Harassment Isn't New For Women In Sports. Is The NBA Finally Listening?

DALLAS, TEXAS – FEBRUARY 26: Mark Cuban and Cynthia Marshall look on during a press conference to introduce Cynthia Marshall as the new Dallas Mavericks Interim CEO at American Airlines Center on February 26, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

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Alana Glass, Women@Forbes · Feb 27, 2018
“You don’t feel safe going to work and it’s not long before you look for another job. And then you wonder why there aren’t more women working in sports. Really?”

In reading this reflection within Sports Illustrated’s explosive report, which details the hostile work environment within the Dallas Mavericks organization, it is evident that women in sports were failed by the owner, Mark Cuban, and the National Basketball Association.

According to SI, current and former Mavericks employees “paint[ed] a picture of a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior.” And half-dozen women not only exited American Airlines Center or the franchise but left the sports industry altogether because the “work environment and structure that left them feeling vulnerable and devalued while protecting—and continuing to employ—powerful men who misbehaved.”

It is troubling that the misconduct occurred within a league that actively supports the advancement of women into high-ranking positions and is considered a leader among men’s sports for gender hiring practices.

What is also hard to fathom is the culture that fostered sexual harassment and workplace misconduct incubated under the watchful eye of an owner who is widely known throughout the sports industry as being hands-on. Cuban’s excuse that he was focused on basketball operations is the opposite of everything we know about the billionaire “Shark” who bought the team in 2000 and carries himself as the being the smartest guy in the room.

The NBA and Mavericks have been here before.

In 1997, Terdema Ussery became the CEO of the Mavericks and was subsequently the focus of a 1998 internal sexual misconduct investigation. As a result, Ussery maintained his executive status and staffers received handbooks with a revised sexual harassment policy. He stayed with the organization until 2015; and according to SI, Ussery is of sexual harassment complaints against him

In 2007, a federal jury found that Isiah Thomas, then the New York Knicks’ coach and president of basketball operations, sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks’ former vice president of marketing and business operations.

The jury awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million in punitive damages from Madison Square Garden and James L. Dolan, chairman of Cablevision, the parent company of the Garden and the Knicks. $6 million of the award was for the hostile work environment created by Thomas and $5.6 million for the retaliation. The parties eventually settled for $11.5 million.

Under Commissioner David Stern, the league responded to the litigation without punishing Thomas or Madison Square Garden. No fines. No suspensions.

Rather, Stern said: “Instead, we are going to continue to focus our attention on a league-wide program ensuring that all teams have appropriate policies, clearly communicated to their employees, focusing on respect in the workplace including the prohibition of sexual harassment.”

Sound familiar?

The NBA missed an opportunity in 2007 to take a heavy stance against workplace misconduct and send a message that terrorizing behavior will not go unpunished. Instituting policies without enacting a substantial culture change does not deter harassers. We now know that the situation in New York was not isolated or confined to one franchise. Consequently, it was only a matter of time until the #MeToo Movement directly impacted the NBA.

Women within the NBA deserve to work in safe environments without fearing harassment. Women deserve equal opportunities – the same opportunities that are afforded to their male colleagues. And women need to know that their voices will be heard and their concerns are taken seriously.

Cuban’s actions in retaining New York-based law firm Krutoy Law to investigate the complaints, and hiring Cynthia Marshall, who has three decades of human resources experience as the Mavericks interim CEO, are steps forward in demonstrating that incidents of domestic violence and hostile work environments are unacceptable within professional sports.

Marshall’s no-nonsense approach to workplace misconduct was evident during her introductory press conference. She indicated that the organization is in the early stages of its response and have identified three immediate areas of focus: the investigation, culture transformation and operational effectiveness.
“Independent investigators are in the process of conducting interviews with current and former employees. The purpose of the interviews is to make sure all issues and allegations are surfaced and addressed,” said Marshall who enters the NBA after retiring from AT&T where she was most recently served as the vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer.

“We need everything to come out. Allegations will be thoroughly investigated, and any required disciplinary action will be administered swiftly. Very swiftly.”

Regarding a cultural transformation within the Mavericks organization, Marshall added: “We have developed a plan focused on fostering an inclusive and supportive culture in the organization. What I mean by inclusive is a work environment where all cultures, genders, abilities, and backgrounds are valued and celebrated. People are respected and treated fairly.”

“A culture where pay is equitable for men and women. All employees have access to opportunities. Diversity is represented in all parts of the organization and at all levels. It is a workplace where there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment, domestic violence or any type of inappropriate behavior.”

Marshall concluded her remarks by thanking the women who told their stories and emphasized that the organization will be improving its employee complaint process.

The NBA adopted a similar policy in announcing a “confidential hotline for team and league employees to report concerns about misconduct in the workplace.”

In a memo distributed by Commissioner Adam Silver, the hotline will allow users to report concerns “including but not limited to sexual harassment, illegality, or other misconduct.”

The memo notes that ”respect and integrity are core NBA values, and we all must work to ensure that they are reflected in the culture and workplaces of our organizations.”

Silver added that last December league office employees were notified of a plan to “conduct a series of mandatory, small-group discussions facilitated by outside experts to ensure that we all have a full understanding of issues related to sexual harassment and expectations for how we should behave in the workplace.” He also encouraged teams to implement similar programs in their organizations.

The #MeToo Movement has forced the NBA to seriously examine how the organization handles workplace misconduct. The league can no longer implement policies – or in this case a hotline – without significant follow-through. Time will tell whether Silver and Cuban create inclusive workforces. Although, it will be in their handling of the sexual harassment allegations that will dictate their legacies and the future of the NBA brand. Players, fans, sponsors – and perhaps most importantly, women are watching.