NBA to review racism, sexism claims vs. Sarver

    Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

  • Host of The Woj Pod
  • Joined ESPN in 2017

The NBA is launching an investigation into the Phoenix Suns and the conduct of majority owner Robert Sarver, the league said Thursday.

The league’s announcement that it will use the law firm Wachtell Lipton to conduct the investigation comes in the wake of ESPN publishing an investigative story based on interviews with more than 70 current and former Suns employees who described a sometimes toxic and hostile workplace of racism and sexism during Sarver’s 17-year tenure in Phoenix.

Referencing NBA commissioner Adam Silver, one current business operations employee told ESPN, “If the commissioner comes in and investigates to see what the f— is going on in Phoenix, [he] would be appalled.”

“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 executive vice president of communications 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.”

Two current Suns employees said there is considerable internal support throughout the organization for an independent investigation into the franchise’s culture and that many employees would, as one said, be “more than willing to talk” to investigators.

Said the second employee, “A lot of people view this as their chance to right this ship.”

Both employees noted, however, that a looming concern voiced among the organization’s rank and file is whether sensitive information, as well as their identities, would remain confidential to ward off any potential retaliation from Suns’ leadership. Said the first Suns employee, “We have to be protected.”

Suns minority owner Jahm Najafi said in a statement that he would aid any NBA investigation.

“The conduct he is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable,” Najafi said of Sarver. “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 … Although today’s revelations fall under the jurisdiction of the League which decides and takes any action based on its finding, I offer my support to ensure there is full accountability.”

In Silver’s tenure since 2014, the NBA has launched two major investigations — with the LA Clippers and Atlanta Hawks — centered significantly on ownership behavior that ended with sales of the teams. Terminating an owner for violations of the NBA’s constitution and bylaws takes a three-fourth’s vote of the league’s board of governors.

Silver gave a lifetime suspension to former Clippers owner Donald Sterling in April 2014 following the release of audio tapes that included his using racist language about Black people, including his players. Sterling made a subsequent appearance on CNN that further damaged his standing in the league, and the Clippers were ultimately sold for an NBA-record $2 billion to Steve Ballmer in August 2014.

Under the pressure of a league investigation, Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson sold the franchise to a group led by Tony Ressler for $850 million in 2015. Levenson was part of a league inquiry that included the self-reporting of an internal email that he sent that included several racially tinged observations on the Hawks’ game-night fan base.

The Dallas Mavericks were the center of a league investigation into sexual harassment and workplace misconduct claims in the aftermath of a Sports Illustrated article in 2018. In the wake of the league’s findings, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban donated $10 million to charities, including those combating domestic violence toward women. Cuban was not suspended or punished.
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