ESPN Report Portrays Toxic Work Environment Under Suns Owner Robert Sarver

The ESPN report that prompted the Suns and team owner Robert Sarver to issue a series of public statements and denials before its publication is now live. Having spoken to more than 70 current and former Suns employees, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes paints a picture of a toxic workplace culture under Sarver, who is accused of using racially inappropriate language and engaging in inappropriate and misogynistic behavior.

“The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,” a Suns co-owner told ESPN, referring to Sarver’s conduct. “It’s embarrassing as an owner.”

Holmes’ report, which is very much worth reading in full, is jam-packed with anecdotes from over the years, many of which Sarver and his lawyers outright deny or claim are being misrepresented.

For instance, former head coach Earl Watson claims that Sarver entered the coaches’ room after a game against the Warriors to complain about Draymond Green being able to use the N-word, and repeatedly used the word himself, even after Watson asked him not to. Sarver said that characterization is “absolutely untrue.”

“During this conversation, I said ‘N-word’ without saying the full word,” Sarver said. “The word itself never crossed my lips. Let me be crystal clear: I never once suggested on that night (or ever) that I should be able to say the N-word because a player or a Black person uses it.”

According to Holmes, at least a half-dozen Suns staffers recalled instances where Sarver heard a story from a Black player and then retold it using the same language, including the N-word. One high-level team executive said that in 2013, Sarver also used the word to explain why he preferred Lindsey Hunter over Dan Majerle to coach a roster made up largely of Black players.

“These (N-words) need a (N-word),” Sarver said, according to that executive.

Again, Holmes’ story is worth reading in full, since we can’t relay every eyebrow-raising allegation from within it, but here are some of the other notable details from the report:

  • According to Watson, he told Sarver during his first year as head coach that the team could benefit from more diversity, to which the owner replied, “I don’t like diversity.” Sarver allegedly told Watson that having a diverse staff makes it more difficult to reach agreements. Sarver denied this claim.
  • Over a dozen employees told ESPN that Sarver made lewd comments in staff meetings. He allegedly made comments about his wife performing oral sex on him and claimed he needed to wear extra-large condoms. One female former staffer said she was made to feel as if women had “very little value” to Sarver. “Women are possessions,” she told ESPN. “And I think we’re nowhere close to where he thinks men are.” One former female employee told Holmes that her time with the Suns “wrecked my life” and that she contemplated suicide.
  • A former female marketing employee told ESPN that Sarver would often use phrases like, “Do I own you?” when asking whether someone worked for the team. Several employees also recalled instances where Sarver referred to employees as “inventory.” The former marketing employee added: “He makes you feel like you belong to him.”
  • Now-former Suns staffers told ESPN that when Phoenix was recruiting LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, the team knew he had young children in Texas and that playing near them would be appealing. Sarver allegedly suggested to two basketball operations staffers at the time that the Suns needed to have local strippers impregnated by NBA players to give the team an edge in free agency.
  • That sort of attempt at humor often made employees feel demeaned and uncomfortable, according to Holmes, who points to another example from the 2009/10 season, when Sarver entered the Suns’ training room and asked forward Taylor Griffin if he shaved his legs, then followed it up with, “Do you shave your balls too?” Former Suns account executive David Bodzin also told ESPN that in 2014, he was “pantsed” by Sarver in front of more than 60 team employees. Afterward, an HR employee allegedly said to him, with a smirk, “Please don’t sue us for sexual harassment.”
  • Behavior from other members of the Suns’ executive team also contributed to a toxic workplace environment in Phoenix, as Holmes outlines. Two former employees told ESPN that one white male executive repeatedly referred to a Black co-worker as “Carlton” and asked him to “do the Carlton,” despite being told to stop. “Super racist,” one former employee told ESPN.
  • Multiple staffers told Holmes that they were unwilling to bring issues to the Suns’ HR department because they feared retaliation. According to people with direct knowledge of the interactions, some employees who reported allegations of inappropriate conduct to HR were soon told they were no longer fits in the organization.
  • One former HR rep said that the Suns were generally quick to settle with employees who threatened legal action. “They didn’t want the press,” the former rep told ESPN. “There were people that were wrongly terminated. And then the people who had the know-how to threaten to sue would get paid. But the ones who just couldn’t maneuver that landscape would just go away. … I would hope they would sue, because I knew they would get money. So whenever we (would) see the claims come in, I would just be like, ‘Well, at least that person’s going to get some money.'”
  • During the first decade of Sarver’s tenure as Suns owner, some of the team’s part-owners explored whether it would be possible to have him removed, Holmes says. However, outside legal counsel informed them that Sarver’s position was fairly ironclad, barring serious criminal conduct or similarly egregious actions.
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