“The #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement will move into every aspect of society,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the chief executive officer of Champion Women, an advocacy group for women’s rights in sports. “So I’m not surprised that it has touched the Dallas Mavericks. Sports is a huge part of our society, and heretofore was seen as a boys’ prerogative. I have no doubt that it’s going to go through all the professional leagues.”
Now that pro basketball must confront these issues, the question is: What will be the response of perhaps the country’s most progressive league?
For a league that, in recent years, has prided itself on promoting diversity, equality and inclusiveness, this is an opportunity to further prove it believes in those fundamental qualities. It was the first of the four major professional sports leagues to have an openly gay player (former Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins), employ the first full-time female assistant coach (San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon), moved the All-Star Game out of Charlotte after North Carolina passed anti-LGBT legislation and banned then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after recordings surfaced of him making racist comments.
The NBA is in a position to not only address the situation in Dallas, but to try to prevent incidents like this from occurring in the future. First, though, it must assess its own history.
Both the NBA and society as a whole are in far different places than in 2004, when prominent star Kobe Bryant was shuttling back and forth between playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and standing trial for sexual assault in Eagle, Colo., or in 2006-07, when the New York Knicks were embroiled in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former employee Anucha Browne Sanders.
Bryant was eventually acquitted (though he later settled for an undisclosed amount in a civil suit), and Browne Sanders agreed to an $11.5 million settlement with the Knicks.
In December Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony was held with hardly a mention of anything that happened in Colorado. Bryant also won an Oscar this month for his animated short film “Dear Basketball” at an Academy Awards ceremony replete with ties to the #MeToo movement.
“To me, the NBA [was], if I can use the term, a little bit reckless, in how they approached that situation of Kobe’s jersey retirement, and everything that went with that,” said Kathy Redmond, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “It does go back to, wow, do rape allegations really hurt anybody? We’re told that it destroys reputations. Does it really?”
But what happened with the Mavericks has struck a different chord, with a brighter spotlight and stronger push for change than the league has experienced.
“I think that it’s been a little bit of an evolution in some of these leagues,” said John Clune, the lawyer who represented the victim in Bryant’s case and whose practice in Colorado exclusively represents victims of sexual violence. “Historically, they decided it was bad for business to get involved with any of these issues, and they haven’t wanted to deal with it.
“But, I think that as society has in the last five, 10 years, probably the last five years more specifically become less and less tolerant of sexual misconduct. The league has had to respond, the leagues have had to respond accordingly. You get one or two big cases, of something like, [then-NFL star] Ray Rice on video and there’s a tremendous public outrage. And so I think the leagues have responded somewhat in accordance to how their fan base is looking to them to respond.”
The NBA now finds itself in that very place — and, specifically, where it finds itself in relation to the Mavericks’ situation. The focus of that response has largely come down to how the league will choose to discipline Cuban personally for everything that took place.
While it’s unlikely such a decision will come anytime soon — the league will refrain from any judgment until the current investigation led by former Manhattan district attorney Evan Krutoy and former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram is completed — it will likely not include some of the sweeping penalties called for in the wake of the Sports Illustrated report.
While some have argued for the stripping of first-round draft picks as a way to punish the franchise, the NBA has never gone down the road of levying basketball punishments for non-basketball offenses. That precedent makes such discipline very unlikely in this case.
The same goes for the possibility of banning Cuban from the NBA and forcing him to sell his franchise, as the league did in casting out Sterling after the racist recordings.
Assuming there is no discovery that Cuban was involved in anything that happened within the Mavericks — which thus far has not occurred, though Cuban was investigated, but not charged, for a sexual assault incident in Oregon in 2011 — it is hard to see the NBA taking the Sterling path with Cuban, particularly given how the Mavs owner has publicly responded. He immediately apologized for the conduct of former CEO Terdema Ussery and Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed, who was fired last month, and launched his own investigation, from which the league will have access to all findings. Sterling, on the other hand, had a history of personal issues even before he was recorded making racist comments.
At this point, it seems the likely punishment for Cuban is a $2.5 million fine — the maximum amount NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is allowed to levy, per the league’s bylaws and constitution — and a suspension of some to-be-determined length.
The specifics of the eventual punishment will serve as a guide for how the league can both address prevent such situations moving forward.
“I really think that there has to be a committed, long-term effort to understand the complexities of domestic violence and sexual assault, and then to make the commitment that you will do something different, once you have education, information you need,” said Rita Smith, who spent more than two decades as the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and now serves as a senior adviser to the NFL on policy and training issues related to domestic violence and sexual assault. “I don’t see that happening universally throughout the sports world. I mean, I don’t see it happening universally throughout corporate America, or our government, either, so it’s not that I would think that sports are particularly bad at it, but I do think that they have the opportunity to really change the dialogue, and spread the message far wider than any of the other avenues that we have available.”
The NBA has started to implement changes in the wake of the Sports Illustrated report. It has created a confidential hotline accessible to employees of all 30 teams as well as anyone working in the league office that allows employees to privately report any issues — including harassment, illegality and other misconduct — without fear of reprisal. It has also updated its “Respect in the Workplace” policies, and discussed it with every franchise.
“This alleged conduct [in the Sports Illustrated story] runs counter to the steadfast commitment of the NBA and its teams to foster safe, respectful and welcoming workplaces for all employees,” Mike Bass, the NBA’s executive vice president of communications, said in a statement. “Such behavior is completely unacceptable and we will closely monitor the independent investigation into this matter.”
Cuban and the Mavericks have also taken the step of hiring a woman, Cynthia Marshall, as the team’s interim chief executive officer, with her stated goal being to ensure the investigation is completed and the culture within the franchise begins to change.
“I really want to see us as a model of how to respond to this,” said Marshall at her introductory news conference late last month. “This is going on all around the country. I want us to be a model.”
As people look to both the Mavericks and NBA to provide a path for how to proceed when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault, it should be noted that despite its progressive history, the league still has not officially announced it is leaving the Wynn Hotels in Las Vegas, its base of operations during its annual summer league in recent seasons. Bass did tell The Washington Post last month that, “The location of our summer meetings in Las Vegas has not been finalized,” and it seems likely the league will eventually make a change.
Still, activists hope, as the #MeToo movement gains traction, that sports leagues such as the NBA can use their megaphones to call out the issue and to change the workplace for the better.
“[Because of] Mark Cuban and his visibility, people are blinking,” said Redmond from National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “And so, and I believe he’s the type of guy that will rise to the challenge. I do believe that. I believe he’s the type that will try to resolve to make his culture the best. Period.
“So I’m thinking that for me, this is a hopeful moment. I’m hoping that it gets, that we see a plan that is the Ferrari of all plans.”