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Ethical and Governance Failures in Professional Sports

Jan 6, 2023
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"Governance is an interesting word to use because right now in men’s professional sports, there is really none, or any that is actually making a difference," Muller says. "This creates a toxic environment for women and BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities because for the most part, these teams are owned by men -- white, older men."

Scandals resulting from a deficiency or absence of ethics and governance can, and do hit a multitude of industries and professions. One of them where a pattern long ago developed is professional sports. To learn what’s behind the dysfunctional belief systems, behavior and gaps between the professionalism that should and needs to be happening and the current reality, I spoke to Deb Muller, CEO and founder at HR Acuity.

With the news in the last three months that Robert Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury — men’s and women’s basketball franchises in the NBA and WNBA — will sell his teams due to investigative findings of his and his organization’s racism, inappropriate conduct centered around sexual communication, and misogyny, it brings to memory other leaders and organizations who have acted similarly.

In 2014, Donald Sterling, then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, another NBA franchise, was banned for life and forced to sell the team, while getting fined the maximum $2.5 million after his racist comments and the extreme nature of them were reported.

In 2018, yet another NBA franchise, the Dallas Mavericks, owned by Mark Cuban, was reported to have engaged in “a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior” that spanned decades and included numerous allegations against former CEO and president Terdema Ussery, who left the team in 2015, according to Sports Illustrated and later detailed by ESPN.

To Cuban’s credit, he showed humility and remorse, attacked the problem, and hired respected new leadership — Cynthia Marshall — to problem solve and prevent further instances of failed governance. However an additional instance of significant alleged sexual misconduct was reported.

More recently, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Commanders professional football franchise, has been regularly reported on for an ongoing scandal involving sexual misconduct.

Where are the failures and the weakness in the leadership originating? Are ethics and governance merely corporate-speak?