The NBA and WNBA have hired a law firm to investigate allegations in an expansive ESPN report that Phoenix Suns and Mercury managing partner Robert Sarver used racist and sexist language for years.
NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement that New York-based Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, which investigated allegations of racism against former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, will look into the matter.
Bass called the allegations “extremely serious.”
The ESPN report cites examples of Sarver using the n-word and inappropriate language that in turn created a hostile work environment. The sports network said it interviewed more than 70 people for the story.
Sarver, who has been the Suns’ and Mercury’s majority owner since 2004, said the report is inaccurate and misleading.
“Let me be clear: The n-word is not part of my vocabulary,” he said Thursday. “I have never called anyone or any group of people the n-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by that word, either verbally or in writing. I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in.”
ESPN interviewed former Suns head coach Earl Watson, who says Sarver repeatedly used the n-word in 2016 when debating whether Sarver, who is White, could use the word. Watson has a Mexican American mother and Black father.
“You know, why does (Golden State Warriors forward) Draymond Green get to run up the court and say (N-word),” Watson recalled Sarver telling him. Watson says he told the team owner that he couldn’t use that word.
“Why?” Sarver reportedly replied, “Draymond Green says (N-word).”
Sarver said Watson is not credible.
“Mr. Watson created an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization,” he said. “Now we are in the position of trying to disprove things that did not happen.”
Sarver said he welcomes an investigation.
Watson, now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, said in a statement to the media that he isn’t interested “in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact.”
“Instead, I want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions with their truth,” he said.
Watson said that the experience has been traumatic and while he doesn’t want to relive it every day, he will address the matter when he feels ready.
Multiple unnamed employees told ESPN that Sarver made inappropriate, sexual comments during staff meetings. Specific examples included Sarver describing his sex life with his wife. He would also publicly ask players about their sex lives, according to ESPN.
In the report, Sarver denies publicly talking about his or others’ sex lives.
ESPN’s story quotes a former female employee who says Sarver would ask questions like, “Do I own you? Are you one of mine?”
Throughout the ESPN report, Sarver, through his legal representation, denies the most serious accounts of racist and sexually charged language. In one incident in which Sarver is accused of pulling an employee’s pants down in front of more than 60 people, Sarver, through his lawyers to ESPN, acknowledged the account and apologized to the employee.
The ESPN investigation came to light two weeks ago and was immediately rejected by Sarver, the Suns and Mercury before the story was published.
On October 22, in anticipation of the release of the report, Sarver said in a statement, “I am wholly shocked by some of the allegations purported by ESPN about me, personally, or about the Phoenix Suns and Mercury organizations,” Sarver said.
“While I can’t begin to know how to respond to some of the vague suggestions made by mostly anonymous voices, I can certainly tell you that some of the claims I find completely repugnant to my nature and to the character of the Suns/Mercury workplace and I can tell you they never, ever happened.”
The same day, both the Suns and Mercury released statements calling the imminent ESPN report “baseless.”
CNN has reached out to the Suns and Mercury for comment on the allegations in the ESPN report.
On Thursday, Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi released a statement saying, “I have been made aware of the allegations against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns. The conduct he is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable.”
He added, “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.”
Bass told ESPN the NBA never “received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence.”
The union for NBA players said it applauded the league’s decision to investigate.
According to a biography on NBA.com, Sarver is chairman of the board of Western Alliance Bancorporation, a financial institution headquartered in Arizona, and co-founder of Southwest Value Partners, a real estate investment fund.