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NBA launches investigation into Phoenix Suns owner after explosive ESPN report

Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver, pictured last month, said he is "shocked" by the ESPN report that details several alleged instances in which he used racist language and sexist comments.
Christian Petersen
Getty Images
Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver, pictured last month, said he is "shocked" by the ESPN report that details several alleged instances in which he used racist language and sexist comments.

The NBA has launched an investigation into Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver who has been accused of racist and misogynist behavior and of creating a toxic work environment.

The move to look into Sarver's 17-year tenure as majority owner of the team comes on the heels of a lengthy ESPN report published on Thursday that detailed several instances in which Sarver, who is white, allegedly used racially offensive language in conversations with and about Black players, coaches and other staff. It also includes alleged accounts of sexist and inappropriate behavior.

In a statementthat was issued hours after the publication of the story NBA Executive Vice President of Communications Mike Bass called the claims in the article "extremely serious." He added that the Wachtell Lipton law firm will conduct a comprehensive investigation on behalf of the league.

"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," Bass wrote.

Sarver has vehemently denied the claims in the story and offered his own statementearlier in the day, saying he'd welcome an impartial NBA investigation to clear his name.

"I continue to be shocked by the false reporting from Baxter Holmes," Sarver said, referring to the writer of the article.

"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. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in."

He then blamed "an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere" within the organization on former Suns coach Earl Watson.

"Now we are in the position of trying to disprove things that did not happen," Sarver wrote.

"At this point, I would entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I'm so very proud."

The explosive story is based on interviews with more than 70 current and former Suns employees, including a Suns co-owner who said he was embarrassed by Sarver and added, "The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale."

Several unnamed staffers told ESPN that Sarver repeatedly used racist language in conversations. And at one point, when Watson reportedly suggested broadening the diversity of the organization, Sarver allegedly responded, "I don't like diversity," according to the former coach.

Others said he asked players about their sexual activity, talked about sex with his wife and passed around a photo of her in a bikini making lewd comments.

Several current and former colleagues have stepped forward to defend Sarver.

Jason Rowley, president and CEO of the Suns, criticized ESPN's reporting tactics and saidthe team has "retained defamation counsel after it became clear that Mr. Holmes' reporting was plagued by journalistic failures."

"From a personal perspective, the Robert Sarver I've worked alongside of for 15 years is not a racist and he's not sexist," Rowley said, calling him a "hard-driving, competitive and compassionate man."

Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi said he was "stunned and saddened" by the stories of alleged misconduct, which he called unacceptable.

Meanwhile, former head coach Watson, who is one of the few people on record throughout the story, said he was not interested in addressing claims that he is a disgruntled and unreliable source.

"Instead, I 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," he said in a statement.

"This has been a traumatic experience, one that has affected me profoundly, and I am not willing to relive it every day."

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Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.