During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
The billionaire NBA owner has become known both for his business-savviness and his brutally honest opinions.
When Mark Cuban contacted Cynt Marshall about joining the Dallas Mavericks three years ago, however, Marshall’s ignorance emerged.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Marshall told USA TODAY Sports about Cuban. “I had a big job. I’m raising four kids. I just didn’t know who he was.”
Cuban knew about Marshall, however, despite her lack of connections in NBA circles. Marshall had worked for 36 years at AT&T, a place where she had leadership roles aimed at improving diversity and work-place culture practices. She then retired in 2017 to launch her own consulting firm, Marshalling Resources. With Sports Illustrated detailing various sexual harassment and domestic violence allegations within the Mavericks’ organization, Cuban considered hiring Marshall as the Mavs’ CEO as a significant first step toward addressing those issues. Marshall became impressed with Cuban’s pitch.
“Mark showed genuine sincerity about wanting to have a culture change and wanting to get underneath what had happened to make the place better for people,” Marshall said. “He was very transparent about the stuff he should’ve known, and the things he wished he had done.”
After consulting various team employees and praying, Marshall then accepted Cuban’s offer about a month after the SI report’s publication. Since then, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle described Marshall as “one of the great leaders that I’ve ever been around” and “has transformed this organization into one of the great examples of equality and diversity.”
With the 61-year-old Marshall becoming the first Black female CEO of an NBA franchise, she ensured changes in varying ways. Marshall listened to various Mavericks employees, who shared concerns both about the allegations and wishes for her to help the organization address them. Marshall asked probing questions to Cuban, who told USA TODAY Sports he had “no reason not to be completely honest with her on that or any issue.” And Marshall then implemented various policies to improve the organization’s practices.
“I want to make sure I do a good job, be a good role model and show that it shouldn’t be unusual for a Black woman to be in a job like this. We are capable,” Marshall said. “I want to make sure I’m working and others are working to cultivate the second, third, fourth and fifth one that’s coming. I want to make sure I’m not the last. I can’t be the last, and I won’t be the last. I know I won’t be.”
While the NBA had an external investigation, Marshall oversaw the organization’s internal investigation that led to various staff changes. Marshall also detailed a 100-day plan that outlined 200 initiatives. Some of those included installing a confidential hotline and employee surveys to report concerns, hiring compliance officers to investigate allegations promptly and launching the “Women of Mavs Empowering Network” to help staff female employees with career development and networking opportunities.
After the Mavericks initially had zero women or people of color on their leadership team, Marshall now leads a 14-person executive team that consists of both 47% women and 47% people of color. Marshall oversees the organization’s work-place practices, community events and business operations. And Marshall has developed the Dallas Mavericks Advisory Council, which involves 27 community, business and academic leaders that provide outside advising and consulting.
Therefore, the Mavericks won the NBA’s Inclusion Leadership Award last year. No wonder Cuban touted Marshall for her “vision, leadership, communication and business skills.”
“We have more diverse ideas and initiatives coming from our team,” Cuban wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports. “People know they can speak up and bring a perspective we may not have thought of before. That’s made us a much more vibrant culture.”
Steady hand in tough times
Those qualities became increasingly important in the past year amid challenges with a global pandemic and nation-wide racial injustices. Marshall became a welcome voice on how the Mavericks handled the national anthem, invited vaccinated essential workers to games and helped the NBA with promotional efforts on taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
When the NBA resumed last season in a campus bubble, the majority of NBA players, coaches and staff members knelt during the national anthem to protest systemic racism. So, Cuban decided for the Mavericks not to play the national anthem during their first 12 regular-season home games in a mostly empty arena. After the NBA ruled that all teams are required to play the national anthem once fans are welcomed back into arenas, Cuban said in a statement that he would follow the league’s policy. He added, “we respect and always have respected the passion people have for the anthem and our country. But we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the anthem does not represent them.”
Marshall supported Cuban’s decision even though she has personally stood for the anthem ever since she was a child. As Cuban wrote in an e-mail, “she was able to provide perspectives that I didn’t have. It’s not an easy discussion, but it was an important one.”
During the NBA bubble and in the past week, Marshall explained to team employees and sponsors why the national anthem carries different meanings to some marginalized groups. She also shared that some people felt pressure either to stand or kneel during the anthem.
So, Marshall said the team had planned to use the beginning of the season to brainstorm how it would handle its in-game entertainment at American Airlines Center before hosting games with more fans.
“We never made a decision not to play the national anthem,” Marshall said. “We made a conscious decision that we were going to evaluate and see how we were going to promote unity on this divisive issue. I think there is with the way we’re honoring our essential workers.”
For the past four home games, the Mavericks have invited up to 1,500 vaccinated essential workers, including healthcare employees, first responders, grocery store workers and postal carriers. The Mavericks plan to continue this practice for the rest of the season, which has included tributes of essential workers on the arena scoreboard. Marshall said the organization will continue to brainstorm how else to show their gratitude to them following the NBA All-Star break in early March when more fans are expected to be able to attend games.
“They are loving it. You can tell they really need this break,” Marshall said. “You could tell they liked being honored.”
Marshall has also participated in the NBA’s efforts to encourage the general public to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Two weeks ago, Marshall and her husband, Kenneth, received the second dose of the vaccine after both became eligible because of their previous health conditions. While her husband has dealt with high blood pressure and diabetes, Marshall has a compromised immune system after receiving chemotherapy treatments 10 years ago to overcome colon cancer.
Marshall said her husband experienced some fatigue and achiness, while she only felt sore from the shot. Marshall reported she and her husband felt fine shortly afterwards.
“I’m trying to live. It’s that simple,” Marshall said. “I did my research. The NBA was really pushing for us to go to CDC.gov and do our homework, and I did that.”
Although she called it a “no brainer” to receive the vaccine, Marshall first had to assuage concerns.
The Black community has expressed skepticism toward medical advancements partly because of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a government-backed initiative that misled 400 Black sharecroppers into thinking they were receiving treatment when they actually remained untreated test subjects. NBA coaches and players have expressed mixed feelings for receiving the vaccine once it becomes available.
So Marshall talked to her concerned adult children about the benefits of taking the vaccine. Marshall has invited medical experts to address team employees about how COVID-19 has affected the Black community. And she has overseen its human resources department putting together a brochure with information about the vaccine’s benefits, correcting myths and listing information on how to register for an appointment.
When Marshall received the first dose of the vaccine last month, she allowed a Mavericks videographer and photographer to document the moment.
“I felt it was riskier for me to walk around without the vaccine and be susceptible to COVID-19,” Marshall said. “It’s not like the vaccine is a cure all. But it’s going to put my immune system in a much position to fight it, if for some reason I ever get it.”
The coveted prospect
Marshall learned how to become resourceful and navigate various injustices at an early age.
Marshall’s parents moved their family from Birmingham, Ala., to California when she was three months old in hopes to escape the Jim Crow policies in the segregated south. They settled on the Eastern Hill projects in Richmond, Calif. When Marshall became a teenager, though, family problems emerged.
“My father was abusive so we had to get out of that,” said Marshall, who had five other siblings. “My mom got us out of that. She just raised us to have really, really big dreams and we could do whatever we wanted to do.”
Because Marshall was a domestic violence victim, a police officer escorted her to school beginning in seventh grade. Later in high school, her dad left and her parents soon divorced. At that point, Marshall’s mother, Carolyn Gardener, juggled multiple jobs as a high school executive administrator and a librarian. But she often stressed to Marshall that “it’s not where you live; it’s how you live.” Therefore, Marshall’s mother preached the importance of both an education and following their Christian faith.
Hence, Marshall said she received five different scholarship officers. She settled on University of California in Berkeley both because of its proximity to home and opportunities. After originally aiming to become a math teacher, Marshall switched majors in business administration and human resources. She also became one of the school’s first Black cheerleaders and first Black member of her sorority, Delta Gamma. That marked a turning point in which Marshall enjoyed integrating with the school’s predominantly white population.
“We need to take time to know each other. There are some things people just don’t know about other cultures,” Marshall said. “We just got exposed to each other’s cultures. Nobody thought anything about it. They weren’t afraid to visit the projects. I didn’t feel out of place visiting the mansions. We were just buddies. We learned from each other.”
That included Marshall’s dance teammates and sorority sisters becoming so enamored with her afro that they frequently touched it.
“I wasn’t offended by it. I realized that some people just have never been exposed to it,” Marshall said. “They just didn’t know. They found the whole thing fascinating. These days, I probably wouldn’t want people coming up touching my afro. Obviously, we have COVID right now. But I don’t get offended by that. That’s not who I am. If somebody is willing enough and brave enough to come up whether they’re admitting or not that they’ve never been exposed to an African American person or Black hair or whatever, then I’m not offended by that. I’m going to help you get exposed.”
Marshall observed that her background contributed toward receiving 13 different job offers after graduating. She narrowed on Pacific Bell, which was part of AT&T, and led to an accomplished 36-year-old career there where she climbed the leadership ranks. As president of AT&T’s bureau in North Carolina, Marshall became the first Black chair of the state’s chamber of commerce. As she tried to advance in her career, however, Marshall said she often experienced “code switching,” which entails of people of different backgrounds changing their mannerisms to make others feel more comfortable.
When she first worked at AT&T at 21 years old in 1981, Marshall said she was told to take her braids out and not to wear red shoes. Marshall did so without complaining. She had different thoughts at 40 years old in 2000 when a supervisor offered a leadership position on a few conditions — cut her hair, change her wardrobe and tone down her bubbly personality. She was also told to drop her preferred nickname, “Cynt,” and to stop using the word ‘blessed.’”
Marshall withdrew her interest in the job because of those racially insensitive commands. But soon afterwards, another supervisor offered the same position without those conditions. Marshall accepted. For nearly 17 years after that, Marshall helped AT&T improve its business practices. She has since done the same thing with the Mavericks.
“When Mark appointed me, he wasn’t trying to make history,” Marshall said. “He was trying to find somebody qualified to do what needed to do to be done. My career at AT&T with leading teams and helping transform cultures and business acumen through 36 years, I was able to gather all of those skills.”
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