted by a male co-worker while outside of the office, but was met with a decidedly unsatisfactory response: Her desk was moved one row over, placing it directly next to the co-worker allegedly behind the attack. “I couldn’t escape,” she told ESPN. “It was a joke. An absolute joke.”
Numerous Suns employees told ESPN that they would suffer retaliation if they complained to HR. “That is standard in our company,” said one employee currently working for the Suns. “If something happens, don’t go to HR.” Said another, “God no, that’s the last place you go.” One former female employee told the outlet that working for the Suns organization “wrecked my life. I was contemplating suicide.”
The Wrongs Remain the Same
Sarver has subjected employees and players to the same racism and sexism since he arrived nearly two decades ago, team staffers and executives told ESPN. And enjoying the team’s success this season is difficult, said one of Sarver’s co-owners: “It’s bittersweet. It just doesn’t feel good to be involved with him.” More than one Suns executive reportedly said they discourage others from seeking employment with the organization.
“If I knew—and I wish I knew what I was coming into—I would have never taken the job here,” said one. “Never.”
Suns president and CEO Jason Rowley told ESPN that its reporting was “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.”
NBA spokesperson Mike Bass told ESPN that the league has not received any complaints about Sarver or misconduct in general from members of the Suns staff, and the NBA players’ association said it hadn’t gotten reports from players about Sarver’s behavior.
Through his lawyers, Sarver denied everything.
“I’ve never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by the N-word, either verbally or in writing,” he said in a statement. “I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in.”
He also denied the rest of the extensive list of allegations, and claimed he pushed Watson out because the head coach was in fact the one creating a “toxic” work environment.
In the end, Sarver—again, through his attorneys—acknowledged using the N-word “once many years ago,” during a conversation about “the importance of having each others’ back.” He claimed a player used the word in conversation, to which Sarver said he responded, “I wouldn’t say n---a, I would say that we’re in the foxhole together.”