The #MeToo Movement has helped create a safe space for all victims to come forward with their accounts of sexual harassment, and the pro sports world is one of the latest that has been impacted. The openness and safe space that the movement has created has likely contributed to the recent investigations of two high-powered, professional sports owner/CEOs, and most notably, the recent hiring of two female chief officers for these same organizations.
Barely two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated published an in-depth report on the “corrosive” work environment of the Dallas Mavericks organization, calling it a “real-life Animal House.” The report cited a pervasive and systemic culture of bad behavior, allowing perpetrators an unfettered pass to commit sexual harassment and assault. Although the publication’s investigation mostly focuses on Terdema Ussery, CEO of the Mavs from 1997 to 2015, there are others in the organization who have been accused of inappropriate and illegal behavior – including at least 2 incidents of domestic assault by a beat writer for Mavs.com, unapproachable and menacing responses by superiors when encountered with complaints, and reports of a male employee watching pornography at his desk.
The subject of a widely-reported investigation in 1998, Ussery is alleged to have propositioned female staff for sex, touched female staff inappropriately during meetings, and made lewd remarks during his 18-year tenure with the team. Although he is well-educated (graduate of Princeton, Harvard, and UC Berkeley) and highly-accomplished (former high-ranking exec at Nike, Alternative Governor with the NBA, Commissioner of the CBA), for many years he had a reputation for preying on female co-workers.
The investigation in 1998 had several complainants, none of whom received support from the organization’s HR department. In fact, just one year after the investigation, Ussery received a 3-year contract extension. It is clear that the organization was going to continue to support Ussery, and instead all staff received a revised HR handbook on appropriate workplace behavior, and a new head of HR was hired. Ussery would stay on as CEO of the team for another 17 years, only leaving when he was offered a lucrative position as UnderArmour’s head of global sports categories. (Notably, he left UnderArmour after 2 short months. Although UnderArmour wouldn’t confirm the exact circumstances, he was accused of behaving in a sexually-inappropriate manner during an elevator ride with a female coworker and resigned as part of an “organizational reshuffle.”)
This leads me to ask – why was UnderArmour willing to do in 2 months what the Mavs were seemingly unwilling to do at any point over the course of 18 years? Although he was not the owner of the team until 2000 and is not accused of any inappropriate behavior himself, Mark Cuban, has prided himself on his involvement with the organization. Are we to believe that an owner, who has lauded himself as being so hands-on, really had no inkling of the hostile workplace environment, ripe with debauchery and disrespect, that existed? Did he really never inquire as to why so many female staff members had left the organization? Or how several complainants in 1998 could all be lying? I call BS. I’m also calling out Cuban and the Mavs for what the NCAA labels in collegiate athletics as a “lack of institutional control.” As Sports Illustrated mentions in their report, more than a half-dozen sources reached out to the publication, by their own accord and independent of each other.
Although Ussery claims the accusations lodged against him are an attempt to shift blame, Mavs owner, Mark Cuban, has taken a different stance. To be fair, Cuban has been vocal since SI’s report broke; he is saying and doing the right things now. His verbal response and apologies were swift and he has been willing to engage in multiple conversations with media outlets. His actions, so far, are backing up his words – he just fired the organization’s HR person, announced a hotline for counseling and support services for past and current team employees, and is mandating sensitivity training for all staff, himself included.
Just one week after SI’s report, Cynthia Marshall (formerly AT&T’s Chief Diversity Officer – featured photo, left) was named Interim CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. So often, though, it takes a public shaming to force the hand of those in power to make any substantial changes. This is exactly why the #MeToo Movement is a necessity; it propels these stories of sexual harassment and assault into the forefront, so much so that even the most oblivious of high-powered execs can no longer ignore it.
Speaking of ignorant high-powered team owners, Sports Illustrated published a scathing report of Jerry Richardson, founder and former owner of the Carolina Panthers. Prior to his ouster at the end of the 2017-18 season, Richardson had been accused of harassing multiple female staff members, using racial slurs, and spouting other racist language in conversations with a scout. During his 25-year tenure as owner of the Panthers, he orchestrated hefty settlements with at least 4 former employees, which included non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements.
Originally, the Panthers organization had hired an outside law firm to conduct an investigation, but the NFL took over this past December. The organization has been less than forthcoming – Richardson has made no public statements since SI published its report in December of 2017, instead, just hours after the report, announcing he would be selling the team at the end of the season. Panthers coach, Ron Rivera, continues to support Richardson as far as we can tell.
The team named a new female Chief Operating Officer, Tina Becker (featured photo, right), in December but it remains to be seen what more will come out and what further steps the Panthers will take, if any, to ensure that this kind of behavior is not tolerated by anyone in the organization, no matter their stature.
These reports are likely just a small window into some of what goes on in the executive offices of pro sports organizations, but with the help of the #MeToo Movement and outspoken, brave, and dedicated women (and male supporters), we can look forward to safer and more welcoming workplaces. For too long, women have been deterred from entering this world, and far too many who have felt devalued, dehumanized, and disrespected, have opted to find other work. Thank you to Sports Illustrated for investigating, shedding light, and using the current climate to hold people to account whose behavior has long flown under the radar. And thank you to the strong women who are not only holding their own, but leading, in a male-dominated realm like pro sports, and to the women who have fought to give someone like me a seat at the table.
I’d like to end with an article highlighting “The Most Powerful Women in Sports: 35 Executives and Influencers Winning Over the Next Generation of Fans.”