Two days after the NBA concluded their investigation of the Dallas Mavericks and found a culture that harmed women, created fear and trauma, and was in many instances predatory and corrupt, the focus is on NBA training camp, LeBron James in Los Angeles, and Dirk Nowitzki’s last year. The NBA has neatly closed a chapter they don’t want to revisit. But this is the thing about stitching up a wound. For it to be healed, the stitches have to be strong enough not to break. They have to dissolve on their own in a manner that doesn’t harm the body. So in that sense, what the NBA did was sop up some bleeding, cover the scar, and ask all of us to pretend they did something transparent that mattered.
Sexual harassment, violence and trauma, however, is not incidental. It is not some anecdote to repeat when we talk about the Dallas Mavericks and the year 2018.
When men do no more than sigh and stutter and drag their feet over sexual harassment and violence, the conclusion is pretty damn obvious. Victims matter less than business traffic. The NBA, in their decision to not punish the Mavericks, denounced victims by letting the Mavericks and Mark Cuban get away with a fine that is less than a half of a percent of his net worth. By now, nothing is really shocking in how men protect each other and victims get hung out to dry. The Mavs, and Cuban in particular, were spared as we all knew they would be. It’s the tail that is wagging the dog. It is morality being negotiated.
We punish people for a reason. Their behavior is repulsive and atrocious. They have hurt other people. Punishment is designed to make the perpetrator accountable for what he did wrong and to make the enabler aware they are accomplices. Punishment serves as a deterrent. The Mavericks “punishment” is hardly going to make other franchises take pause about what happens to women in the workplace. If caught, the precedent has been set. Nothing happens.
Sexual harassment of women professionals was not created by the NBA. Paying for wife beaters legal fees isn’t unique to a NBA front office. Watching porn in the workplace and then being sexually aggressive to powerless employees happens in sexist work cultures.
Unwanted fondling, touching and kissing and basically making women’s life hell found itself on the NBA’s doorstep and they had a moment to be decisive, revolutionary and bold. Instead, an obligatory fine to women’s advocacy groups was the best they could come up with.
Disappointingly, the plea deal that Adam Silver handed Cuban, despite Cuban’s tears when the camera lights swallowed his face, are hardly a deterrent to NBA front offices, nor does it present the NBA as being a moral authority. By his actions, it is clear Silver didn’t want a deterrent. He could have hit the Mavericks where it hurts, draft picks. But victimization of women isn’t worth that much. The Mavs weren’t the Timberwolves.
In 1998, the Minnesota Timberwolves entered a backroom hush-hush sweetheart deal with former number one pick Joe Smith and his representatives. Smith was a free agent but the Timberwolves didn’t have the money to sign Smith and add another free agent. It was decided that Smith would sign consecutive one year deals for three seasons. Then the Wolves would pay him the max. They would have his Bird Rights and he would receive the highest possible compensation. But everyone had to stay quiet.
They couldn’t. A falling out between Smith’s representatives unraveled the secret deal in legal briefs. Just as the NBA did in the Dallas Mavericks fiasco, the NBA conducted an internal investigation. Afterwards, David Stern came down hard. The Wolves lost first round picks for five years, were fined $3.5 million dollars. The owner was suspended a year and the VP of Basketball Operations, Kevin McHale, who claimed innocence like Mark Cuban claims innocence, took a leave of absence.
The interpretation of the two punishments leaves a bitter but realistic taste. You can cheat the salary cap by secret promises and handshakes and the league will try to destroy your immediate future by flinging you into mediocrity quicksand. They will suspend you and take draft picks and force leave of absences. You will suffer like someone just threw you into a pot of boiling acid. But if you are despicable to women, if you hurt, traumatize, and harass them for your own sick pleasure, and in the process your microaggressions and objectifications create wounds that linger for years, not much changes. Everything is as it was. A blanket sorry from the owner, a fine to women’s groups and we’re all cool.
Donald Sterling got kicked out the league for being a racist. It made sense. The league is too black to have a racist spewing his ignorance in grandiose moments. But rot is different, depending on perspective. Men doing terrible things to women is suddenly defensible so let’s all turn the page why don’t we? But first, Mark Cuban cry on cue.