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Suns column: Robert Sarver accusations, investigations and accountability

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 5, 2021

The Phoenix Suns played a basketball game Thursday night, and it couldn’t have felt more inconsequential.

Not because they beat a 1-6 Houston Rockets team by double figures. Not because it was an early November contest in an 82-game season, and not because it was the exact type of game a Finals-caliber team won’t remember come May or June.

No, the triviality had everything to do with some things just being way bigger than basketball.

On Thursday morning, ESPN’s long-awaited bombshell dropped in the form of a 7,144-word story filled with allegations of racism and misogyny against Suns majority owner Robert Sarver. The article, written and reported by Baxter Holmes, stemmed from more than 70 interviews with former and current employees, and the accusations at hand are stomach-curdling.

From Sarver repeatedly using the N-word; to pantsing an employee in front of the organization; to berating and screaming at his coaches; to asking women in the building if he “owned them” as a way of finding out if they worked for the Suns; to asking his employees lewd questions about their partners; to joking about having strippers impregnated by NBA players so they’d have children in the Phoenix area that would convince those players to sign with the Suns, the allegations in the story are wide-ranging, offensive and upsetting.

So yeah, the Suns’ 123-111 win over the Rockets isn’t the chief concern right now.

One story alleges that a female employee was physically assaulted outside of work by a male co-worker, and when another female co-worker went to HR out of fear for the woman’s safety, the problem was dealt with by simply moving her desk a mere few feet away from the male co-worker who assaulted her.

Another account from a female employee said she was contemplating suicide as a result of the toxic, sexist and denigrating work environment women had to endure on a daily basis within the organization.

One HR rep told ESPN it was a “culture of complicity.” Multiple staffers allegedly refused to go to HR because they feared retaliation. And even with the NBA launching its own independent investigation into these serious claims, and multiple staffers reportedly viewing this as their opportunity to “right the ship,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports a looming concern for these employees is remaining confidential in order to be protected against potential retribution from Sarver and the Suns organization.

And therein lies another huge part of a problem that feels more and more systemic in this country: Not being able to fully support the victims of objectively gross behavior because even 70+ interviews aren’t enough to “prove” anything yet.

When the story first broke, the natural inclination was to wonder whether it’d be enough to get the NBA to intervene and remove Sarver as majority owner. For Suns fans hoping this was the opportunity to remove their long-reviled owner, there was concern that Earl Watson — a former coach whose firing Sarver could argue was on the basis of merit –former assistant Corliss Williamson and former player Taylor Griffin were the only people making accusations who put their names on the record. “Hearsay” became a common word to describe these accounts with no names attached, because strictly from a legal standpoint, that’s what the majority of the story amounted to.

Even in the very column you’re reading right now, every declaration of wrongdoing has to be covered by an “allegedly” or an “according to” in order to protect against libel, defamation and possible legal action. Journalistically, the pursuit of the truth and minimizing harm are two core pillars of the profession. Fact-checking matters, and since this is merely a column on someone else’s reporting, pretending I know with certainty what happened in regards to any of these horrifying stories would be dishonest.

But as the NBA undergoes its independent investigation, it’s worth noting that 70+ interviews amounts to a hell of a lot more than “hearsay.” Just because there are very few names attached doesn’t mean these people are faceless, anonymous entities that won’t be contacted by the league. Every accusation of this nature deserves to be heard, investigated and settled, and with so many corroborating the same picture of racism, sexism and general toxicity, this could be a long, drawn-out, ugly process to verify everything — automatically differentiating it from the Donald Sterling scandal from a few years back.

“I feel like, you know, situations are different,” Chris Paul said when asked whether this situation is an apt comparison to the case of Sterling. “I think right now, we’re not insensitive to everything that was said or whatnot. But we don’t know all the details, right? So the NBA will do its investigation. And in that time, all of us on our team will continue to play and do what we do.”

Unlike the sheer shock and undeniable authenticity of a Donald Sterling audio recording, there is no explosive “gotcha” moment of that same magnitude in Holmes’ story. There currently is no audio of Robert Sarver saying any of the horrible things he’s accused of saying. There’s no paper trail linking him to organizational scandal, and there’s no email thread of him using racist or sexist language. The allegations are nauseating and disturbing, to be clear, but in terms of hard evidence that is actionable, the league currently has the stories of unnamed sources. Hence the investigation, where all of these accounts will be given the proper time and attention the NBA needs before making a decision on how to proceed.

But after watching Steve Kerr, Rex Chapman and so many others falling into this trap, this bears repeating: Just because someone didn’t personally witness racism or sexism in the workplace, doesn’t mean it wasn’t still happening.

There’s the old saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” but what most people don’t realize is the smoke can kill you a lot faster than the flames do. And when there’s this much smoke, it’s hard to see how an investigation doesn’t end with someone choking on the fumes.

In all honesty though, Sarver’s future in Phoenix should only be the focus of the story insofar as this pivotal question that Locked On Suns’ Brendon Kleen posed: Rather than asking whether this death by a thousand cuts story is enough to get him removed, shouldn’t we be asking what bar those in power should be held to, and why that bar is so low?

Because as much as these allegations center around one man, the problems described in Holmes’ story are systemic. That kind of toxic environment will always start from the top and trickle down in any organization or business, but if the NBA’s findings corroborate these numerous accusations, more heads will need to roll than just Sarver’s.

Lost in all of this conversation are the dozens of victims who had the courage to come forward, as well as those who were allegedly too intimidated to do so for fear of retaliation. They are the story here, first and foremost.

It’s impossible not to feel for head coach Monty Williams and the players, who have had this story hanging over their heads for weeks and now have to answer questions about grave, disgusting allegations that deserve to be directed at the man they actually revolve around. Oh and yeah, that man in question just so happens to sign all their paychecks.

And of course there are the fans. You, reading this, who probably feel saddened, sickened or disenfranchised with the team you love, which is never how a sports fan should have to feel supporting their team. Sports are supposed to bring joy and provide an escape, but these allegations make that impossible, as well they should; accusations of this nature transcend basketball. It’s why Thursday’s game felt so meaningless, even as the Suns looked more like themselves than they have all season.

For many people, including this writer, watching the Bubble Suns play basketball was a lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal 2020. Covering their Finals run last year was the highlight of my career thus far.

So it comes with an undeniable sting to read that, despite the team’s success, in a season that should’ve been a rewarding joyride for the entire organization, so many people still felt their work environment was toxic, degrading and miserable. It sullies the fond memories of a feel-good season.

In a perfect world, the focus this year would’ve been on their unforgettable journey, Chris Paul finally making the Finals, Devin Booker proving the doubters wrong, Deandre Ayton making the leap and the Suns looking to get over the hump in the championship round this time.

But instead, this dark cloud has been looming overhead, and even with the story out in the open, it will continue to do so until the NBA’s investigation is complete. Williams called it “a lot to process,” and for now, he and the Suns will attempt to walk the fine line between focusing on basketball while still acknowledging the gravity of the situation…all without condemning their current employer.

“This is a situation where they’re going to rally around each other and hoop,” Williams said before Thursday’s game. “That’s what we do. At the same time, these aren’t comfortable situations. I understand the sensitivity of everything that’s been said and written about and expressed. And it takes courage to come out and express yourself. At the same time, I’m aware that there are two sides to this equation.”

Chris Paul and Devin Booker echoed Williams with similar sentiments after the game.

“I think for us it’s about controlling what we can control,” Paul said. “And that’s hoopin’. That’s basketball. That’s what we did today, and that’s what we’re gonna continue to do.”

“I wasn’t aware of the situation, and my seven years I’ve been here, I haven’t noticed that,” Booker added. “But that doesn’t make me insensitive to the subject. I think the NBA opened an investigation and they’re gonna do their due diligence of bringing out facts, instead of ‘he said, she said,’ and I’m sure the NBA has it in good hands and will do the proper research to find out the truth.”

However, the breadcrumbs for a complete about-face are already there if the league validates these claims. Williams admitted he wouldn’t be sitting in his current seat if the events in question had occurred while he was in Phoenix. When asked if Booker thought his former coach Earl Watson was a credible source, he responded, “Yeah, that’s my guy.”

Suns vice chairman and minority owner Jahm Najafi and a spokesperson for Dyal Capital, the investment firm that purchased a stake in the Suns this summer, have both released statements supporting a comprehensive investigation.

For now, it’s still a “wait and see” process for the Suns, the coaching staff, the organization and the fanbase at large. Pending on the results of the NBA’s investigation, there may soon be a time for the players and coaches to publicly condemn these alleged actions, with the backing and protection of the league behind them.

But in the meantime, the eye-opening, stomach-turning accounts of more than 70 people cannot and should not be ignored. Even with Robert Sarver and team president Jason Rowley vociferously denying and attacking the credibility of those claims at every turn, the truth will come to light eventually. It’s just going to be an extremely unpleasant, bumpy ride until we get anywhere near the truth and the justice it calls for.

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