In “Walk Away to Win,” former Nike executive Megan Carle talks about the “undiscussable” at work: workplace bullying. In this excerpt of the memoir, which is on sale May 16, Carle discusses what it was like to be an executive in the lead-up to an NBA All-Star Game.
After months of preparing for the event, Carle received an email ahead of the game: “You’ve been invited to play hoops on the Jordan court. Tip off at 2 PM.” As she writes in her memoir, “This wasn’t the type of invitation that just anyone got. In fact, as I glanced through those on the invitee list, I saw the names of multiple senior vice presidents.” Taking the opportunity meant missing out on time hanging with her son and brother, but they encouraged her to do it. But the pick-up game ultimately crystallized something important for her about workplace bullying. Keep reading for the full excerpt to find out what happened next.
When I arrived at the court, still dressed in my work clothes, I made my way to a basketball court that was almost too pretty to step on. It was glistening white, with aqua blue filling the key, surrounding the iconic Jumpman logo, as well as bordering the court. It looked like untouched powder snow under a clear-blue sky. I had the same reaction I had when my dad took me on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland for the first time as a child: The Jordan court took my breath away, and I knew it would be something I would always remember.
As I looked around at the men shooting hoops, I felt right at home. It was a basketball court, the cradle in which I was raised as a baby. I started shooting around with the guys. A young man approached our group of 12.
“Hey, guys, we have everything you’ll need to play set up for you in individual lockers. Follow me.”
Eleven men followed him, leaving me alone on the court, sweating in my pink cashmere sweater.
“Do you have somewhere for me to change?” I asked the young man when he returned.
“Oh, yes. We just had to take care of the guys first.”
I didn’t need to be seen as special. I simply needed to be seen, period.
I stared at him, annoyed, and then said, “Well, yes, I can certainly see why that would make sense since there are eleven of them and one of me.” At that moment, I had a choice to make—stay or go. I could stay and wait my turn like the good little girl that I had always been or go—go and have fun with my son and my brother. A continuous loop played in my head—stay . . . go . . . stay . . . go . . . and just as I was about to leave, one of the men, a sponsor of mine, came out, dressed down and ready to play.
He bounded over to me and noticed that I was still in my street clothes. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you gonna play?”
“Yeah, but they had to take care of you guys first.”
He hung his head, shook it, and said, “We really have to make this hard on you, don’t we?”
“Seems like it.”
Just then, all the men came out, high-fiving, laughing, trash-talking. “I can take you back to change now,” said a young woman who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. As she led me to the locker room, I heard the young man yell, “OK, guys, let’s get you warmed up!”
Once in the locker room, I found a jersey and shorts, socks, and shoes, which had been laid out for me. No sports bra. I kept repeating to myself, “Just get dressed, Megan; just get dressed, Megan; just get dressed . . .”
The one positive that you can take away from such a moment is clarity.
Suited up, I joined the men on the court. Since they had warmed up, they were already playing five on five. Never shy around a basketball court, I immediately tapped in, tore down the court, and dished for a bucket. Transitioning back on defense, I stole a sloppy lob pass, dribbled to the other end, and hit a nice little jumper.
At one point, as I was taking the ball past mid-court, I heard the president say to another guy on the bench, “Well, she’s clearly played.”
That’s right. I played. And now I play. In my Natori underwire.
As the end of the game neared, I decided I would get to the locker room first to change. I had been struggling for so long at work due to bullying that the slight at the courts seemed like a “last straw” moment for me. The toxic work environment I’d been enduring, combined with the stress of All-Star prep on zero sleep, left me with nothing in my emotional tank. Then, when I should have been treated with the same respect and inclusion as the men who showed up to play basketball, I’d been made to feel like a burden, an inconvenience, an afterthought—at, of all places, a basketball court.
One of the highest points in my career, marked by bringing my son to see what Mama did for a living, had turned into one of the lowest points for me. I had busted my butt, and my team worked just as hard, to ensure our All-Star work was industry-defining. It was—not because anyone told me; no one did, but I knew it was, and I knew my value because of the work my team and I put into it.
The invitation to play basketball had been the cherry on top. I saw it as a gift that I was grateful to receive. It turned out, my gratitude so distracted me that I didn’t notice yet another hook caught in my cheek to bait me into believing that I belonged. I did not.
I quickly made my way to the locker room—not in that bounding way athletes do after playing a fun game of basketball. Yes, I was sweating, and I was proud of how I had shown up. At 50, I could still get up and down the court, handle the ball, and hit my shot. But beyond that, there was no Springsteen “Glory Days” playing in my ears. No, I raced back to that locker room to get away. Away from this uniform that wasn’t made for me. Away from these men who didn’t respect me. Away from this place that suddenly felt foreign to me. Away from a system that wasn’t built for me. I didn’t need to be seen as special. I simply needed to be seen, period. In a healthy workplace environment, moments like this often do feel special. They are a way for a team to bond, to celebrate, and to feel even more acutely a part of a larger whole. When every person on the team is respected and truly included, and every person feels a part of the team, fun outings serve to strengthen the team and strengthen each person’s ties to it.
In an unhealthy workplace environment, these kinds of events and moments serve to simply amplify the larger disparities at play. Often there are a series of such moments and actions—but there may be one that perfectly crystalizes for you the state of your organization’s culture. When I played in that basketball game on the Jordan court, there was more than passing, dribbling, and shooting on display. Sexism and scarcity were hard at work. There were two women invited to play basketball. Two. One showed up.
Take your shot. Bet on yourself in a system not built to support you.
For targets of bullying, who are uncertain of themselves and have begun to question whether they fit into the company’s mission any longer, a moment that even hints at communicating “you are not fully welcome here” can be devastating. It can have an impact that, to a neutral observer, may seem outsized in relation to the actual event. That’s because it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back—and the neutral observer hasn’t witnessed all the straw already piled on that camel!
In this way, the effects of a sexist working environment can be similar to the effects of institutional racism. Until you are conscious of the structural reality, you spend a lot of time and energy wondering what’s happening and why.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Once back in my street clothes, cloaked in disappointment, with a side order of anger, I quickly made my way toward the exit, when three female employees approached me. One of them was the woman who had shown me to the locker room. The other two had been working behind the scenes.
“That was so cool that you played,” said one. “Yeah,” said another, “thanks for doing that.”
“You playing showed us that we could do that,” said the third. Their comments were like water to a lost soul in the desert. “You’re welcome,” I said.
Workplace bullying is so damaging, and it results in targets subconsciously questioning our professional existence at every turn. It’s hard to predict when our own feelings of disrespect and exclusion might actually serve to inspire those we don’t even know are watching. When those women shared what watching me play in that basketball game meant to them, they acknowledged my existence and they validated me. In that moment, they signed up to speak up and to show up for others, and I knew that was a win. I was confident that they and you will:
- Suit up. Put the kit on. Even when it’s not easy in a system not built to support you.
- Yell for the ball. Use your voice, especially when it’s not easy in a system not built to support you.
- Take your shot. Bet on yourself in a system not built to support you.
The one positive that you can take away from such a moment is clarity. Clarity that your workplace environment is not going to suddenly, magically improve. Clarity that you aren’t crazy. Clarity that your workplace culture really has shifted and really does tolerate behavior that a healthy workplace environment would not. Clarity about who your allies truly are. And clarity that you may need to forward the invitation to play or create your own pickup game.
That clarity will help you see what you need to do.
Excerpt adapted from “Walk Away to Win: A Playbook to Combat Workplace Bullying” by Megan Carle pp. 98-104 (McGraw Hill, May 2023)
Image Source: Peter LaRowe