ON THE EVENING of Oct. 30, 2016, at Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix, Earl Watson, in just his third game as the Suns’ head coach, faced a tall task: beat the powerhouse Golden State Warriors.
The young Phoenix Suns team had been toiling at the bottom of the NBA’s standings for years, missing the playoffs for six straight seasons while churning through head coaches. Watson was the fourth in as many years. Still, the Suns were playing the eventual NBA champions close, even leading by 13 in the first half. But it didn’t last. The Warriors took control in the fourth quarter and cemented a 106-100 win, dropping the Suns to 0-3.
After the loss, Suns majority owner Robert Sarver entered the coaches locker room, Watson told ESPN.
“You know, why does Draymond Green get to run up the court and say [N-word],” Sarver, who is white, allegedly said, repeating the N-word several times in a row.
“You can’t say that,” Watson, who is Black and Hispanic, told Sarver.
“Why?” Sarver replied. “Draymond Green says [N-word].”
“You can’t f—ing say that,” Watson said again.
The anecdote offers a glimpse into conduct that, sources told ESPN, Sarver has often exhibited since buying the Suns in 2004. Interviews with more than 70 former and current Suns employees throughout Sarver’s 17-year tenure describe a toxic and sometimes hostile workplace under Sarver. Some told ESPN that he has used racially insensitive language repeatedly in the office. Employees recounted conduct they felt was inappropriate and misogynistic, including Sarver once passing around a picture of his wife in a bikini to employees and speaking about times his wife performed oral sex on him. Some said the longtime owner fostered an environment in which employees felt they were his property, even once asking one woman whether he “owned” her to determine whether she worked for the Suns.
“The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,” one Suns co-owner said about Sarver. “It’s embarrassing as an owner.”
Said a former Suns basketball executive: “There’s literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me.”
Through his legal team, Sarver denied using racially insensitive language. “I’ve never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by the N-word, either verbally or in writing. I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in.”
Sarver did acknowledge using the word once many years ago. “On one occasion a player used the N-word to describe the importance of having each others’ back,” Sarver said through his attorneys. “I responded by saying, ‘I wouldn’t say n—a, I would say that we’re in the foxhole together.’ An assistant coach approached me a short time after and told me that I shouldn’t say the word, even if I were quoting someone else. I immediately apologized and haven’t said it ever again. The N-word has never been a part of my vocabulary.”
In the case of the Oct. 30, 2016, game versus the Warriors, Sarver and his lawyers wrote that Sarver did not have that conversation with Watson but had one with a Suns player who had received a technical foul for what they said was using the N-word during the game. Sarver said he encouraged the player to appeal the technical foul because Green had used the word in the game — the technical foul was later rescinded by the league.
Sarver denied Watson’s characterization of the incident: “This is absolutely untrue. I remember the game and topic clearly. I of course never used the word myself. During this conversation, I said ‘N-word’ without saying the full word. 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.”
The player, through his agent, told ESPN that he thinks using the N-word might have contributed to the technical foul but does not recall speaking to Sarver that night. Watson told ESPN there was no player in the room when Sarver made the comment.
Multiple current and former employees also told ESPN about conduct by other members of the Suns leadership team that they felt contributed to a toxic and sometimes hostile work environment. While none said Sarver was involved in those incidents, many felt that Sarver’s own conduct contributed to a culture that affected how some other managers within the organization treated their employees.
ESPN has asked Sarver on multiple occasions to be interviewed about his tenure in Phoenix. ESPN also sent Sarver and the Suns organization written questions. The outreaches spawned a flurry of activity. Some of it was public: On Oct. 22, Sarver and the Suns sent three statements to ESPN, and tweeted versions of them, denying any improper behavior. Sarver also hired a law firm, which ultimately sent four letters to ESPN’s legal department.
In addition to Sarver, ESPN reached out to other Suns employees, including general manager James Jones, who issued a one-sentence statement: “None of what’s been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn’t.”
Jason Rowley, president and CEO of the Suns, defended Sarver: “This story is completely outrageous and false. It doesn’t represent — at all — the Robert Sarver I’ve worked alongside of for 15 years. He’s not a racist and he’s not a sexist.”
NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said the league has not “received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence.”
NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said she was not aware of any reports from players of misconduct by Sarver or the Suns. “Apart from [point guard Chris Paul] and James Jones, we have not had much official contact with the team and none that I can think of with Sarver.”
Current and former Suns employees told ESPN that Sarver is known to say he is “brutal to work for,” a line he has repeated over the years, even in job interviews. Sarver has told executives they were “paid a lot of money to put up with my s—.”
“If the commissioner comes in and investigates to see what the f— is going on in Phoenix,” one current business operations employee told ESPN, “[he] would be appalled.”
THERE WERE WARNING signs from the beginning.
The Suns were coming off a 29-53 season in 2004, and an early major decision for Sarver centered on signing the team’s top free agent that summer, Steve Nash.
A recruiting pitch was set for the start of free agency. Among Sarver and others, attendees included Nash’s agent Bill Duffy and 2003 Rookie of the Year Amar’e Stoudemire, both of whom are Black. Three people in the room told ESPN that, during the meeting, Sarver made a comment they felt was racially insensitive; they could not recall specifics but said they felt he too loosely used the term “Black guy” during the conversation.
Ultimately, the Suns got their target, but “we signed Steve Nash despite Robert,” said a basketball executive who was there.
Sarver’s lawyers told ESPN the anecdote was too vague and happened too long ago to address specifically, but they did note that nothing racially inappropriate was said and that 73% of NBA players in 2004 were Black. “Thus, those conversations certainly would have referenced Black men.” Sarver, they said, was “integral” to signing Nash.
It was one of the first instances in which Sarver’s conduct raised questions among employees.
At least a half-dozen Suns staffers recounted to ESPN instances of Sarver hearing a story from a Black player and then using the same language when retelling it, down to the usage of the N-word.
“You’re like, ‘Whoa! Robert, you can’t do that,’” said one former basketball executive. Another former Suns head coach said such instances were commonplace. 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.
Sarver again cited race as the reason the team needed to hire Watson as head coach in 2016, a former Suns basketball executive said: A young Black coach could better relate to Black players, Sarver reasoned, and could “speak their language.”
Through legal representation, Sarver denied the allegation about Hunter, saying he never used the N-word and “never used words to that effect,” and said race was never discussed during Watson’s hiring process.
Before the 2017-18 season, a tense front-office situation provided another glimpse into interactions with Sarver employees felt were racially insensitive. Late in the previous season, point guard Eric Bledsoe had been benched in a tanking effort led by Sarver, former basketball operations staffers said. Issues with the benching percolated into the offseason, when Bledsoe was eligible for a contract extension.
Contract talks eventually led Bledsoe’s Klutch Sports agent, Rich Paul, to communicate directly with Sarver — the Suns owner didn’t want to extend Bledsoe’s contract in part due to concerns about Bledsoe’s durability, plus concerns that the team had performed poorly with him as the starting point guard, according to sources at the time. Paul responded to Sarver’s remarks by saying that he knew basketball and that they “weren’t talking about tennis,” Sarver’s childhood sport.
Sarver erupted at the dig, according to two people with knowledge of the interaction, telling Paul he was going to fire Watson as the team’s head coach if Watson didn’t sever ties with Klutch, which had been representing Watson, within 10 days – just after the start of the season.
Watson said that Sarver’s ultimatum quickly reached him. He asked Sarver if he was serious.
“Yeah, I will f—ing fire you,” Sarver told Watson. “You have 10 days to think about it. Don’t wait too long.”
Watson said he explained to Sarver the optics of a white owner asking a Black coach to fire an agency led by a Black agent, Paul.
“Yeah, I understand what race you two are,” Sarver replied, according to Watson. “So I’m asking you, How bad do you want your job?“
Watson said he told Sarver that he wasn’t going to fire Klutch.
“You can do whatever you want,” Watson said he told Sarver. “You own this team, but my culture is not for sale. And I’m not for sale.”
Through legal representation, Sarver said his issue with Klutch was solely due to a conflict of interest — that a coach and a player could not be represented by the same agent. Sarver denied that the conversation had anything to do with race.
Watson, when told of Sarver’s response, said: “Rich [Paul] was never my agent.” Watson was represented by Klutch Sports, which is owned by Paul.
“Guess who did my contract when I got hired to be a head coach [with the Suns]? Klutch,” Watson said. “If Klutch did my contract, wouldn’t [the Suns] have just told me, ‘We can’t sign you because it’s a conflict of interest?’ They did my interim contract, and they did my other contract. They did two contracts for me.”
The Suns lost their first three games of the season by a combined 92 points. Watson’s final game as head coach was a 130-88 loss to the Clippers; Sarver fired him the next day.
“It’s almost like an ownership thing,” Watson told ESPN. “He wants people to call him and beg him.”
In Watson’s first year leading the bench in Phoenix, Sarver asked about the state of the organization and where Watson thought it could improve. Watson told Sarver that it suffered from a lack of diversity.
“I don’t like diversity,” Sarver replied, according to Watson and a basketball operations staffer with knowledge of the interaction.
Sarver said to Watson that having a diverse staff made it hard for people to agree. A lack of diversity among the organization’s highest ranks was an issue that a number of employees voiced to their superiors, including to Sarver, multiple employees said. “Everybody knows that our diversity here is s—,” one current business employee said.
Through legal representation, the Suns said the organization “has a long history of prioritizing racial diversity since Mr. Sarver purchased an ownership interest in the team.” The Suns also said that in 2020 they emphasized increasing diversity among the team’s business leadership. The Suns said they have filled executive-level and VP-level positions across the organization with people from under-represented backgrounds, adding that the “Suns and Mercury employ Black people at more than three times the rate of their demographic representation in Maricopa County.” They also pointed out that “six of their last 10 head coaches were Black, including the current head coach Monty Williams, and GM James Jones. These men were hired because they were the best applicants to fill their respective positions.”
Watson said one of his final interactions with Sarver was explaining how Watson believed the owner’s outbursts negatively affected every aspect of the franchise, from the players’ performance on the court to the coaches’ ability to do their jobs on the bench to the front office’s ability to make sound basketball decisions to the way the Suns were officiated.
During Sarver’s tenure, the Suns have cycled through nine head coaches — including seven in an eight-year span — and eight general managers.
“I said, ‘The only common denominator is you,’” Watson recalled. “‘This cemetery runs deep of coaches, GMs, players. You’re the only common thread. It’s you.’”
Watson said he told Sarver that he was toxic and that the Suns were toxic because of him.
Sarver screamed back.
“You’re f—ing toxic!”
Through his legal representation, Sarver said: “One of the reasons we parted ways with Mr. Watson was because of the toxic work environment under his leadership during his tenure as head coach. There was an incredible amount of conflict on the team between Mr. Watson and the front office.
“I don’t specifically remember using the quote referenced … but during the conversation I did use colorful language, and did refer to Mr. Watson as toxic.”
Said general manager Jones, through Sarver’s attorneys: “On multiple occasions, I observed Earl engage in behavior and use language that was extremely unprofessional and offensive. That does not align with who we are.”
EARLY IN HIS tenure as owner, Sarver once tried to impress upon employees how big of a Suns fan he was and how excited he was to lead the organization. After all, he had been attending games since he was 8 years old.
In one meeting, to drive home his point, Sarver passed around a picture of his wife in a Suns bikini, multiple former longtime employees told ESPN.
One former executive who was in the meeting said, “We’re passing it around like a hot potato. Like, what in the hell are we supposed to do with this? That was just, you know, one early glimpse at the man.”
Sarver responded through his legal team: “This is a perfect example of how things get twisted,” he said. “In the first year of my ownership, a local apparel retailer had recently been awarded the license to sell official NBA branded swimwear. The retailer sent my wife and me a sample along with a brochure, and I took a picture of her in the sample. I took the brochure and picture of her and gave it to the people at the Suns in charge of overseeing merchandise with the message: ‘Here’s the catalog, this is what the swimsuit looks like, and if you have any interest in carrying this line in the team shop, then here’s the number to call.’”
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.
Before the 2008-09 season, a pregnant Suns employee who was helping coordinate the 2009 NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix was told by Sarver that she wouldn’t be able to continue in that role, two employees with knowledge of his remarks said. The two employees said Sarver explained that the woman would be breastfeeding and would need to be home with her newborn.
“It was so out of line and so inappropriate,” one of the employees familiar with the remark said.
Some employees believed that such a move would have violated discrimination and employment laws, and the two employees said other members of Suns management quickly rebuked Sarver and told the female employee she would remain in her role.
Sarver, through his legal team, denied ever saying such a thing: “In the context of potential accommodations, I told her, in no uncertain terms, that the Suns were 100% behind her, and that we were prepared to provide support for her, whatever that meant. I remember discussing potential temporary adjustments to her schedule and the best way to tackle the All-Star weekend with these considerations in mind. She worked during the All-Star game.”
In March 2011, Sarver berated that same female former employee over a tribute video to honor then-Suns executive Rick Welts, according to two employees with knowledge of the interaction. Sarver’s issue was that he wasn’t featured more prominently in the video and that, instead, it featured more of former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who hired Welts. At one point, the woman broke down in tears, to which Sarver said, “Why do all you women around here cry so much?”
Sarver, through his attorneys, said that the incident did not happen and that he doesn’t “remember a single instance that an employee ever cried in front of me.” As for the video, he said he “certainly would not have objected to including Mr. Colangelo in a tribute video.”
Soon after the incident, multiple female former Suns employees said Sarver asked some of them to have lunch with women who worked at a bank he oversaw as CEO. The perception among some female employees was that he believed some women with the Suns weren’t as tough as the women who worked at the bank.
“So humiliating,” one female former employee said she felt about the arranged lunch.
Sarver, through his attorneys, said, “Networking relationships between the Suns and the bank have been encouraged for men and women. I think it’s really productive for everyone when there’s collaboration among stakeholders and the opportunity to share best practices with folks that you wouldn’t necessarily talk to in the normal course of business.”
A female former marketing employee said Sarver would frequently use language such as, “Do I own you? Are you one of mine?”
“He makes you feel like you belong to him,” the employee said.
Several employees recalled separate instances in which Sarver referred to staffers and players as “inventory.”
Sarver, through his legal team, denied using such language.
Said one former executive, “[His mentality is], ‘If you don’t like it, there’s the door, you can get the f— out of here.”
DURING THE 2009-10 season, Sarver entered the Suns’ training room and saw reserve forward Taylor Griffin, older brother of NBA forward Blake Griffin, lifting weights. He noticed that the 6-foot-7, nearly 240-pound Griffin, who had been a serious weightlifter dating back to high school, didn’t have hair on his legs.
Sarver, according to two people who witnessed the interaction, asked Griffin whether he shaved his legs. Griffin said he did. Sarver then asked, “Do you shave your balls, too?” One basketball operations staffer said Sarver separately asked the question of others in the organization several years later.
Sarver, through his legal team, said: “I don’t remember using those exact words, but I did make a joking reference to men’s grooming habits with Taylor Griffin once in the locker room. I remember that Taylor laughed at my comment.”
When reached for comment, Griffin told ESPN, “At the time, I took it as a joke. Looking back on it in the context of today, for a leader of a company or the owner of a team to say such a thing is inappropriate.”
Multiple employees told ESPN about demeaning sexual comments and conduct by Sarver that made them feel uncomfortable, even as attempted humor.
During the 2012-13 season, two former longtime staffers said, Sarver addressed players before they headed to Los Angeles for a game. The team had performed poorly there, and there were rumblings that players were enjoying the nightlife to the point that it was hindering their play. Sarver, addressing the players, offered to fly women to Los Angeles — the implication was clearly sexual — if players promised to be in bed at a reasonable hour before the next day’s game. The gesture wasn’t taken seriously, a former staffer who was in attendance said, but standing within earshot was a female staffer who was mortified.
“He was goofing around,” one staffer who was present said. “But little did he know, standing out in the hallway is one of our women staff members who cares for the family [of players and coaches].”
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When the Suns were recruiting free agent LaMarcus Aldridge in the summer of 2015, the team knew that Aldridge had young children in Texas and that playing near them was appealing. During the recruitment, Sarver remarked to two basketball operations staffers that the Suns needed to have local strippers impregnated by NBA players so those players would have children in the Phoenix area and feel obliged to be closer to them, giving the Suns a potential edge in free agency, the now-former staffers said.
“A lot of the stuff he says is to get a big reaction. And who’s going to tell him that he can’t?” said one of the former staffers. “He speaks in threats. He likes that awkwardness. He likes people to know that he’s in charge. He wants control. He wants control of every situation and every person.”
Sarver, in a letter from his legal team, denied making either remark.
“The answer is a categorical, no. I never said anything like that. Period. Aldridge was debating whether to play for us or San Antonio. I learned that part of his decision to go to San Antonio was because he had family connections there. We were sorry to miss the opportunity to sign LaMarcus, and I lamented that fact.”
Former Suns account executive David Bodzin said that in August 2014, Sarver pantsed him in front of more than 60 employees at the team’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. A former senior basketball staffer and a former senior marketing employee confirmed this account to ESPN. In the aftermath, Bodzin said, an HR representative smirked and said, “Please don’t sue us for sexual harassment.”
“I had no idea what to say to that,” Bodzin told ESPN. “What does a 25-year-old say in that situation? They say, ‘OK.’
“I was shellshocked. And as I’ve thought about it more, every year that it has gone by that I’ve thought about it, makes me angrier that I didn’t come forward about it. … My power was minimal in that had I said something as just an account executive, I felt that I would have been blacklisted from the industry.”
Through his attorneys, Sarver said: “I would like to apologize directly to David Bodzin. I remember this incident from seven years ago. I never meant to cause any harm or offense — and I certainly did not mean to embarrass Mr. Bodzin. At the time, I thought this was taken as a joke by everyone in the room. I understood, a short time later, that this was inappropriate. This was purely on me, and it was a misguided attempt at humor.”
AFTER A GAME in the 2018-19 season, Sarver fumed that rookie center Deandre Ayton — the 2018 No. 1 pick — had failed to record a block or a foul. Sarver slammed a stat sheet on the table in front of assistant coach Corliss Williamson, who had been working with Ayton. “In all my years, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen an owner come in there and act like that with the coaching staff,” Williamson said.
Williamson was a 6-foot-7, 245-pound former NBA champion with the Detroit Pistons whose NBA nickname was “The Big Nasty.” Williamson, who grew up in Arkansas, said an older, white male owner aggressively confronting him — a Black man from the South — carried racial connotations for him.
“That’s exactly where my mind went,” Williamson told ESPN.
He sought out Sarver in the subsequent days, including visiting his office. Eventually, the two spoke briefly, and the tension subsided.
“I really wanted to make sure he didn’t do something like that to someone else who didn’t have a cooler head,” Williamson said. “That’s why I went looking for him.”
It was far from the first time members of the coaching staff felt like Sarver had marginalized them. Watson remembers Sarver drawing up plays that didn’t exist in the locker room. “He was asking [players] to set up a pick-and-roll in the middle of the paint. How is that even possible with three seconds and no spacing?”
On March 30, 2019, the Suns were home against a short-handed Memphis Grizzlies team. Center Richaun Holmes was out due to a migraine and Ayton had rolled his ankle late in the third quarter. In their absence, Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas dominated, scoring 14 of his 34 points in a decisive fourth quarter for a 120-115 Memphis win. The loss dropped the Suns to 17-60.
Wednesday, Nov. 17
Lakers at Bucks, 7:30 p.m.
Mavericks at Suns, 10 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 19
Lakers at Celtics, 7:30 p.m.
Mavericks at Suns, 10 p.m.
All times Eastern
Immediately after the game, according to staffers, Sarver marched into the coaches locker room and unloaded, berating head coach Igor Kokoskov and his assistants, demanding answers as to why they didn’t “make any adjustments” to stop the burly Grizzlies center.
Veteran assistant Joe Prunty, who did not respond to a request for comment, spoke up, saying the short-handed Suns had made several in-game adjustments — fronting Valanciunas, doubling him on the catch, explaining other basketball minutiae.
“Joe starts throwing all the s— at him, [and] the guy has no idea what any of that means,” said one former coach, details that others in the room confirmed. Sarver, livid, marched toward the door and screamed “No adjustments!” on his way out.
The next month, Kokoskov, who declined to comment, and his assistants, less than a year into their tenure in Phoenix, were fired.
One former longtime staffer said similar outbursts happened so often that he lost count. “He was constantly meddling and trying to coach himself or go into the coaches’ office and start drawing X’s and O’s on the board at halftime and tell them they need to do this, they need to do that.”
Sarver’s habit of second-guessing coaches included working with then-rookie Ayton on shooting 3-pointers, an element of Ayton’s game the coaches didn’t believe should be his focus, then-members of the coaching staff said.
In another instance that season, Sarver went into the training room to talk X’s and O’s with rookie guard Elie Okobo. Veteran guard Jamal Crawford left the room.
“He actually got up off the table and walked out of the room and said, ‘I can’t f—ing listen to this s—. I gotta get out of here,’” a second former staffer said. The former longtime staffer in the room confirmed the scene to ESPN. Crawford declined to comment.
One former Suns basketball operations staffer who interacted with Sarver regularly said he still deals with stress and anxiety from Sarver’s verbal abuse and late-night phone calls — to the point that the panic he felt still strikes anytime the phone rings late in the evenings. “I never felt comfortable there,” the staffer said. “And I was there for a long time. … I didn’t even get fired. If that gives you any context — I left on my own. There’s no reason to be miserable every day anymore.”
Sarver instituted unusual and frequent demands, former coaches and basketball operations staffers said, and during part of that 2018-19 season he told Kokoskov’s staff that they shouldn’t hold pens, papers, notebooks or anything in their hands on the sideline. They had to stand and cheer.
ESPN asked Sarver about his interactions with the team; the questions went unaddressed.
“It was a clown show,” said one former basketball operations staffer. “Guys are jumping up and down looking ridiculous, and I’m getting texts from coaches around the league, like, ‘What are you guys doing?’” Said another former basketball operations staffer, “It becomes more of a circus and, ‘Let’s stand up and clap and appease Robert as opposed to doing what our job actually is, which is trying to coach the basketball game.’” One clip of the coaching staff failing to fist-bump properly went viral.
MULTIPLE CURRENT AND former employees told ESPN that members of the Suns’ executive team contributed to the workplace toxicity of the organization.
In 2017 two former employees said that a white male executive repeatedly called a Black co-worker “Carlton,” in reference to the character from the ’90s TV show “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” In at least one instance, he jokingly told the co-worker to “do the Carlton” for him. The employees said the Black co-worker on multiple occasions told the white executive to stop calling him by that name and that he was not going to dance for him. “Super racist,” one former employee said.
The executive, when reached by ESPN, denied telling the employee to dance and said he was never asked to stop calling the employee “Carlton,” describing their relationship as “jovial” and “one of friendship and respect.”
One female former employee said that after being physically assaulted by a male co-worker outside of the office, a female co-worker went to HR out of concern for the employee’s safety. The two told ESPN that HR spoke with the alleged victim, ultimately deciding that simply moving her desk would resolve the issue. At that time, the alleged victim said there were two rows of desks — with partitions separating each one — and that hers was right next to the male co-worker’s. They moved her to the second row. “I couldn’t escape,” she said, adding that if she stood up, he was right there, probably less than 10 feet away. “It was a joke. An absolute joke.”
As far as the employee is aware, there was no investigation. The Suns told ESPN they could “take no action because both employees declined to speak with HR and because neither employee expressed an interest in having the Suns intervene concerning the dispute.” The Suns denied ever instructing “either employee to ‘move [their] desk’ to resolve the domestic issue they were having.”
In all, three people told ESPN the employee’s desk location had indeed been moved.
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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.
One female former marketing employee describes sitting in meetings with senior leaders and hearing sexist remarks made about women, including the need to have women at certain events in low-cut tops. “And then I would say, ‘This isn’t a productive meeting for me. And I’m uncomfortable,’” the former employee said. “They would say, ‘It’s just a joke; get over it.’”
Current and former employees said women often did not feel valued and were ignored when they said so, a sentiment that led to frequent departures.
“Especially with the younger girls, I felt like I was abandoning them,” said one female former employee. “I felt bad for leaving. It was hard. And so I was happy when [I learned] all of them are out of there.”
“It breaks you,” said another female former employee. “I’m hard to break, and it broke me.”
“It wrecked my life,” said a third female former employee. “I was contemplating suicide.”
A current executive is among nearly a dozen who acknowledges seeking professional help to cope with anxiety, sleep loss and overall declining well-being working for the Suns.
“When I went to the psychologist, I cried a bucket of tears,” the executive said. “And it’s like that with a lot of us. It’s just sad.”
Even with the team’s recent success, one current staffer said the team’s culture has continued to decay.
“Now when employees should be having fun and should be enjoying the success,” the staffer said, “the culture is lower than it’s ever been.”
EVEN THE SIMPLEST, most corporate tasks were met with widespread suspicion.
Former employees told ESPN that, in some cases, employees lied on team-administered surveys about working for the team because they feared retaliation or felt the exercise was pointless: “There was no way in hell I was going to answer that thing honestly,” said one former human resources representative.
A second former HR rep said employees were told not to file complaints and that they shouldn’t come to the HR office, that they should instead meet outside the office: “I would say, ‘Let’s go take a walk. Because if they see you being here, they’re gonna come after you.’” Several employees said they were taking antidepressants and going on medical leave because of the issues they were having with superiors, according to the former rep.
Added the first former HR rep: “Unfortunately, HR is a place that most people come to, to get refuge from things that go on. You should be able to go there and get some help. [But] it’s sort of a culture of complicity. Which I was a part of. And I hate saying that.”
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.
“You want to do right by the employee and make sure that they’re not getting infringed upon,” the first former HR rep said. “But ultimately, you’re getting paid by the owner. So you’re the police. And there were some times where I told people, ‘You know, I’m not gonna tell you this on the record, and we need to go out to the parking lot or someplace, but I think you should sue.’”
When aggrieved workers said they had been considering legal action after being told that the organization would be parting ways with them, two former business operations employees said those people were often offered severance packages in exchange for signing nondisclosure agreements.
The second former HR rep said this approach was common: The organization would settle when an employee brought any sort of legal action, threatened to sue or raised issues that could lead to legal action. “They didn’t want the press,” the former rep said. “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.”
The rep continued, “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.’”
Although a few explored legal action, there were more who did not. Half a dozen former employees said they didn’t pursue a lawsuit because they didn’t have the financial resources for a legal battle to do so, or felt so worn down from their experience that they just wanted to move on.
“Ultimately, I was too afraid and exhausted to pursue it,” a female former marketing employee said. “I even had my attorney offer to do the whole pro bono thing, but I was broken down so badly by then. I wasn’t sleeping or eating or functioning well, so I felt it was easier to move on and take the offer. I regret not pursuing it.”
GO TO THE Phoenix Suns’ official career opportunities page and you’ll see it: what the team calls its mission for prospective employees.
It reads: Our mission is to “Provide the Finest in Sports, Entertainment and Community Leadership,” and our goals are to “Win Championships and Create Sustained Success.” By uniting around the following …
On the right side of the page, alongside a big, purple box, the team lists its values: Forward Thinking. Accountable. Mutual Respect. Integrity. Leadership. You Have Passion For Our Purpose.
The first letter of each bullet point spells out an acrostic: “FAMILY.”
“That’s our motto, right? That’s what they shove down our throats,” said one longtime staffer who recently left the team.
“If it involves revenue, OK, we’re ‘family values,’” said a current Suns executive. “But let me tell you, that is the biggest piece of s— document they’ve got in that place.”
Among the demands of ESPN by Sarver’s legal representation was that ESPN contact 10 specific individuals about Sarver and the organization. Of those 10, ESPN had previously requested comment from three. Of the remaining seven, five responded and gave accounts of Sarver, using words like “demanding,” “hard driving” and “relentless.” They each said that in their own personal experiences they had not witnessed or heard of racist and misogynistic conduct by Sarver.
Suns chief financial officer and general manager of the Phoenix Mercury Jim Pitman said, “[Sarver] has been consistently on the side of women and the WNBA.” Executive director for Phoenix Suns charities and vice president of social responsibility Sarah Krahenbuhl said, “[Sarver’s] not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but how he pushes us is for the greater good.”
Lon Babby, Suns president of basketball operations from 2010 to 2015, said: “Robert is surely a demanding and, at times, difficult manager to work for. But I can tell you as assuredly that he is not in any way shape or form a racist or guilty of any kind of sexual harassment or mistreatment of women.”
Golden State coach Steve Kerr helped introduce Sarver to former NBA commissioner David Stern before Sarver bought the Suns in 2004. After serving as a consultant, Kerr was named the team’s general manager in 2007, a position he left in 2010. He hasn’t worked with the Suns in any capacity since that time. Kerr was a minority owner of the team from 2004 to 2014 when he divested a less-than-1% stake to coach the Warriors.
Of their time together from 2004 to 2010, Kerr told ESPN: “I never saw anything that suggested racism or misogyny, and I was very surprised to hear those allegations because that’s not the person that I know.”
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.
One high-level former executive recalled being told that the language in the agreement was “bulletproof” and granted Sarver enough power that it would be very difficult to unseat him.
NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said the league office is not aware of any such activity by Suns minority owners.
Said one former Suns executive: “All of [the owners] in a different form or fashion would say Robert is a lucky charm in real estate. He’s really good at what he does businesswise. … So his discipline away from the game of basketball is what always pissed me off. Because he wasn’t a f—ing dummy. Now, he’s a misogynist and a racist, but he wasn’t dumb. And he acted like a dummy around the game of basketball. And that was the thing that pissed me off so much because he was smart enough to know better.”
“He’s not clueless,” said another member of the ownership group of Sarver’s behavior. “He’s doing it because of power.”
Seventeen years in, after posting the NBA’s second-best record last season at 51-21 and making the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993, Suns employees said Robert Sarver’s behavior remains the same.
“It’s bittersweet,” a co-owner said of the team’s resurgent success. “It just doesn’t feel good to be involved with him.”
The current executive discourages people from working at the Suns and knows others who do the same.
Said another current employee, “If I knew — and I wish I knew what I was coming into — I would have never taken the job here. Never.”
ON THE EVENING of Oct. 30, 2016, at Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix, Earl Watson, in just his third game as the Suns’ head coach, faced a tall task: beat the powerhouse Golden State Warriors.