The cover of the newest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek dispenses with the magazine’s fondness for abstract, artsy covers. In one of a small handful of instances this year, the front page centers a single person with a straightforward headline. “How to Clean Up A #MeToo Mess,” reads the white text over an image of a black woman in a smart blue skirt suit and heels standing with her arms crossed next to a row of basketballs. In smaller type on the left is a quote from that woman, Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall: “We have literally transformed the NBA.”
The accompanying story, by Mary Pilon, is a largely fawning profile of Marshall, who was hired in February explicitly to save the organization from years of incompetent leadership and hostile working conditions for women on its staff. On its face, this is a good thing: Marshall is wildly accomplished, and women doing the work—especially women of color—get far less attention than their rich, white, male bosses like the Mavericks’ Mark Cuban. But read the story or think too deeply about Marshall’s role in the Mavs’ operations, and it’s hard not to conclude that what is being heralded as transcendent change is in fact part of the same shitty pattern that affects every woman who makes it to senior leadership of any company.
The “glass cliff” is a well-documented phenomenon: Research has shown again and again that women are far more likely to ascend to upper management when an organization is in crisis, when the risk of real or perceived failure is much higher. Anecdotally, I’d wager that this is even more true in the “#MeToo Era”—in so many cases, men in power have dealt with harassment or abuse scandals by finally realizing it looks bad not to have any women in leadership roles and hiring one to replace the guy they’ve finally been forced to fire.
The Mavericks hired Marshall, who had never worked for a sports team, a week after a Sports Illustrated story detailed former CEO Terdema Ussery’s serial sexual harassment in the office; reporting from Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz a month later made clear that Ussery was far from the only offender. (Businessweek soft-pedals the larger cultural problems in Dallas: Among other notable omissions, Pilon never mentions the name of team writer Earl Sneed, or the fact that after Cuban covered his legal expenses for a domestic-violence charge, Sneed started dating a coworker, beat her up too, and still wasn’t fired.)
Marshall was retired when Cuban came calling, and she told Pilon she didn’t take his initial overtures particularly seriously. “What won her over was hearing firsthand from some of the women at the Mavs, who told her the front office toxicity had worn them down for years and that they needed support at the highest levels,” Pilon writes. “She saw a version of herself in them and felt an obligation to help.” Since then, Marshall has overseen the creation of basic systems that should have been in place years earlier: a zero-tolerance policy for abuse and harassment, a hotline for employees to report misconduct, an ethics and compliance officer, counseling for staffers traumatized by working for her boss, a hiring plan that increased the number of women in senior leadership from 0 to 47 percent. These are all very good steps, and it’s also insane that Marshall had to be the one to take them.
Cuban declined to speak to Businessweek, just as he has declined every opportunity to talk about what he’s learned from overseeing a dysfunctional, toxic organization ever since a fairly disastrous interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols just after an independent investigator released its report on the topic in September. Fixing the deep-seated issues in Dallas isn’t his problem, his absence says, it’s Marshall’s. She was hired to be the adult in the room, but she’ll always be subordinate to the child who owns the team. The first time an unbridgeable divide emerges between Cuban and Marshall, she’ll be the one to lose her job.
The Businessweek piece briefly mentions that Marshall was physically abused by her father, which made me wonder what it’s like for her to deal with the fallout from Sneed’s crimes specifically. She spent 30 years scaling the corporate ladder at AT&T, so I’m going to guess she’s seen her fair share of sexual and racial harassment, too. The story doesn’t get into her feelings about any of that, though; either the reporter didn’t ask, or Marshall saw no upside in discussing it. She wasn’t hired to talk about herself—that’s Cuban’s job—and I’m sure she’s too busy fixing things he broke to dwell on her own feelings, anyway. That’s one reason being a female leader has felt so fraught in the past couple of years: The messes we’re tasked with cleaning up are often so similar to things we’ve experienced in our own lives, and those messes require so much attention that we don’t have the luxury of dealing with our own shit. Cuban’s role is celebrity and power and quotes about how the situation “tore me apart,” Marshall’s is maturity and processes and taking care of everyone who works for her.
I’m far from the first to point out the way the glass cliff works in cases like these; I don’t know what will ever change it. Every time a woman writes one of these essays, men ask her confrontationally in comment sections and DMs and awkward bar conversations what she would prefer to happen: Would we rather Cuban hire another white man to fix the what he broke and never give a black woman a shot? It’s a disingenuous critique, rooted in defensiveness and fear, but there are some real and thorny questions at its heart. I just wish I could shake the feeling that women like Marshall are the only ones thinking about them.