Source: Bloomberg Business.com
When Mark Cuban needed help, he turned to Cynthia Marshall. The chief executive officer of the Dallas Mavericks, Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, arrived at the office on media day in September with her phone already buzzing. Most of the messages concerned a blistering 43-page report chronicling two decades of toxic workplace culture in the team’s front office. The report, compiled by investigators hired by the Mavericks, had prompted owner Mark Cuban to announce that in lieu of paying a fine to the NBA, he would donate $10 million to groups dedicated to stopping domestic violence and developing women leaders in the sports industry. The media’s response was mixed. Some saw it as a staggering sum given that the NBA caps fines against owners at $2.5 million. Others saw it as a small price to pay for the damage that had been done to the team’s reputation. “We’re going to need coffee,” Marshall said.
The report was the latest development in a saga that had been unfolding since February, when a story in Sports Illustrated revealed the “corrosive” environment at the Mavs under former CEO Terdema Ussery. According to the magazine, Ussery had asked a female colleague whether she was planning to get “gang-banged,” propositioned women for sex, and seldom promoted female employees. He left the team in 2015 for a position at Under Armour Inc., which parted ways with him less than two months later in what the sporting apparel company has called an “organizational reshuffle.” SI reported that in his brief time at Under Armour, Ussery “behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner” while in an elevator with a junior employee. (“While we cannot disclose specific personnel matters, Under Armour takes these matters very seriously,” a spokesman for the company said in a statement to Bloomberg Businessweek. Ussery couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, but in his response to SI’s reporting, he expressed disappointment that “anonymous sources have made such outright false and inflammatory accusations against me” and said he was unaware of any sexual harassment claims against him.)
Ussery was allegedly one of many on the Mavericks’ staff who regularly harassed women in the workplace; according to the investigators’ report, he and Cuban also protected harassers and in some cases encouraged their behavior. One employee often watched pornography at work. When another was arrested outside the office on accusations of domestic violence, Cuban directed the team’s general counsel to hire an attorney for him and offered to foot the bill. The employee later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges, and investigators found no evidence that Ussery, Cuban, or other executives had tried to determine what had happened in the case.
The Mavs represent the NBA’s biggest #MeToo-era scandal, but others are breaking across the sports world. The NFL was again forced to defend itself in December against accusations that it hasn’t done enough to curb domestic violence when star Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt was shown in a security video shoving a woman across a hotel elevator lobby and kicking her as she sat recovering on the floor. In January 2018 more than 200 women provided victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing of Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, now serving a minimum 100-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting many of the young athletes who came to him for treatment, among other charges. Other Olympians, including speedskaters and elite swimmers, have since come forward with similar allegations. Executives at USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Michigan State have since lost their jobs over the handling of harassment and assault allegations at their organizations. In December, USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy.
The past year has been transformative for the Mavs, including for the players. It’s been a long, hard road since the team last won an NBA championship, in 2011. But in June the team made a smart trade to bring on Luka Doncic, a teenage phenom from Slovenia who’s changed its fortunes completely. As of mid-December, the team was 15-14, its best record at this point in the season since 2015. It would be easy even for close watchers of the team to forget that the organization was in full-throttle crisis mode mere months ago.
Even given the need for change, there was a particular awkwardness to the Mavs’ hiring Marshall, who’d spent more than 30 years working her way up to become head of human resources and chief diversity officer at AT&T Inc., as CEO in February. Whether Cuban’s motives were cynical or not, the optics of a very public white male billionaire asking a woman of color to clean up his mess aren’t great.
Released with the season opener about four weeks away, the report had stirred up still-raw emotions for many in the organization. The mood in the building had been tense that whole week, but on media day, Marshall somehow remained chipper. Standing on a mini basketball court in the office lobby with a Mavs-blue scarf draped around her neck, she looked up from her phone and greeted employees with a smile. “Today is going to be fun!”
Photo Credit: JerSean Golatt for Bloomberg Businessweek