The NBA is considered by many the most progressive major professional sports league, a reputation that has been earned by the league’s inclusion and promotion of women.
It boasts the highest-ranking female in North American men’s pro sports organizations (Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs) and the first full-time female assistant coach (Becky Hammon, in her fourth year with the San Antonio Spurs).
When a months-long Sports Illustrated investigation asserted last week that a pervasive culture of misogyny, harassment and predatory behavior existed inside the Dallas Mavericks offices for nearly two decades, Ellen Staurowsky was not surprised.
Staurowsky, a professor at the Drexel University Center for Sports Management, said the accounts she read were consistent with the disturbing tales she has heard and studied from women in the sports industry for years.
“The ones we are less likely to hear from are the ones who get out of the system because of this behavior,” Staurowsky said. “I dare say that there are an ocean of those women that we’ll never hear from.”
There have been swift responses from the Mavericks and the NBA. Owner Mark Cuban said the problem within his organization “needs to be fixed”, while the NBA is establishing a phone hotline for league and team employees to report concerns about sexual misconduct in their workplaces, the Associated Press reported.
“This alleged conduct runs counter to the steadfast commitment of the NBA and its teams to foster safe, respectful and welcoming workplaces for all employees,” NBA Executive Vice President of Communications Mike Bass said in a statement last week. “Such behavior is completely unacceptable and we will closely monitor the independent investigation into this matter.”
Sports Illustrated reported that Cuban also pledged to start an internal hotline and had fired two key figures, a human resources executive portrayed as an enabler and a writer for the team website who remained employed after a guilty plea to domestic violence charges and a separate accusation of violent behavior toward a female coworker.
A third person who allegedly abused his power, longtime Mavericks President and Chief Executive Terdema Ussery, left the team in 2015 for a position with Under Armour but resigned from that job two months later.
The NBA graded well in the 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card, produced annually by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The league received a B grade for gender hiring and was reported to have 38.8% of its professional positions held by women. The NBA has more female team presidents and chief executive officers — six — than any other major men’s pro sports league. Two of the NBA’s 10 female minority owners are investors with the Mavericks.
“I wish the takeaway would be that it doesn’t matter what league you are working in, what department you are working in. It doesn’t matter your history of having stood up for people’s rights for X, Y and Z,” said Staurowsky, author and editor of the book “Women and Sport” published last year. “You cannot assume that sexual harassment, that a sexually hostile work environment does not exist within your organization. Unless you have repeated and ongoing diligence and ongoing conversation and are having strong leadership from the top all the way through, there will be no change in this.”
Staurowsky wondered whether anyone would make the tie to a jury’s ruling in 2007 that found New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas had sexually harassed a team executive.
“We tend to have short memories in terms of these things happening,” said Staurowsky, who equates the issue to a toxic spill that creates a massive cleanup project.
With an established pattern of problems faced by women in sports, she said it would be naïve for leaders to express surprise at new revelations.
“Within the sports industry, it is the case that women have never been fully enfranchised or regarded as equal partners on equal terms,” Staurowsky said. “That’s not an accident. It’s not something that occurred only among players but not among management or among executives. This is part of the fabric of this industry and is an issue that has to be addressed.”
However, the same sources who spoke to Sports Illustrated said the Mavericks’ practice court and locker room were refuges for female employees because they were void of the behavior that made one woman term the Dallas office environment as a “real life Animal House.”
“It’s very instructive in this particular franchise that the culture on the team and in the locker room was different than what it was in the front office,” Staurowsky said. “It says that it is possible to achieve those climates of having more respect for women.”