On Tuesday night, Sports Illustrated published a story by Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther detailing accounts by former Dallas Mavericks employees of sexual harassment and a culture of misogyny in the Dallas Mavericks’ office. That story, which is remarkable despite not being anywhere close to unique, presents three bad actors: former team president and CEO Terdema Ussery, who is described as a serial sexual harasser who terrorized numerous female employees over more than a decade; former Mavs.com beat writer Earl K. Sneed, whom the team retained through two domestic violence incidents, the second in an assault of a coworker; and Buddy Pittman, the senior vice president of human resources who failed to respond to the women’s reports of abuse and harassment.
The sports world had months of advance warning as stories of sexual harassment and assault have unfolded in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, and beyond. Nevertheless, the NBA is handling its highest-profile workplace harassment case since the #MeToo movement started just as clumsily as its predecessors have.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban was not linked with sexual harassment himself, but the NBA’s most visible owner finds himself under fire for allowing his employees to behave in such a manner. Cuban expressed horror at the accounts of Ussery’s and Sneed’s behavior to Sports Illustrated and denied all knowledge of the situation. Cuban said he delegated oversight of the business side of the team and its employees to Ussery and Pittman, telling ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that he was “rarely present at the Mavs’ business office.” The day before the story ran, Cuban fired Pittman; he fired Sneed the next day. (Ussery left the team nearly three years ago.)
Cuban’s claims of ignorance rang false. His entire reputation is based on a swashbuckling managerial style that is disruptive in both the traditional and the business-jargon sense of the word. The idea that a pervasive misogynistic culture could survive without Cuban’s knowledge was ridiculous from the moment he uttered it, and Cuban realized his denials were unsustainable within a day of the Sports Illustrated story running. On Wednesday, he took responsibility for not firing Sneed, calling that decision a “horrible mistake,” though he didn’t comment on the accounts about Ussery.
The work environment fostered under Cuban pushed women out of the industry, an anonymous former Mavericks or United Airlines Center employee told SI. “You don’t feel safe going to work and it’s not long before you look for another job,” said the woman, who now works in a different sector. “And then you wonder why there aren’t more women working in sports. Really?”
Other, more hands-off owners might have been legitimately ignorant of what was going on in their business offices, but Cuban has carefully crafted the image of the franchise so that it and the owner are one and the same, for better, and now for worse.
Cuban is an avowed fan of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead; there was even a rumor that he owned a 288-foot yacht named after the book, though Cuban eventually dispelled that. In that book, an architect named Howard Roark discovers that nobody likes his work. He concludes that the problem isn’t that he’s bad at his job, but that everyone else has bad taste. Rand wrote Roark to represent a model of self-reliance and individualism. That character has served as something of a model to many modern tech business leaders like Cuban who, having accumulated much, seek the fullest self-glamorization for having done so. It also appeals to people who want to project the image of success or even genius without having demonstrated evidence of either.
As Mavericks owner, Cuban hasn’t been content to sit in a luxury box, cash the checks, and be called “Mister” by reporters. He sits courtside and heckles the referees, and takes an active role in player recruitment and retention, and sometimes, in the cases of DeAndre Jordan and Chandler Parsons, screws it up. When the Mavericks won the title in 2011, Cuban went out and partied with the players. For most owners, winning a title is an achievement. For Cuban, it was his achievement.
You could call that a god complex.
There’s a persistent and fascinating question in theology about how an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God could allow evil to exist in the world. Consider that when thinking about Cuban’s Mavericks. Multiple women say that Ussery and Sneed preyed on Mavericks employees under Cuban’s ultimate supervision. To say that an activist manager of Cuban’s renown wouldn’t have heard inklings of this behavior is preposterous. He also proved he had the power to stop it by firing Sneed and Pittman just as the SI piece was being published.
This leads to one of a number of possible conclusions, the most troubling of which was that Cuban knew, and for some reason allowed Sneed to continue to work for the team, despite his pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of family violence assault and interference with an emergency request. Maybe Cuban didn’t realize his disdain for tradition undermined the very HR protocols — former Mavs employees told Sports Illustrated the “team’s HR office [was] part of the problem” — that could have allowed his female employees to do their jobs safely. Cuban admitted as much in his ESPN interview, saying, “I didn’t realize the impact that it would have on the workplace and on the women that worked here and how it sent a message to them that, if it was OK for Earl to do that, who knows what else is OK in the workplace? I missed that completely. I missed it completely.”
Maybe he, as a powerful man who likes to do what he wants, looked the other way while another powerful man did whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted. Cuban believes in invention and experimentation, and while pursuing those goals he failed to protect his employees. The great innovator, through hubris or carelessness or callousness, allowed his company to participate in a pattern of abuse as old as society itself.
A Randian outlook on life allows people like Cuban to believe that they alone can claim their accomplishments. But by elevating himself to the status he coveted, Cuban made himself culpable for the failures of those in his employ.