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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 Phoenix 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 staffers, including coaches.
"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,” 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 that 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, offers 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's next?
The league announced it will conduct an investigation, using the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
“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," 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.”
Investigations into Donald Sterling and the Dallas 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 with in the Mavs' organization.
The league retained Wachtell, Lipton in the Sterling investigation. David Anders led that inquiry, which verified Sterling’s voice on an audio recording and determined the Clippers tried to mislead investigators, destroy audio and delete text messages.
The NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million, banned him for life and eventually forced him to sell the team.
The league has used Watchell, Lipton in recent investigations into tampering, too.
The Mavericks hired two veterans 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 Cuban to donate $10 million to organizations that help those affected 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 first glance, this looks more like a Dallas situation than a Sterling/Clippers situation. The biggest difference 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 office, 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 difficult 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 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 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.”
Najafi is the CEO of Najafi Companies, a private investment firm based in Phoenix. The Suns’ web site says the company has “ holdings in sectors including sports, consumer, media, technology, and real estate.” Late last year, Najafi made a significant 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 findings of the investigation will help determine the next steps among the franchise’s owners.
Contributing: Duane Rankin, Arizona Republic
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Robert Sarver racism, sexism allegations will force NBA investigation