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 undoubtedly 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 misconduct complaints 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 complete 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 severe allegations are learned.
Monty Williams was also asked before Thursday’s game against Houston what his reaction was 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 he has not heard from any players that didn’t want to play as of Thursday afternoon.
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. Instead, | 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 have 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."
ALLEGED VICTIM SPEAKS OUT
In the ESPN article, David Bodzin, a former Phoenix Suns account executive, is one of the few people entirely on the record, sharing both his name and story about Sarver’s inappropriate behavior.
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.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS COMMUNITY REACTS
Members of the Black Owned Business Alliance spoke out Thursday, saying 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 will 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 THURSDAY
Before 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.
The constant stream of news out of ESPN’s report on Sarver was hard to ignore for some fans ahead of tip-off.
“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.”
This story was first reported by Scripps' Phoenix station KNXV.