Phoenix Suns team owner Robert Sarver and CEO Jason Rowley blasted a bombshell report on Thursday after allegations of racism and misogyny were revealed.
Sarver and Rowley called out ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, the author of the report who detailed allegations from current and former Suns employees in dozens of interviews talking about executives fostering a toxic environment of racism and misogyny during Sarver’s tenure as the team owner.
The report included several stories of Sarver, who is white, making racially insensitive remarks, including asking his former coach Earl Watson, who is Black, why he couldn’t say the n-world if Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green can say it, passing around photos of his wife in a bikini and speaking about his wife giving him oral sex.
Sarver said in a statement later Thursday he was "shocked" by the reporting.
"I continue to be shocked by the false reporting from Baxter Holmes. 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," Sarver said.
Sarver additionally took issue with part of the reporting about former Suns coach Earl Watson and called Watson an unreliable source.
"It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in. The way I lead my personal and professional life makes that clear. Instead of reporting the truth, Holmes’ story is based on misrepresentations from former Suns coach Earl Watson and other unnamed ‘sources.’ Mr. Watson created an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization. He is clearly not a credible source. Despite hearing from witness after witness that disputed Mr. Watson’s stories, Mr. Holmes completely disregarded the truth here. Now we are in the position of trying to disprove things that did not happen."
Rowley responded in a lengthier statement, saying the ESPN report contained "false information."
"The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization vehemently reject the claims made in today’s ESPN article," Rowley said. "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."
"Today’s story contains false information and narratives perpetuated by a reporter who has struggled unsuccessfully to match the facts to a story he decided he wanted to tell a year ago. He twisted statements and circumstances to fit his preconceived narrative. He broke every rule of journalism by first deciding on his findings and then cherry-picking events and unreliable sources to prop up his demonstrably false claims."
Rowley said former and current Suns employees and their families were concerned about Holmes’ so-called tactics and that former members of he organization, including ex-president Lon Babby, John Shumate and Alvin Gentry told Holmes they "never witnessed" the conduct that was described in the report.
"We have been put in the position of trying to disprove things that didn’t happen. From a personal perspective, the Robert Sarver I’ve worked alongside of for 15 years is not a racist and he’s not a sexist. He’s a hard-driving, competitive and compassionate man, and I’m proud to work with him. During Mr. Sarver’s tenure, the Suns/Mercury have been a leader among sports teams in the hiring of minority, LGBTQ, and female executives. The language attributed to him — many times by anonymous sources — is a complete fiction.
"We take seriously any accusations of racism, sexism, or harassment of any kind — they have no place in our organization and are not tolerated. The Suns and Mercury are committed to providing a respectful, fun and gratifying office environment. Through the years, we have followed all evolving best practices to ensure our employees have healthy work/life balance."
"It’s important to us and to me that every employee feels they play a central role in building something special. In the workplace, we’ve always tried to foster a diverse and inclusive workforce that prides itself on treating and paying our employees fairly and providing for their upward mobility. Just a few examples of the policies and training we offer employees include our Respect in the Workplace Policy and associated training, sexual harassment training, diversity and inclusion training, and a robust learning management system aimed at advancing professional development. We have a track record of hiring and promoting women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ candidates in roles that have been predominately held by men."
Rowley noted a 2020 survey that said the organization had a 90% satisfaction rating as workplace and that the NBA put in an anonymous tip line in 2018 to report issues at the team level, but the league never received anything.
"Given ESPN’s and Mr. Holmes’s failure to report the facts, we welcome any investigation by the League to review and respond to these false accusations," Rowley’s statement concluded.
Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi released a statement on the report.
"I have been made aware of the allegations against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns. The conduct he is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable. The well-being and safety of every Suns employee, player, coach and stakeholder is first and foremost our priority. My sincerest sympathy goes out to all whose lives and professions have been impacted. I am personally committed to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism and bias, which is unacceptable anywhere in our society," Najafi said.
"I have partnered with the NBA Foundation to underscore this commitment. The Phoenix Suns is a national treasure that belongs to all of us as fans and residents of our community. Team investors are simply temporary stewards of this treasure. It is our job as stewards to ensure everyone is treated respectfully and equally. Although today’s revelations fall under the jurisdiction of the league, which decides and takes any action based on its finding, I offer my support to ensure there is full accountability."
NBA spokesman Mike Bass told ESPN he hadn’t "received a complaint of misconduct about the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence."
An ESPN spokesman told Fox News the outlet "stands by its reporting."
The NBA reportedly launched an investigation into the allegations.