Report: Suns owner Robert Sarver made racist and sexist comments, oversaw toxic workplace

Suns owner Robert Sarver
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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Suns owner Robert Sarver preemptively denied allegations of racism and sexism.

Now those allegations have actually been presented publicly in a lengthy article by Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

Among the claims:

A Black basketball operations staffer told ESPN he has heard Sarver say the N-word multiple times.

Sarver once used the N-word when trying to explain to a staffer why he preferred hiring Lindsey Hunter over Dan Majerle as head coach in 2013, according to a high-level executive who heard the remark. Hunter was a first-year Suns player development coordinator while Majerle was in his fifth year as a Suns associate head coach.

“These [N-words] need a [N-word],” Sarver told the staffer of his largely Black team, according to the executive.

Through legal representation, Sarver denied the allegation about Hunter, saying he never used the N-word and “never used words to that effect,”

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.”

Through his legal team, Sarver denied talking about his sex life with employees and said he had “absolutely not” talked about condoms.

Sarver has long had the reputation of being cheap, unforgiving and crass. Even beyond any alleged misconduct, he alienated numerous employees over the years. Many people have an axe to grind.

Does that make the allegations untrue? Not at all. But that context, along with Sarver’s denials at nearly every instance, should also be considered. There are not a lot of people who want to give him benefit of the doubt.

Sarver has shown himself to be demanding and tone deaf. Many of the incidents in the article, which I highly suggest reading in full, come across as intended jokes gone awry or misguided attempts at triggering competitiveness.

That’s not at all to excuse Sarver. Quite the opposite. More persuasive than the disputed claims of Sarver uttering offensive comments, the article shines light on a toxic-looking workplace that allegedly exists under Sarver’s leadership.

Holmes:

A number of employees, especially women, described to ESPN being subjected to or witnessing verbal barrages from male executives.

“I think as women, when we come into sports, unfortunately, we’re resigned to the fact that we’ll be sexually harassed at some point,” the female former marketing employee said. “But the part that was the worst for me is the verbal abuse and feeling like I wasn’t human.”

These public examples of mistreatment and disregard were a consistent source of concern for many women throughout the organization; female employees reported inappropriate comments by managers, according to multiple former employees.

One female former sales employee said a former Suns vice president, who appeared intoxicated, asked her how many members of her department she had slept with and about a specific coworker’s penis.

“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.”

When contacted for comment, the executive said such questions were never raised with any employee.

On multiple occasions some years ago, according to people with direct knowledge of the interactions, employees reported alleged issues to HR — including a complaint against Sarver for alleged comments to a female employee about how she looked in a dress and alleged racial discrimination raised by a Black employee regarding promotions for white colleagues — and were told soon after that they no longer fit in the organization.

Multiple staffers said they would not go to HR with complaints because they feared retaliation. “That is standard in our company,” said a current business employee: “If something happens, don’t go to HR.”

Said another current staffer: “God no, that’s the last place you go. Yeah, definitely don’t go to HR with anything.” The first former Suns HR rep confirms that this sentiment was common throughout the organization.

It is completely unacceptable for employees to be sexually harassed and retaliated against for filing complaints. Much like Mark Cuban with the Mavericks, Sarver should answer for that, and the NBA should investigate. The league should not allow one of its teams to operate that way.

Cuban agreed to donate $10 million in a settlement with the NBA and made many changes within his organization. But he kept ownership of his team.

Will Sarver get ousted like former Clippers owner Donald Sterling? There’s an easier case to make Sarver is a terrible person to work for than a racist and sexist. Not mentioned in the story: Ryan McDonough, a white male general manager whom Sarver unceremoniously fired just nine days before the 2018-19 season. As the Ray Rice case crystalized, backlash is far more severe when impropriety is on tape – like it was with Sterling. There’s no such smoking gun presented with Sarver, whose denials appear throughout the piece.

It’s also worth exploring how these allegations came to light. Overly demanding owners and hypercompetitive bordering on toxic workplaces are not uncommon in the NBA.

Neither are minority owners jockeying for more power.

This situation appears to resemble the Hawks in 2014, when a co-owner raised concern about general manager Danny Ferry’s racist comment about Luol Deng while in the midst of an ownership dispute.

Holmes:

Within the first decade of Sarver’s tenure, a few members of the approximately 20-person ownership group explored having Sarver removed, according to people with knowledge of the inquiry. The operating agreement that sealed Sarver’s position as the team’s “governor” was quietly reviewed by outside legal counsel. But outside counsel soon relayed that Sarver’s contract effectively prevented him from being removed absent serious criminal behavior or similarly egregious conduct.

As pressure mounts from numerous directions on Sarver, it seems this article is just the start. The fallout is difficult to predict.