PHOENIX — Civil rights and social justice leaders in a letter sent last week are calling on the NBA to remove Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver following dozens of reported incidents of abusive behavior throughout his 17 years of ownership.
The allegations in a March 11 letter addressed to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and copied to the league's Board of Governors mirror claims in an ESPN report from last year. Sarver has since denied the claims which are under investigation by the NBA.
The letter penned by the group, which includes retired state Rep. Dave Rodriguez, says in part:
"Mr. Sarver has a notorious and extensive record of abusive, racist and misogynistic behavior spanning nearly two decades. His victims include players, coaches, front office staff, team executives, players' family members, and many others. The accounts that have recently come to light are grotesque, with numerous instances of Mr. Sarver, a white man, freely using the N-word to refer to his players and coaches. He is also alleged to use sexually explicit, misogynistic language in the workplace, including about the female body. In another example, Mr. Sarver is said to have made routine references to ownership over his employees, asking "do I own you?" to those with whom he is unfamiliar, evoking an abhorrent time in our history. There are dozens of other examples."
ESPN spoke to roughly 70 current and former Suns employees in its November report, revealing numerous examples of alleged incidents involving a toxic and sometimes hostile workplace.
Here are a few of the instances included in the report:
- Former Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson alleges Sarver used the N-word multiple times after a game against the Golden State Warriors in 2016.
- Some employees said they encountered conduct they felt was inappropriate. One such instance included Sarver allegedly passing around a picture of his wife in a bikini to employees and talking about sex acts she performed.
- During a recruiting pitch, sources said Sarver made a comment they felt was racially insensitive. They didn't go into specifics but said they felt Sarver "too loosely used the term "Black guy" during the conversation."
The letter goes on to say:
"From what we understand, Mr. Sarver's history has been well known amongst the NBA's Board of Governors for many years, and yet it was not until these reports were made public that the league initiated an investigation into the matter.
We note that Mr. Sarver has denied the allegations and several of his supporters have claimed that there is no "proof" of such incidents. We take issue with the notion that victims must film or record the abuses being committed against them in order for those abuses to be considered true. Indeed, shifting the burden to victims in this way is a key deterrent to progress in our struggle for racial and social justice in the United States and throughout the world. It is a tactic that deserves no home within the NBA.
Let us be clear: we believe Mr. Sarver's victims. This is not a matter of a single allegation or one person's word against another. This is a pattern rife with examples of men, women, people of color, and staff suffering abuses at the hands of Robert Sarver. We expect that the investigation into Mr. Sarver's conduct will validate the accounts of the numerous and brave victims, many of whom risked their livelihoods to share their stories. We appreciate the thoroughness of the League's investigation, which is reported to include interviews with hundreds of individuals, and believe the findings will further corroborate the countless incidents and experiences spanning nearly two decades.
Moreover, there is in fact audio of Mr. Sarver making inappropriate and sexist comments. In a speech honoring his late co-owner Dick Heckmann, there is a recording of Mr. Sarver saying such things as "Dick was chasing everything that moved in Scottsdale" and "the Heckmann boys were f—king their way through the cheerleading team." Later in the speech, Mr. Sarver made a joke directed toward a member of the audience in which he said, "I guess his receptionist has small tits." He went on to say "we're lucky we still own the franchise. In today's environment, we'd have lost it a long time ago."
Such comments may have been made in jest; however, they lend excruciating credence to allegations that Mr. Sarver fosters a toxic and uncomfortable workplace, particularly for women and people of color.
Under your leadership, the NBA has made clear its intolerance for hatred, bigotry, and any other form of discrimination. This has been reinforced by the League's creation of a Social Justice Coalition in 2021, as well as its response to previous reports of misconduct, including those involving the Clippers, the Mavericks, and most recently, the Trailblazers. In all of the aforementioned cases, those responsible were removed from their respective positions. We see no reason the response to Mr. Sarver should not follow suit.
Legacy civil rights groups and social justice activists have decried the culture in the NBA and previously held conversations with NBA leadership to bring these issues to the forefront. Since then, the NBA has led the American sports community in its commitment to justice and accountability. As Commissioner of the league, your response to the investigation and subsequent action by the Board of Governors must align with the NBA's stated commitment to social justice and past decisions to impose consequences on those who have a history of abusive behavior.
We will continue to follow this matter closely."
The letter is signed by:
- Rev. Dr. W Franklyn Richardson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Conference of National Black Churches; Chairman, National Action Network
- Melanie Campbell, President/CEO, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation & Convener, Black Women's Roundtable
- Rev. Jonathan E.D. Moseley, Sr., Western Regional Director, National Action Network
- Rev. Dr. Johnnie Green, President & CEO, Mobilizing Preachers and Communities
- Jennifer Jones Austin, Vice Chair Board member, National Action Network; Chair, NYC Racial Justice Commission
- Hector Sanchez Barba, Executive Director & CEO, Mi Familia Vota
- David Hernandez, State Director, League of United Latin American Citizens of Arizona
- Rep. Dave Rodriguez, Arizona State House (ret.)
- Rev. Dr. Steffie Bartley, Northeast Regional Director, National Action Network
- Erica Ford, CEO, LIFE Camp, Inc. and activist around Women's issues