Nothing about the Mavericks’ sexual harassment scandal is easy. It isn’t easy to process, it isn’t easy to think about and it certainly hasn’t been easy to cover. Of course, that all pales in comparison to how difficult the entire situation must be for the many victims, but it’s still important for those covering the scandal to grapple with some of the thorny ethical issues that inevitably arise in a situation this fraught. And, unfortunately, we will almost certainly make mistakes.
That said, holy shit Dallas sports media, what is wrong with you?
Local media seem to have lost their damn minds over this story. A full week after Sports Illustrated published its investigation, too many Dallas sports reporters are still refusing to fully acknowledge and fulfill their ethical duties both as journalists and as human beings.
While this may seem like a niche media criticism, it’s not. The tone journalists take and the decisions they make about the perspectives they include in their articles have an enormous impact on our willingness to believe and support victims. Here’s what has gone wrong this week, and why it matters.
The Dallas Morning News statement
Within hours of the SI story dropping, The Dallas Morning News published the full statement from Earl K. Sneed, who was fired by the Mavericks right before the story was published. They ran the statement, which included no apology to the women Sneed hurt and attempted to spin the story in his favor, with almost no context.
Rule number one for covering convicted domestic abusers: do not do their PR work for them. The SI story included a number of crucial details about Sneed’s behavior toward women, all of which were from police records and therefore verifiable with very little effort, including that Sneed was arrested after hitting a woman, fled the scene before police arrived, went to jail and then plead guilty.
Getting a comment from Sneed after the story broke was fine, but his statement should’ve been accompanied by the context above. Would a newspaper run a statement from Sneed with zero context if he were arrested for and plead guilty to robbing a bank? Of course not. Doing so in this case allows a convicted domestic abuser to control the narrative and makes it even harder for victims of domestic violence to come forward with confidence that they’ll be taken seriously.
And in describing both instances of Sneed’s domestic abuse as “incidents” without clarifying that one of them resulted in an arrest and guilty plea, the author implies this is simply a “he said, she said” situation, potentially discrediting victims of domestic abuse.
The DMN editors should have known better. And as of Tuesday night, the story still doesn’t contain any references to Sneed’s very public and very official arrest and plea.
The Cowlishaw column
It continued on Monday when prominent local columnist Tim Cowlishaw published his column about how he felt partially complicit in the scandal, for not digging a bit deeper into the open secrets of the Mavericks’ workplace. It’s a thoughtful and well-written column that addresses the elephant in the room: how the Mavericks could hide this for so long.
Cowlishaw is properly introspective and takes responsibility for not following up on a story he wrote back in 1998 about then-Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery, who was named in the SI story as being a serial sexual harasser.
But after Cowlishaw talks about paying closer attention to red flags, he ends on a strange note:
Whether it’s not pursuing stories or just not caring, many of us have been complicit in the world of sexual harassment in the American workplace. We hear things, but we don’t connect dots. Someone tells me a local scout has fallen out of favor because “he likes young boys’’ and I shrug.
This is a very casual reference to a potential pedophile who works or worked for one of the sports teams in DFW. There’s no follow up. He goes right into talking about trying harder next time.
But the extremely casual way in which Cowlishaw mentions this incident undermines his promises to do better. It’s easy to say that you’ll do better, but without an incredibly detailed Sports Illustrated feature to back you up, it’s hard to do. If Cowlishaw’s apparent inability to take such a strong accusation seriously is any indication, the next time won’t be any different.
The ESPN Dallas radio interview
This all came to a head on Tuesday morning when local media personality and columnist Jean-Jacques Taylor invited Sneed onto his radio show on 103.3 FM ESPN Radio in Dallas.
Taylor unbelievably opens the interview by stating that Sneed is like a little brother to him before going over what happened, why and who knew. There is some newsworthiness to finding out if and how the Mavericks covered up his arrest and guilty plea, but beyond that, the entire segment is an embarrassment of the highest order. Sneed demonstrates little remorse, briefly talking about how he needs to do better to avoid these situations. He talks about the vast amount of counseling he has done after the arrest and after the other incident.
But instead of profusely apologizing for his damaging and criminal behavior, Sneed makes several hard-to-believe claims. While some are questioned by the hosts, the fact that he was able to share them in a mostly uncritical environment is gross:
- He blames his first victim, saying she was violent, and questions the accuracy of the police report. I’m not naive; I know the police don’t always get it right. But Sneed plead guilty in court to domestic abuse and then had ANOTHER violent encounter with a woman. He’s shown no remorse for his behavior in either instance. It’s starting to look like a pattern, and Sneed doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt during this interview.
- He says that although the police report claims he broke down a door after the woman he hit attempted to lock herself away from him, it was an accident. He was only trying to get his stuff so he could leave, but was lifting weights back then and broke it down by accident. With his shoulder. Ah yes, just calmly trying to get into a room by ramming the door with my shoulder. Oh look, it busted off the hinges! Honest mistake, really. One of the hosts questions why Sneed was busting down a door if he wasn’t trying to violently enter it, prompting the limp excuse that Sneed didn’t know his own strength.
- Sneed says that Ussery (an accused serial sexual harasser) asked him after he was released from jail in 2011 and before he plead guilty in court if he wanted to take some time away to clear his head. But according to Sneed, he wanted to get back to work right away. The host gave Sneed a chance to give a more thoughtful response, asking if it was a mistake in hindsight to return to work so quickly. His response: “It was [the best thing] for myself, because at the time, I needed to bury myself in work.” Sneed once again demonstrates an astonishing lack of awareness that his actions might negatively affect the women around him. It’s inexcusable.
I’m not linking to the audio from the segment, because we DO NOT DO PR WORK FOR DOMESTIC ABUSERS.
This might seem like overkill, but here’s my point: these seemingly little things add up. For more than 20 years, the Mavericks let small (and not so small) incidents fester into an absolutely toxic work place culture. Refusing to take things like this seriously makes you complacent and numbs you to the very real and terrible things that are happening.
Without thoughtful and thorough media coverage, domestic abusers can move onto the next job without reflection. When we as media gatekeepers refuse to properly question those abusers and instead give them a platform, it tells other abusers that they can treat women poorly and still someone will always be willing to let them tell their side of the story, unchecked. This has to change.
I’ve made my share of mistakes as a reporter. Nobody’s perfect. But local coverage of this issue over the last week has been a black eye for the Dallas media and sends a shameful message to the victims of domestic abuse. Do better.