'Significant errors in judgment': Are Mark Cuban and the Mavs really being held accountable?

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Dan Devine
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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stands on stage before Cynthia Marshall, new interim CEO of the team, is introduced during a news conference, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Dallas. (AP)
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stands on stage before Cynthia Marshall, new interim CEO of the team, is introduced during a news conference on Feb. 26, 2018, in Dallas. (AP)

The phrase “significant error in judgment” appears four times in the report on the findings of a months-long independent investigation into the Dallas Mavericks’ organizational culture that was published on Wednesday. The forensic dissection of the curdling awfulness that lay at the heart of the Mavericks’ business operations for nearly two decades — a meticulous study that tracks back through the work done by reporters at Sports Illustrated, Deadspin and the Dallas Morning News in bringing this all to light — “substantiated numerous instances of sexual harassment and other improper workplace conduct” that fostered a hostile environment in which “the failure to appropriately respond to harassment exacerbated the harm caused by the harassment itself.”

Several parties — former CEO Terdema Ussery, former senior vice president of human resources Buddy Pittman, former team beat writer Earl K. Sneed and former senior ticket sales employee Chris Hyde, among others — are found to have been personally responsible for individual acts of harassment and improper conduct. Ussery, Pittman and head of ticket sales George Prokos all also come under fire for failing to curb the inappropriate actions of others, and for failing to create a climate in which female employees could credibly believe that reports of harassment would be taken seriously, prioritized, or viewed as reason to reprimand or terminate those responsible.

That specific phrase, though — “significant error in judgment” — never applies to any of them. It’s used, specifically, all four times, to refer to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: twice to his decision not to fire Hyde after he’d dropped a used condom on the floor in the workplace, and twice to his decision not to fire Sneed after the second domestic violence incident of his tenure in Dallas, this one involving a fellow Mavericks employee.

“I can give you lots of reasons, but they don’t matter,” Cuban said in an interview Wednesday with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “It was my responsibility, and I have to be accountable for it.”

The investigators “find credible Cuban’s assertion that he did not know about Ussery’s misconduct,” which included allegations by 15 former and current employees of activities ranging from “inappropriate comments to touching to forcible kissing.”

They found that while Prokos, Pittman and Ussery “knew the full scope of Hyde’s problematic behavior,” which included viewing pornographic images and videos at the office and “more than 10 documented instances of violent or threatening behavior,” Cuban was “unaware of most of Hyde’s misconduct.”

They found that, in the cases of both Hyde and Sneed, “Cuban was given incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information,” and that when his CEO and human resources chief “brought some specific disciplinary issues” to his attention, “Cuban engaged on those issues.”

They found that the key issue, here, is that the basketball-ops-obsessed Cuban simply never spent enough time at the Mavericks’ business office to be “around the culture” of wanton harassment and flagrant endangerment of employees that was allowed to metastasize while his head was turned.

“His absence from the business office kept him from appreciating either the full scope of the misconduct at the Company or the workplace culture at the business office,” they wrote.

And so, for the sum total of all he didn’t know or appreciate, Cuban donates $10 million to various charitable organizations. And so, his franchise institutes various new procedures to prove they’re implementing the recommendations of the investigators’ report, and ramping up “respect in the workplace” and sexual harassment trainings for all staff. (One of those recommendations: “Clarify what role team owner Mark Cuban will play in the business organization,” because “the ad hoc basis on which Cuban was involved in employment decisions in the business led to multiple challenges.”)

And so, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver calls this all “disturbing and heartbreaking,” and commends Cuban for reacting “swiftly, thoroughly and transparently” to the allegations. And so, everybody moves on.

Except … well, not everybody, right?

Not the women allegedly subjected to Ussery’s unwanted advances for more than a decade. Not the workers allegedly subjected to the graphic sexual images that Hyde reportedly viewed in the office, or those Hyde said he’d target “if he were ever going to ‘take someone out’ in a mass shooting.” Not the two women Sneed bloodied and bruised.

Not the many employees who simply never reported their harassment because “within the organization there was a sense of futility with respect to making complaints to Pittman, the head of Human Resources and, at the time, the only Human Resources employee.” And not the countless others outside the Mavericks organization who have experienced the same or similar treatment or chilling effect at their own shops, and who might be looking at the NBA right now and wondering what exactly they’re missing.

All that bad behavior had real-world consequences for a lot of people. While the investigation found no indication that Cuban himself engaged in any of it, or that he was complicit in the worst of what his worst actors were doing — while he might not have known the “full scope” of what was going on — he did know some things. Some big things. In light of that, even though $10 million is a lot of money, it’s hard not to feel like the price that the billionaire has to pay for a stunning lack of institutional control that created two decades of corrosion was awfully cheap.

Here, from the report, is what Cuban knew about Hyde, the so-called “Pants DJ” in ticket sales:

In early 2008, a litigation-related document request led to a search of Hyde’s work computer. Through this search, the Company discovered the presence of sexually explicit images on Hyde’s computer. The Mavericks’ General Counsel notified Cuban of this. In March 2008, Cuban sent an email to Hyde, stating that he “just found out about this” and continued:

If you have any offensive pictures on your PC at the Mavs Chris, I will have you fired on the spot. No questions asked. I dont [sic] give a s*** what you do on your own, but when its [sic] on a work computer, that crosses the line.

The email was subsequently forwarded to Ussery and Pittman.

Notwithstanding this warning, Hyde’s viewing of pornographic and sexually graphic content at work continued. For example, Ussery recalled that in 2010 or 2011, Hyde asked Ussery to come to his desk to discuss a sale Hyde had made, and while there, Hyde opened an image on his work computer of Hyde standing naked and erect with naked women lying on a bed looking at Hyde in the background. Cuban stated that neither Ussery nor anyone else alerted him that Hyde continued viewing sexual content after Cuban’s 2008 warning.

Hyde remained employed, despite all the porn and “more than 10 documented instances of violent or threatening behavior” in his HR file, and despite dropping a used condom out of his pant leg on the floor of Dallas’ ticket sales office. Which, again, Cuban knew about, and actually brushed off:

Pittman emailed an account of his investigation of the condom incident to Ussery. Ussery then forwarded the video of the incident to Cuban as “a confidential heads up,” writing:

[I]t’s just a matter of time before something costly goes wrong with him and that[’]s gonna cost us some money. My request is that at some point you let GP [Prokos] know that he has to control this guy…completely or he has to go. He is a walking lawsuit against us.

Cuban responded to Ussery:

Don’t make a bigger issue out of it than it is. Send [H]yde a letter saying the behavior is unacceptable, that he is put on probation or whatever we can do and that another incident will result in termination.

It does not appear that such a letter was ever sent to Hyde by Ussery, Pittman, Prokos, or any other member of Mavericks leadership.

Similarly: “There is no indication that Ussery, Pittman, Sneed’s supervisor, or Cuban followed Sneed’s [domestic violence] court case or made any effort to learn how his arrest was resolved.” He didn’t “dig into the details” and kept Sneed on board after his second domestic violence incident, which saw him arrested outside the Mavericks’ facility.

Cuban “did not ask for, and was never given, a full picture of the allegations or the actors prior to making a decision,” and Sneed instead went right back to work as soon as he was released from police custody. Sneed continued on with the team for years until he was fired in February, in the wake of the initial Sports Illustrated story.

This is the deflection, the dodge. Even if you accept that an owner as famously hyper-involved as Cuban can’t know everything that’s going on in his franchise, the choice to respond to what he does know by either telling someone else to deal with it or saying, “Now don’t let it happen again,” without mandating or performing any kind of follow-up … that’s what allows the damage to go unchecked and to continue, even as he retains plausible deniability. With these choices, Cuban ostensibly walled himself off from the repercussions of the terrible things that transpired in his domain, and passed them on to the employees whose well-being he was responsible for.

I don’t doubt the sentiment Cuban shared during Wednesday’s interview — that he now feels badly about all this, that he feels shame for the “significant errors” that helped make things worse, for not knowing the things he didn’t know, and for not acting differently on the things he did. And it’s worth noting that it’s possible that he and the Mavericks have only begun to pay. As Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated notes, the report’s findings make it “more likely” that any current or pending legal claims against the team will succeed, potentially meaning that Cuban “could end up paying millions of dollars more to resolve potential sexual harassment claims because he spent millions of dollars on an investigation that produced a condemning report.”

The report’s published now, better late than never, but the Mavericks haven’t closed the book on what’s contained within those 43 pages. Not by a long shot. And yet, there’s a difference between paying your tab and paying what you owe.

The real people harmed have to suffer and live with what happened under Cuban’s roof without his knowledge, and in some cases due to his inaction. He has to write $10 million worth of donation checks, and doesn’t have to suffer any substantive sanction for any of the deep-seated repulsiveness that’s existed for virtually his entire tenure as the Mavericks’ steward.

The equation’s imbalanced. The sides don’t add up. Ignorance and obliviousness aren’t excuses for crimes like these, and the punishment doesn’t fit. Honestly, it barely even scans as a punishment.

The constitution and bylaws governing the NBA give Silver broad powers to penalize owners. Article 35A affords the commissioner the right to suspend owners for any length of time and fine them as much as $1 million for “conduct detrimental” to the league. Article 24 gives the commissioner the right to impose a suspension of any length, a fine of up to $2.5 million and the stripping of draft picks under the auspices of protecting “the best interests of the NBA.” The league did what it did. It could have done more.

Maybe it shouldn’t have. Perhaps those specific disciplinary actions wouldn’t quite fit this context. Taking away picks, for example, has tended to be the sort of thing the league only does in cases of basketball operations-specific malfeasance, and Silver wasn’t necessarily wrong when he said in the league’s official statement on the investigation that “nothing will undo the harm caused by a select few former employees of the Mavericks.”

Maybe the league thought shelving Cuban would defeat the purpose of the sanction, removing him from a context in which he might be able to both work to improve the Mavs’ culture and make some personal amends after years of selectively keeping his head in the sand. (As Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News wrote, “Good luck with all that.”) Maybe, in the big picture, getting Cuban to go beyond the limits of the league’s fine structure by paying a significantly larger amount of money to organizations “committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence” will wind up being a more constructive resolution that will help more people down the line. Maybe this — commissioning a report, (kind of) answering hard questions on television, taking your league-mandated medicine — is accountability, or what passes for it.

Maybe, though — 11 years after and a massive cultural shift away from the Anucha Browne Sanders case — the NBA shouldn’t have again left the bat on its shoulder. Maybe the fifth “significant error in judgment” here is setting the precedent that, should a similar situation arise in the future, the way out is by making big donations and saying you’ll do better.

Maybe the message sent to the impossibly wealthy power brokers of this league is one that’s been communicated loud, clear and often over the years in this country: you can make pretty much anything go away, and quickly, if you’ve got deep enough pockets.

“I think more important than the money is the example we can set,” Cuban told Nichols. “Because there hasn’t been anybody who really has had to go through this and set the tone. What’s the right way to respond? And what’s the right thing to do? And so the goal, even more than the money, is for me to get out there and teach others from my experiences.”

But after a seven-month investigation ended with a big fine, a stern statement and not much else, you’d be forgiven if you felt skeptical that Cuban himself, and others around the NBA, will wind up learning the lessons they should have. Or whether those impacted most will ever get restitution for what they’ve lost along the way.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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