Without a full check of their archives, or a Twitter account like @NYT_first_said that records the first appearance of words in The New York Times, we cannot know for sure whether this week marked Sports Illustrated’s first usage of “gang-banged,” but one can only imagine the debate on the copy desk as to whether the eye-popping word attributed to former Dallas Mavericks president and CEO Terdema Ussery should be hyphenated.
In a lot of ways, the story of Ussery’s behavior, the domestic violence of former Mavs.com writer Earl Sneed, and the corporate culture of the Mavericks is one that has become a kind of dispiriting Mad Lib since last year. Choose a company name, pick some powerful men, detail some reprehensible behavior, and there you go. The Mavericks’ case is odious, but at this point not entirely unfamiliar.
There are two things that set this story apart. One is that everything with the Mavericks – at least since 2000, when he bought the team – happened on the watch of Mark Cuban, rightly described in the Sports Illustrated story as the “very model of a modern hands-on owner,” proving that there’s never a bad time for a Gilbert and Sullivan reference, though that is beside the point here.
Given Cuban’s status as a celebrity billionaire who has been talked about as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, the matter of what he knew, when he knew it, and how he reacted is noteworthy, as is the fact that his story has been something less than consistent.
The other part of this story that stands out is that the Mavericks are not a standalone operation. They are one of 30 NBA teams, and even though sports teams are run independently, they all are part of leagues. As the NBA has grown, thanks mainly to its players, into the league most known for social activism, its response is important here, especially in contrast to how the NFL has handled itself in incidents ranging from players like Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Ezekiel Elliott, to the league’s own television network, to owners like Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson.
In that light, it was encouraging that NBA commissioner Adam Silver, so often two steps ahead of his NFL counterpart Roger Goodell when it comes to dealing with… well, pretty much anything, acted before the end of the week to at least make an effort in this area.
According to ESPN (and believable both because the network is the league rightsholder and because Adrian Wojarnowski does not mess around) Silver “sent a letter to top officials of the NBA’s 30 teams on Thursday, outlining what Silver described as the league’s ‘commitment to providing employees with a safe and inclusive work environment.’”
Such language is boilerplate, but the actions here are more important than the words. Setting up a confidential hotline to report workplace issues is a better idea for the NBA than it is for most companies, because when an employee has a problem within a company, reporting something to human resources often leads nowhere – as detailed when it comes to the Mavericks and their HR staff in the Sports Illustrated piece. The NBA being a confederation of 30 independent organizations, there is more of a chance of a league-run program having a positive effect than if it were left to teams themselves.
It’s also about the optics. The NBA is acting like this is important, which it is, and like something needs to be done, which it does. Whether or not a hotline and workplace training are the most effective methods, the league is doing well to be public about taking the issue seriously and at least trying to do something about it.
There is no changing the past, but there is striving for a better future. The NBA, more than any of its rival leagues, understands that, and those rivals would do well to take notice of it and adapt accordingly.