On Feb. 20, “Sports Illustrated” writers Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther published a story detailing the decades-old culture of misogyny and sexual harassment within the Dallas Mavericks’ front office. Unfortunately, the contents of the report were not surprising. Over the past few months, we have been inundated with high profile cases and cover-ups of sexual harassment in the workplace from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley. In each case, powerful men took advantage of their status and industry culture to commit both physical and emotional abuses against their female coworkers. It was only a matter of time until a similar story broke in the sports world.
In their report, Wertheim and Luther highlighted three primary perpetrators of the Mavericks’ unhealthy and unsafe work environment: former team president and CEO Terdema Ussery, former Mavs.com beat writer Earl K. Sneed, and former senior vice president of human resources Buddy Pittman.
Ussery, who left the Mavericks in 2015, was a highly credentialed and successful sports executive. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Princeton, Ussery went on to receive a master’s degree from Harvard and a law degree from UC Berkeley. After working in a high-profile business law firm, he transitioned into the sports world, moving to Denver to become the deputy commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association, the second tier of American professional basketball at the time. In 1991, still only 32 years old, Ussery was promoted to CBA Commissioner, becoming the first African-American to run a professional sports league. He then served as president of Nike Sports Management before leaving Nike to become CEO of the Mavericks in 1997.
As the Mavericks’ CEO, Ussery’s excellent business and management skills prompted many to float his name as a potential future NBA Commissioner. In 2003, David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner at the time, lauded Ussery’s executive acumen.
At the time, Stern told “Black Enterprise” that Ussery “has done it all at the team, league and corporate level,” speaking about Ussery’s accomplishments working for the Mavericks.
However, behind the smokescreen of a highly intelligent, charismatic, and polished executive was a far darker side of Ussery. In 1998, only one year after Ussery had joined the Mavericks, the team conducted an internal investigation of its CEO after multiple female employees complained about sexual harassment in the workplace.
Despite the investigation, Ussery kept his job. In fact, in February 1999, he received a three-year contract extension. Following the sexual harassment allegations against Ussery, the Mavericks only made two small changes to their organizational structure and policy: the team added a sexual harassment section to its employee handbooks and hired Buddy Pittman to lead its human resources department and keep an eye on Ussery. Despite this move, Ussery continued to harass female coworkers, allegedly touching their legs, asking for sex, and making lewd comments, while Pittman failed to do his job and protect these women from their monster of a boss.
Pittman failed in two capacities. First, his strong and publicly held partisan political views on topics ranging from abortion to immigration to gay marriage made it difficult for Mavs employees of all genders to approach him with sensitive workplace issues. By expressing his political views, he nurtured a culture of silence in the Mavs organization because few felt comfortable raising concerns with the team’s HR department. Employees feared reprimand and/or felt as Pittman would do nothing for those who held opposing political opinions.
One woman who allegedly harassed by Ussery told “Sports Illustrated” that she did not go to Pittman because she did not believe he would help her.
“I felt trapped, frozen, scared. This was the CEO of the organization … and it was clear he wasn’t going to get fired,” said the unnamed woman.
That woman’s fears were not without merit. According to another one of Ussery’s accusers, Pittman failed to act when presented with continued evidence of Ussery’s harassment of female coworkers.
The second woman claims she went to Pittman “countless times … I ‘leaned in’ so much I fell over.”
Because Pittman created and nurtured a culture of silence in the Mavericks’ workplace, women harassed by Ussery resorted to journal entries documenting Ussery’s behavior.
Below are excerpts from two women’s journals over the course of seven years:
August/September 2007: “Terdema stops me near where the main door … is and says to me ‘seriously … just one time.’”
Jan. 17, 2008: “Terdema asks me if in another life would I marry him? I respond if it was another life I would be a millionaire and own this team and he couldn’t handle working for me.”
Aug. 12, 2013: “I felt threatened not only for my safety but he was threatening my position within the company.”
April/May 2014: “Terdema sits next to me in the two chairs in front of his desk and as he is talking to me, he puts his hand on my left thigh, about halfway up the thigh.”
It is despicable that Ussery’s behavior was allowed to persist for years. It is disgraceful that the threat of job loss and a cold, unwelcoming work culture and HR department forced women into silence. One’s status or technical skills do not give us the right to ignore their harmful and violent behavior. Everyone should be held to the same standard and that standard is zero tolerance.
However, Ussery was not the only dangerous male in the Mavs organization. Earl K. Sneed was twice accused and once pled guilty to domestic violence during his time with the team. After both incidents, one of which was with a co-worker he had been dating, Pittman and the Mavericks failed to fire Sneed.
Mark Cuban, the Mavericks’ emotional, widely-respected, and successful billionaire owner, has come under intense scrutiny as a result of the “Sports Illustrated” report. Although no one has accused Cuban of sexual harassment or sexual assault, many find it hard to believe that an owner who prides himself on his hands-on management style, would be completely unaware of the corrosive culture in his front office.
One longtime former Mavericks employee told “Sports Illustrated”, “Trust me, Mark knows everything that goes on. Of course Mark knew [about the instances of harassment and assault]. Everyone knew.”
Cuban claims that he was not aware of the allegations because he delegated responsibility to Ussery and Pittman and trusted that they would let him know about sexual harassment in the workplace.
Others, including at least one of Ussery’s accusers, tell a different story. They believe Cuban turned a blind eye to the sexual misconduct that took place in his front office because Ussery had turned the Mavericks into an extremely profitable franchise and business enterprise, and Cuban did not want to let go of his right-hand man. If these people are correct, Cuban sacrificed the safety and wellbeing of some of his employees for a few million dollars, a thought that is beyond abhorrent.
In response to the findings of “Sports Illustrated” article, there has been some organizational turnover in the Mavericks front office. Cuban immediately fired Pittman and Sneed (Ussery left the organization three years ago), and on Feb. 27, he hired a new interim CEO, Cynthia Marshall, to fill a position left vacant since Ussery left in 2015.
The Mavs have also mandated sensitivity training for all current employees and set up a counseling hotline for former and current team employees. Finally, the organization has launched an investigation to discover the extent of the allegations and to determine how and why the team’s organizational structure failed.
Although the Mavs are being proactive in providing support and training to current and employees, we must prevent sexual harassment and violence from happening in the first place. To do this, we must end the culture of harassment and silence in toxic, male-dominated workplaces. Whether the solution is to hire more female executives, provide better and clearer channels for reporting sexual harassment, and change the culture about who is responsible for sexual misconduct, workplace harassment must stop.
As actress Gabrielle Union tweeted in October, “Sexual or physical violence, harassment, demeaning language is NOT the price one should pay for seeking or maintaining employment. Period.”