The NBA has hired a law firm to investigate the conduct of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver after a new report accused him of racism, sexism and fostering a hostile work environment, a league spokesman announced Thursday. Sarver and the Suns have denied the allegations.
“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,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement. “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.”
In the report, ESPN interviewed dozens of current and former staffers who alleged multiple instances of Sarver using racist or misogynistic language at the workplace. Multiple staffers said Sarver often used the N-word, even after he was repeatedly told it was inappropriate. Earl Watson, the team’s former head coach, claimed he once used the word multiple times after a game and defended himself by noting that a player had said it.
Other current and former staffers said he regularly made degrading remarks about women and attempted to tell a pregnant woman she couldn’t help coordinate the 2009 All-Star game because she needed to breastfeed her child. Sarver denied the allegation.
In a statement, Sarver said he welcomes “any investigation by the league to review and respond to these false accusations.”
Sarver repeatedly denied using the N-word, though acknowledged using the word once in a conversation with a player, ESPN said. After an assistant coach told him not to use the word, even when quoting someone else, he said he apologized and hasn’t used it since.
“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,” Sarver said in a statement. “I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in.”
Sarver, who became the majority owner of the Suns in 2004, also owns the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
Jason Rowley, the team’s president and CEO, also denied the allegations. “Our two organizations have always worked hard to create an environment that is respectful and diverse; where racism, sexism and damaging behavior of any kind are not condoned,” Rowley said in a statement Thursday.
The statement said the story “contains false information and narratives” and added: “We were disappointed to see that instead of relying on legitimate sources of information, Mr. Holmes relied on the say-so of a disgruntled former coach to make completely false claims and to damage our hard-earned reputation. Numerous eyewitnesses — including former Suns president Lon Babby, John Shumate, and Alvin Gentry — told Mr. Holmes, in no uncertain terms, that they never witnessed the conduct he described.”