USA TODAY International Edition

Issues of racism, misogyny swirl on Suns owner

- Jeff Zillgitt Columnist USA TODAY

The allegation­s are troubling: use of a racist term and racially insensitiv­e language, sexist and misogynist­ic comments and other inappropri­ate workplace dialogue and behavior by Suns owner Robert Sarver; a physical assault by a male employee against a female co- worker; and a toxic workplace culture in business and basketball operations.

Sarver allegedly used the N- word in front of former Suns coach Earl Watson, who is Black and Hispanic, according to a detailed and anticipate­d story in ESPN focused on the Suns owner.

Also, according to ESPN:

Sarver passed around a picture of his wife in a bikini to employees and talked about her performing oral sex on him.

Sarver asked a woman if he “owned” her to determine whether she worked for the Suns.

A female employee says she was physically assaulted by a male co- worker, and the resolution was moving her to another desk a row away.

Multiple claims of Sarver allegedly berating basketball staffers, including coaches.

“The league has not received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organizati­on through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace mis

conduct hotline or other correspond­ence,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said.

ESPN interviewe­d more than 70 current and former Suns employees.

An anonymous Suns co- owner told ESPN: “The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale. It’s embarrassi­ng as an owner.”

Nearly two weeks ago, Sarver released a statement prior to the story’s publicatio­n denying allegation­s but acknowledg­ed in the story through his attorneys he used slang for the N- word many years ago. He also said through his legal team, “The N- word has never been a part of my vocabulary.”

Throughout the story, Sarver denies allegation­s, offers reasons why his comments and behavior could be taken out of context or admits to some egregious conduct.

On Thursday afternoon, the Suns and Sarver released additional statements. “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,” Sarver said.

So what next?

Neither Sarver nor the league has announced an investigat­ion but that is imminent.

Investigat­ions into Donald Sterling and the Mavericks were conducted.

In 2014, TMZ published audio of Sterling making racially charged statements to a companion.

In 2018, Sports Illustrate­d published a story detailing sexual harassment and domestic violence within the Mavs organizati­on.

The league retained Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in the Sterling investigat­ion. David Anders led that inquiry, which verified Sterling’s voice on an audio recording and determined the Clippers tried to mislead investigat­ors, destroy audio and delete text messages.

The NBA fined Sterling $ 2.5 million, banned him for life and eventually forced him to sell the team.

The league has used Wachtell, Lipton in recent investigat­ions into tampering.

The Mavericks hired two veteran prosecutor­s, former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram and attorney Evan Krutoy, who released a 43- page report detailing the Mavs’ toxic workplace.

The league ordered owner Mark Cuban to donate $ 10 million to organizati­ons that help those affected by domestic violence.

The league’s investigat­ors will do their due diligence and take the time to interview as many people as necessary.

Could the league force Sarver out?

At first glance, this looks more like a Dallas situation than a Sterling/ Clippers situation. The biggest difference is the lack of a smoking gun in the Sarver story. The Sterling situation contained audio evidence. ESPN didn’t produce audio, video or written evidence.

Regardless, the ESPN report doesn’t sit well with the league office, and if the investigat­ion corroborat­es the story, Sarver will be penalized.

A full investigat­ion will reveal the full scope, but unless a smoking guns turns up, it will be difficult for the league to push Sarver out.

Is there an internal battle for control of team shaping up?

Sarver is the team’s controllin­g owner and owns approximat­ely 35% of the Suns, a person familiar with details of the ownership structure told USA TODAY Sports. The person requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about those details.

Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi is the team’s second- largest investor, USA TODAY Sports has learned, and he released a strongly worded statement Thursday.

“I have been made aware of the allegation­s against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns,” Najafi said in the statement. “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 first 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 is the CEO of Najafi Companies, a private investment firm based in Phoenix. The Suns’ website says the company has “holdings in sectors including sports, consumer, media, technology, and real estate.” Late last year, Najafi made a significant investment into Formula 1’ s McLaren Racing, making him a vice chairman of the auto sports team.

Could Najafi, who joined the ownership group in 2009, and other shareholde­rs try to force Sarver to sell his shares or somehow overtake him as the controllin­g owner? Certainly possible.

Sam Garvin and Andrew Kohlberg are among the team’s other primary owners.

The findings of the investigat­ion will help determine the next steps among the franchise’s owners.

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 ?? JAE C. HONG/ AP ?? Former Suns head coach Earl Watson said owner Robert Sarver used the N- word in his presence and also used other racially insensitiv­e remarks.
JAE C. HONG/ AP Former Suns head coach Earl Watson said owner Robert Sarver used the N- word in his presence and also used other racially insensitiv­e remarks.

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