Mavs' punishment from NBA could come down to how much Mark Cuban knew

NEW YORK – In the aftermath of an explosive Sports Illustrated story on the Dallas Mavericks, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will have to address a few critical questions:

What did Mark Cuban know?

When did he know it?

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And what should — and equally important, can — Silver do about it?

On Tuesday, SI published an investigative piece that painted a picture of, in its words, “a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior” inside the Mavericks’ organization. Two former team employees are highlighted: Terdema Ussery, a high-ranking Mavs executive from 1997-2015, and Earl K. Sneed, a writer for In addition, SI spoke to half a dozen former staffers who described a culture that left them “feeling vulnerable and devalued while protecting — and continuing to employ — powerful men who misbehaved.”

The Mavericks responded by announcing they had hired outside counsel to conduct an investigation; the NBA issued its own statement, calling the behavior outlined by SI “completely unacceptable” and promising to closely monitor the independent investigation.

It’s hard to believe Mark Cuban didn’t know what was going on with the Mavs’ corporate culture. (AP)
It’s hard to believe Mark Cuban didn’t know what was going on with the Mavs’ corporate culture. (AP)

Cuban has denied knowledge of the behavior of his employees.

It’s fair to look at Cuban’s denials and say, “Huh?” Cuban is the most hands-on owner in the NBA; frankly, he’s one of the most hands-on owners in professional sports. He’s heavily involved in basketball operations (which he admits), which makes it hard, nay, impossible to believe he can be so oblivious as to what goes on with the business side (which he suggests he is). Asked by SI how he explained it, Cuban said he deferred to the CEO and the team’s human resources department.

Again — huh?

The Sneed case is especially damaging to Cuban’s claim. According to SI, in 2010-11 Sneed was arrested for assault — at the Mavericks’ facility. Sneed allegedly sat on top of his girlfriend, slapped her face and chest and told her he was going to “[expletive] kick your ass.” In 2012, Sneed pleaded guilty to family violence assault and interference with emergency request — and kept his job. In 2014, Sneed allegedly had a relationship with a Mavericks employee that turned violent. The woman informed HR — and Sneed kept his job. In a statement to the Dallas Morning News, Sneed — who was fired by the team on Tuesday night — said the two relationships described “are not something I am proud to have been a part of.” He thanked Mavericks VP of HR Buddy Pittman (who was also fired) for “helping me grow during that time” and Cuban for “his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

Sounds like Sneed believes Cuban knew a lot.

Cuban admitted to being made aware of Sneed’s initial arrest — he told SI that he suggested domestic violence counseling for Sneed and then creating a zero-tolerance policy — but claimed knowledge of the other incident to the magazine only after questions about it started to surface. On Wednesday, Cuban took responsibility for not firing Sneed after the second incident, telling ESPN the decision to retain Sneed was made, in part and bizarrely, because he didn’t want Sneed to leave the organization, get hired somewhere else, and commit an act of domestic violence again.

Again — huh?

Which brings us back to Silver, and how the commissioner handles a thorny situation. In 2014, Silver earned universal praise when, in response to racist comments from former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Silver moved swiftly to ban Sterling for life. In hindsight, it was an easy decision: Sterling’s comments — audio of which was posted by TMZ — ran the outrage gamut, with players, past and present, black and white, weighing in, along with President Barack Obama.

These two issues shouldn’t be conflated, of course. Sterling’s own words branded him a racist, and before then he had a long, documented history of alleged discriminatory treatment. Cuban isn’t accused of anything, save for overlooking abhorrent behavior. But what’s happening in Dallas will almost certainly merit a league response.

The NBA is widely regarded as the most progressive U.S. sports league, but on sexual harassment it’s hard to describe its policy as zero tolerance. Consider Isiah Thomas. In 2007, a jury in a civil suit brought by former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders ruled that Thomas sexually harassed Browne Sanders, and that the Knicks fired her for complaining about it. The jury awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million — $6 million of which was awarded because of the hostile work environment Thomas was found to have created. In 2012, NBA TV — the league-owned network that is run by Turner — hired Thomas as an analyst. It’s a position he still holds today.

There is a heightened awareness of sexual harassment these days, deservedly, and the NBA now finds itself in the middle of its own mess. The league may have to conduct its own investigation, if only to satisfy the skeptics of a team-funded one. Cuban seems inclined to accept responsibility for the behavior that occurred on his watch, but just how severe a punishment will the combative owner be willing to take? And if Silver comes down hard on Dallas, how will he answer critics who wonder why Thomas regularly appears on a league-owned network?

Many questions, few answers on a story that may be only beginning.

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