I think my first sports fandom was actually the Texas Rangers. Baseball was my dad’s favorite sport, and the Rangers, at that point, had never been good in their history, so going to the games was easy and cheap. I loved being out in the heat, eating popcorn and what not. I recall being fairly frightened of being killed by a foul ball.
By the time I hit Bar Mitzvah age, however, the Mavs had drafted a teenager from Germany named Dirk Nowitzki and I quickly fell in love. In high school, basketball became my major hobby, playing on the outdoor courts with a group of friends four or five days a week. We’d play for hours, sometimes well after midnight, and we’d talk constantly about the NBA. Was T-Mac better than Kobe? Would the Mavs ever win it all? I remember so viscerally all the high and low points of all those years, even if the high points only ever ended in heartbreak. I was in grad school when they finally won it all, and my wife’s research needs at the time meant we were living in DC, where my brother lives, when it all went down. I never thought I’d have the chance to see Dirk win a ring after 2006, but I knew it couldn’t be while we were watching it together, or against the Heat of all teams. It was.
This year, as a flood of sexual harassment allegations has poured out of the clubhouse, is the first year in all that time that it has been embarrassing to be a Mavericks fan. It’s not that I can’t believe it, because, in 2018, nothing is easier to believe than incredibly flawed humans can be found in every organization. It’s just that it sucks. I have never been as impressed by the Mavs’ front office as a lot of people are, but that was just business. They never managed to find even a second tier player to play next to Dirk, and the one time they did find the perfect complement, they let him go. They drafted poorly, and were only ever good at trading their way into a deep bench. I’m sure they have first rate facilities, and their training staff is top notch, but the aura, the legend, never matched reality that much. This, however, is entirely different.
I work in a field that is very hard to get into, and in which very few people ever really “make it.” So, of course, do professional basketball players, so do training staffs, reporters, ballboys. The players, especially the good ones, have the leverage of knowing that someone will want to pay lots of money for their services but everyone else doesn’t. In the bustling anthill’s worth of people who had reason to interact with the Mavs’ front office staff in the period described in the allegations, how many of those people had what seemed to them the opportunity of a lifetime? How many of them not just thought but knew the likelihood of getting that same opportunity somewhere else was very low?
There are thirty NBA franchises in the entire world. When you imagine how exciting it must be to get to work for one, then walk in the door to something so wrong, you see the tragedy. But when you think about what happens next, you see the deep injustice. No one wants to make trouble, no one wants to hire a trouble maker. Industries with high bars to entry can be as choosy as they want to be — even if the Kings or the Heat or whoever believe your story, they’ll have a hundred equally qualified applicants who don’t have any of what they might think of as “baggage.” Standing up to it will get you fired, but it might also get you blackballed, and it might also not do any good. Tedema Ussery worked for the Mavs from 1997 to 2015. And, as new and worse stories appear in the press every week now, it seems like we’re just scratching the surface of the problem.
Here is the issue: in industries run by very powerful people, we depend on the very powerful to be the right kind of people and to care about the right things. We have no choice but to depend on them, because of the impossibility of correcting them, of exercising any kind of justice. Say they take Mark Cuban’s franchise away, which they almost certainly won’t –- he’ll still be a billionaire entrepreneur with his hands in lots of pots. Then, who will they sell the Mavericks to? The pool is limited, of course, to people who can afford it, which is slim pickings? What are they like, are they better? How could we know until it’s too late?
There’s a boy’s club, where rich and influential people protect each other and believe each other, and then there’s corporate culture itself, which we actively valorize for its hard-charging style. You may think it’s possible to get workplaces to be hard-charging only for the good stuff — I don’t — but too many stories that turn out as horrific as this Mavs story is turning out to be start out with a lot of people in suits saying that, “sure they turn the temperature up to get results but where’s the harm in that?” The harm comes out later, and the frequency with which it does proves the point.
The Mavs have betrayed a lot of people who believed in them. The fans will survive, me among them, and of course, in 2018, have already had to survive similar betrayals in so many different enterprises for quite some time now. It’s wearing, but it’s the reality — our culture is sick, its endemic, its everywhere and there are about five people I can think of who could be accused that, at this point, would surprise me for even a minute. But there are real victims here, maybe twenty years worth, and I wonder if they will ever have justice, and I wonder what justice would even look like. There are women who work there now, and female reporters, who have to go into a place every day that they know to be unsafe, and with no compelling reason to think it has become safer. Again, what would that even look like? Safety isn’t like a door you can replace when it gets kicked down. You paper over the hole, and the paper is thin forever.
The world, it keeps turning out, never was innocent and to yearn for innocence is to yearn for ignorance. To yearn for justice is better, to yearn for a different future may be best. But we will never get there if we think it starts with firing a few people in one front office, in one sport, in one city, and giving a stern talking to, to everyone else. This happened under our nose because it’s always happening under our nose, and we have to pull out the weeds from the very bottom of the root, and we have to start yesterday, and we have to pull hard.