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The NBA announced an investigation into Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver following allegations of racism and misogyny from more than 70 former and current employees interviewed by ESPN.
“The allegations contained in today’s ESPN article are extremely serious, and we have directed the Wachtell Lipton law firm to commence a comprehensive investigation," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement. "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.”
“We are continuing to review the allegations in today’s ESPN story. We view these allegations as serious and applaud the League’s decision to conduct an investigation. We will defer any further comments until that process has been concluded.”
Among the accusations was Sarver's alleged use of the N-word around coaches and players on multiple occasions. Former Suns coach Earl Watson told ESPN on the record he repeatedly told Sarver, "You can't say that." Sarver acknowledged using the word "on one occasion," when he repeated a player's 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," Sarver, who denied an interview request, told ESPN through his lawyers. "I don't use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in."
In a statement following ESPN's publication, Sarver welcomed an investigation and castigated Holmes' reporting, alleging "misrepresentations from former Suns coach Earl Watson and other unnamed 'sources.'"
"At this point, I would entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation," Sarver added, "which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud."
Employees also alleged Sarver's repeated use of misogynistic language, including discussions with players about their genitals, "sex lives and the sexual prowess of their significant others." Sarver acknowledged again only "a joking reference to men's grooming habits with Taylor Griffin once in the locker room." Griffin, who played eight games for the Suns in 2010, is the older brother of Brooklyn Nets forward Blake Griffin.
Sarver was also accused of describing staff and players as "inventory." One former marketing employee, who is female, said Sarver frequently made her "feel like you belong to him," even saying, "Do I own you?"
"I have been made aware of the allegations against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns," Jahm Najafi, who owns a minority stake in the team, said in a 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 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."
Recent allegations of racism and sexism among NBA team owners have resulted in a wide range of punishment. The league banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life once his racist language was caught on tape and publicized in 2014. The NBA can remove a team owner with a three-quarters vote from its board of governors, and the Sterlings sold the Clippers prior to the league conducting a formal hearing.
When a 2018 investigation confirmed allegations of widespread sexual harassment and workplace misconduct in his organization, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agreed to donate $10 million — four times the maximum fine the league can levy against a team owner — to organizations committed to combating domestic violence and supporting the professional development of women in the sports industry.
The league also mandated several policies for the Mavericks, including an increase in the number of women throughout the organization and the improvement of formal harassment reporting processes.
The NBA also launched an anonymous hotline for all team and league employees to report instances of harassment and misconduct in 2018. NBA spokesman Mike Bass told ESPN the league had not previously received a complaint against Sarver, a statement players' union executive director Michele Roberts echoed.
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