The NBA never hesitates to send a message. Less than one day after Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther reported on a Dallas Mavericks workplace rife with “misogyny and predatory behavior,” the league launched its own investigation into what one Mavericks employee described as a “real life Animal House.” By week’s end, the league had set up a hotline for victims of sexual misconduct in and around the sport. While the first move focused solely on the Mavericks, the latter pointed in a more general direction—indicating that the NBA is not afraid to admit that maybe it has a widespread problem on its hands.
That runs counter to what Mark Cuban and the Mavericks had been doing. After pleading ignorance, Cuban took responsibility for the non-firing of Earl K. Sneed, a Mavs.com writer with a history of domestic abuse. Cuban’s explanation was a little odd; he claims to have been wary of making Sneed someone else’s problem. But he also copped to having not taken into account how Sneed’s continued presence would affect his co-workers or the overall work environment, as well as having relied on “anecdotal” information, some of it coming from Sneed himself.
But Cuban did not address the other allegations raised by Sports Illustrated. According to SI’s reporting, former Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery was repeatedly accused of harassment and faced no consequences, in part because of the laissez-faire stance taken by Buddy Pittman, the HR director more concerned with protecting Ussery from himself than enforcing workplace norms. Pittman stepped down last week, and Ussery, no longer with the Mavs, has denied any wrongdoing.
This is that exact moment when the big picture has to come into play. “Institutional culture” is a far-reaching and at times vague notion. It can be difficult to pin down or point to, even when the workplace has been explicitly described as a toxic fraternity. When one of the team’s highest-ranking executives exhibits a pattern of misconduct and the HR director enables his behavior, it sets the tone for, as SI put it, a “corrosive culture.” Condemning an individual in the face of compelling evidence requires no great feat of imagination. Understanding how this kind of behavior both informs and is reflective of an institution as a whole is a far trickier proposition.
When Cuban addressed only the Sneed situation, he was—however unconsciously—engaging in a classic form of deflection. Isolating the most egregious incident turns what may well be an institutional problem into an individual one. This is the “bad apple” hypothesis we see applied to killer cops: The problem isn’t the system, it’s a lone actor within it. This thinking even turns Ussery and Pittman into, again, just two individuals behaving monstrously, rather than being indicative of or contributing to a large-scale problem. Absent any other specific accounts, there can’t be a pattern, no matter what quotes come from past and present Mavericks employees. It’s why “evidence” has become a nefarious right-wing buzzword in its support of a perpetual state of damage control.
“Sports have so far proven remarkably resistant to the #MeToo moment. It’s as if the field’s ingrained conservatism—as opposed to the knee-jerk liberalism of Hollywood—insulates it against this kind of widespread awareness, either because too many people have too much to lose or they just don’t care.”
But if you buy that there’s something deeply fucked about the Mavericks front office, your curiosity probably shouldn’t stop there. There’s nothing exceptional about that franchise or the people who work in it, and if you’ve ever spent any time in or around sports, it would come as no surprise to you to learn of similar issues elsewhere in this industry. No, there haven’t been any other names named. But identifying the Mavericks—as much as Sneed, Ussery, or Pittman themselves—as the problem opens up a discussion that places blame on individuals while acknowledging not just that others had to be involved, but that the institutional culture also plays a role in these situations. It’s why Michigan State’s athletic director had to go down with Larry Nassar, and why there are currently investigations under way into other, unrelated allegations within MSU’s programs. As the saying goes, there’s never just one.
It’s safe to assume that the Mavericks are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual misconduct in professional sports. What remains to be seen is where the NBA’s involvement will lead. With Michigan State as the lone ghastly exception, sports have so far proven remarkably resistant to the #MeToo moment. It’s as if the field’s ingrained conservatism—as opposed to the knee-jerk liberalism of Hollywood—insulates it against this kind of widespread awareness, either because too many people have too much to lose or they just don’t care, like how Republicans backed Roy Moore despite the very credible allegations of child molestation against him.
There’s no reason to think that the NBA will approach sexual misconduct as a systemic problem, even if Adam Silver has spoken out against it, and having a hotline suggests they’re open to uncovering other trouble spots. But it’s practically staring them in the face that all the bad actors in the Mavericks case aren’t uniquely diseased. If one franchise has deep-seated problems, there’s a good chance that others may be more closely examined, which could in turn spread beyond the NBA. In a sense, it’s up to the league to determine just how much change they want to see.
That’s not to say there needs to be a full-on reckoning that could spur accusations of mass hysteria. It’s more that sports—whether it's particular institutions or the climate around them in general—could stand to do better. This isn’t just about Sneed, or Cuban, or even the Mavericks. It’s far bigger than that, and to claim otherwise is either naive, grossly cynical, or just plain callous. This isn’t even about denigrating sports; there’s no reason to get defensive at the simple assertion that sports is disfigured in the same way as everything else and could start to evolve. The NBA is at a crossroads, and it’s up to them to use their power to make the right move. It won’t necessarily make them complicit if they don’t. But at this point, we have every right to expect more from them—and ourselves.