As Sarver investigation unfolds, Watson has found safe harbour with Raptors

Former Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson. (Matt York/AP)

The Toronto Raptors knew it was coming.

It wasn’t like the leadership group knew the specifics of last week’s explosive story detailing the toxic workplace culture overseen by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver.

They weren’t briefed on the multiple allegations of racist language and misogynist behaviour in an environment so apparently poisoned that one former human resources staff member said employees were cautioned from bringing forward complaints for fear of reprisal.

But the broad strokes?

They knew about them in part because their newly-hired assistant coach, Earl Watson, told them what was looming before he took the job: That he had gone on the record saying that in one instance when he was the head coach of the Suns, Sarver repeatedly used the N-word in the presence of Watson, who is Black and Hispanic.

Being the primary voice in an article that could possibly end up toppling an NBA owner is not always the kind of thing that another team would embrace in a new hire.

When it comes to candidates for assistant coaches, teams are typically spoiled for choice. But Watson – a 13-year NBA veteran with four years coaching experience including parts of three seasons in Phoenix as head coach – is considered one of the best for his ability to see the game and teach in ways that elite players can use.

“[He’s] somebody that's played and has been around [great] players and I consider Earl like family to me …. and he has a great basketball mind, just talking to him,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who has worked with Watson in the off-season for several years. “[I’m] just trying to learn anything I can. So, yeah, he’s definitely a plus to us.”

Those qualities aside, there was never any question that Watson’s stance regarding the Suns ownership would be supported internally by the Raptors.

“If anything, we’re going that way [in our support of social justice], we’re not going to shy away from taking on somebody because of that,” was how one person with the Raptors put it.

With the NBA having launched a formal investigation, engaging the same law firm that they used before forcing former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell the team after video of him using racist language became public, the Raptors – like almost anyone affiliated with the league – aren’t able to comment on the story.

But it was telling that when Watson released a statement about his role in the story coming to light, it was emailed by the team and shared on the Raptors social media channels.

“First of all, he’s a member of our staff. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over these past few months. I really respect him and his abilities,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on Friday. “This thing is an investigation. I’m sure the league is knee-deep into it. I don’t really have any comments on it specifically other than we’ll support [Watson] as a friend, as a colleague. And our organization will support him for whatever he may need.”

That Watson was the person who spoke on the record, sharing not only the story about Sarver allegedly using the N-word repeatedly, but also how the Suns owner reportedly gave him an ultimatum, demanding he cut ties with Klutch Sports owner Rich Paul or be fired (Watson refused and he was fired after the Suns lost the first three games of the 2017-18 season), wasn’t a surprise to those that know him.

“He’s always stood up for what he thought was right,” said Todd Ramasar, chief executive officer of LifeSports Agency and a former college teammate of Watson’s at UCLA. “In this case, with issues that tie into the bigger conversations about social injustice? No, it didn’t surprise me.”

And Sarver?

Two different people who have multiple dealings with him since he bought the team in 2004 said that the content and tone of the allegations in the story were not out of character for the brash billionaire.

“Was I surprised? No, I wasn’t surprised,” said one person who has regularly done deals with the franchise.

Said another: “I never heard him use that kind of language, but he was just kind of a loose cannon. You’d have meetings with him and the Suns guys would be, ‘Listen, just be prepared, we never know what he’s going to do, we never know what he’s going to say.’

“Sarver stories are almost urban legend in the NBA.”

We could be at a reckoning for how sports franchises conduct themselves. For decades it’s been mostly players who have been scrutinized for their actions away from the field of play, but the lens is widening. Sometimes coaches and occasionally management have come under the microscope, but very rarely are owners held accountable for the way they run businesses that are worth billions and are often considered a public trust of sorts.

And just as workplace standards are shifting or have shifted for the broader public, the notion that sports franchises are somehow exempt are being swept away, and 2021 might end up being a watershed.

The NHL has been confronted with the Chicago Blackhawks scandal, where the team executives were found to have not immediately acted on an alleged case of sexual abuses against a player by a member of one of their coaching staff. On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers announced they had hired a law firm to investigate president of basketball operations and general manager Neil Olshey due to "concerns around workplace environment by non-player personnel at the practice facility.” Last month, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigned after racist and homophobic slurs surfaced in email correspondence. In July, the NFL fined the Washington Football Team $10 million and required owner Dan Snyder to step away from the day-to-day operations of the club after a year-long investigation into allegations that a rampant culture of sexual harassment had been perpetuated by managers and executives at the club under the ownership of Snyder. In June, the New York Mets dismissed two senior executives following an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by baseball operations staff.

Whether Watson knew it or not, in his first NBA job since being fired by the Suns, he stepped into what – intentionally and by all accounts – is workplace culture that is poles apart from what he experienced in Phoenix as alleged in the ESPN report.

Between Raptors minority owner and chairman Larry Tanenbaum and president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri, there has long been an emphasis in Toronto on a culture that is inclusive and diverse, a commitment that has been amplified in the wake of the social justice protests following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020.

“It starts from the top,” said one prominent NBA player agent who has had multiple clients play in Toronto over decades. “You guys are so lucky up there to have Larry Tanenbaum. He’s one of the most respected owners in the league and he’s a model for how you own a team and run a franchise.”

And Ujiri’s bona fides almost go without saying. In his nine years running Toronto’s basketball operations he’s been ahead of the curve in terms of empowering and hiring women in traditionally male-dominated spaces and has championed diversity and spoken out against injustice. In addition to his Giants of Africa Foundation he has recently put his energy behind his ‘humanity’ movement, which includes a manifesto which reads, in part: “Here is what I want – to reach a day when we see each other. Really see. The way we did when we first opened our eyes. Nothing in the way. No bias. One people … that’s humanity to me.”

What happens in Phoenix is a problem that belongs to the league office now, and commissioner Adam Silver. How it gets resolved will take months, or years.

There are NBA parallels, but no direct precedents.

In April of 2014, a video featuring then-Clippers owner Sterling making racist comments was leaked to TMZ. Only months into his tenure after taking over from outgoing commissioner David Stern, Silver reacted swiftly and firmly: Sterling was fined the maximum allowed by the league and he was immediately banned from the NBA, the Clippers facilities while a process was initiated requiring him to sell his franchise, with current owner Steve Ballmer paying a record $2 billion.

Later in 2014, Bruce Levenson, then the controlling owner of the Atlanta Hawks, self-reported a racist email he sent to then-Hawks general manager Danny Ferry. The team was subsequently sold (for $850 million) to a group that included former NBA star Grant Hill.

In 2018, the NBA sanctioned the Dallas Mavericks after a Sports Illustrated report chronicled several instances of sexual harassment within the club’s business operations. While Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was cleared of any wrongdoing, he was cited for improper supervision. In lieu of a fine, Cuban donated $10 million to various women’s leadership and domestic violence organizations.

In addition to Watson’s allegations, the ESPN story on Sarver included many eye-witness accounts of inappropriate language and behaviour by the Suns owner and a workplace that was, at best, uncomfortable for female employees, though Sarver refuted all of them through his legal team.

Will Sarver double down and try to hold his ground? Perhaps the NBA is hoping Sarver will decide that being labelled as racist in a league where a large majority of the players are Black and where the league itself has pledged to support a range of social justice initiatives is no longer tenable and decides to sell.

But if not, the question now is: What is the threshold for the league to punish or even force out an owner it deems unwelcome, if not unworthy?

Watson dug in, held his ground, and pushed back, with the Raptors’ unspoken support.

"I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact,” Watson’s statement read. “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 … Basketball and 17 years in the NBA has allowed me the financial privilege to speak my truth, but we can't forget about those who must remain silent for fear of losing their jobs."

Whatever happened in Phoenix will take time to unravel, but in Toronto Watson has found safe harbour.

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