The New York Knicks can’t even spiral down to sporting hell correctly. Unable even to operate effectively as a cliché, they have regressed from farce to tragedy. The farce is a storied franchise suffering years of futility despite having the highest payroll in the history of organized basketball.
The farce is that James Dolan, the pampered son of privilege who, as owner of Madison Square Garden, has given contract extensions to coach and team president Isiah Thomas despite Thomas’s miserable record. The tragedy is what’s been going on behind the scenes at Madison Square Garden: Thomas and the franchise are now forever stained as sexual harassers.
Former team vice president Anucha Browne Sanders walked out of a New York City courtroom Tuesday with $11.6 million in punitive damages after a trial that made you want to delouse in its aftermath. The jury determined that Thomas created a workplace so toxic–he professed his undying love for the married mother of three and called her a “f—ing bitch” and a “ho”–that Sanders simply couldn’t do her job. Dolan was then judged to have fired Sanders for having the temerity to complain. In the process, the Knicks were shown to have run their club like a frat house of sexually fixated adolescents. It’s been Woodstock for the tabloids as headlines like “Isiah’s a ‘Bitch’ to Work For” have graced their front pages.
You might expect Thomas and Dolan to show a measure of contrition after such a public flaying. But in the aftermath of the verdict Thomas said, “I want to say it as loud as I possibly can: I am innocent. I am very innocent. I did not do the things that she accused me in the courtroom of doing. I am extremely disappointed that the jury did not see the facts in this case.” He also said, “I remain confident in the man that I am and what I stand for, and the family that I have.”
Thomas wasn’t nearly so eloquent in his trial testimony, where he said to much fanfare, “A white male calling a black female a bitch is highly offensive. That would have violated my code of conduct.” But as for a black man calling a black female “bitch,” the NBA Hall of Famer said it would bother him, though “not as much. I’m sorry to say, I do make a distinction.” (Actual New York Post headline: “The Twisted Racial Logic of a Knicko Sicko.”)
Dolan wasn’t much better. In videotaped testimony, after much hedging, he finally acknowledged it was inappropriate for anyone to call a woman a “black bitch.” Then he said with a shrug, “It is also not appropriate to murder anyone. I don’t know that that happened, either.”
The endless drama has caused many to make the entire case an issue about gender relations in the black community. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that linked the Thomas/Sanders lawsuit to something symptomatic with a “social calamity” in the black community defined by the “central role of unstable relations among the sexes and within poor families.”
But the Thomas lawsuit is not an issue of social pathology. It’s also not an issue of poverty. This is an issue little discussed in our Girls Gone Wild culture: it’s the sexism, stupid. It’s men in positions of power creating an atmosphere for women that should be deemed entirely unacceptable. It’s millionaires and billionaires behaving badly.
From the beginning, Dolan and Thomas attempted to paint Sanders as incompetent and her lawsuit as a craven grab for money. This didn’t quite explain why they had promoted her to vice president and given her hefty bonuses on top of her $260,000 salary.
It also didn’t explain why Sanders, the highest-ranking African-American woman in the world of sports, would risk her position and promise of future millions on a lawsuit that will most likely result in her never finding hire in the league again.
It didn’t explain why Sanders, at the age of 44, would walk away from a job that on the surface, at least, was an absolute dream. At Northwestern University, Anucha Browne, as she was then known, was a basketball superstar. A three-time all-Big Ten selection and two-time conference player of the year, she still holds the conference records in points and rebounds. A school publication described her this way: “pound for pound, one of the most accomplished athletes in the school’s history.”
She was charting new ground for all women in the upper-management strata of sports. Now those days are done. But Sanders may have done more good by raising awareness that sports is no longer a club for men. By calling Thomas and Dolan to account for their actions, she may help ensure that millions of young girls can grow up with every expectation that they can shape the future of the games they love.