It has been widely reported that James Dolan, Executive Chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company (MSG), which owns and operates the New York Knicks and the WNBA’s New York Liberty, has hired Isiah Thomas as President of the Liberty. This has sparked controversy because, in 2007, a jury awarded a former New York Knicks female executive, Anucha Browne Sanders, $6 million in punitive damages due to Thomas’ creation of a hostile work environment, which resulted in sexual harassment. (An additional $5.6 million in punitive damages was awarded for retaliation against Browne Sanders.) Despite proclamations of innocence and threats to appeal, MSG eventually agreed to settle the lawsuit for $11.5 million. While MSG issued a statement on May 5, 2015 that it “did not believe the allegations [against Thomas] then and [it] do[es]n’t believe them now,” Browne Sanders’ allegations may have had a little something to them if MSG was willing to settle for over $11 million to make the case go away.
Dolan has put the WNBA in an impossible position in light of efforts made by the NBA, the NFL and even historically slow-to-evolve Major League Baseball to include women. The NBA has partnered with Sheryl Sandberg for the “Lean In Together” campaign, which encourages men to become involved in order to achieve gender equality. The NFL supports “A Crucial Catch” to raise awareness for breast cancer and “No More,” an organization focused on domestic violence and sexual assault. Major League Baseball is getting into the mix with its Mother’s Day initiative “Going to Bat Against Breast Cancer” and Mo’ne Davis throwing out the first pitch before Game 4 of last year’s World Series. While many may question the sincerity and effectiveness of these efforts, they all reflect some level of awareness by the major sports leagues that women are important to them in some way. In this climate, how can the WNBA have a team lead by someone with Thomas’ history and keep a straight face?
Hiring someone found to have sexually harassed a woman to the tune of $6 million to run a women’s organization like the Liberty is embarrassing for MSG, Dolan, the Liberty and the WNBA. The WNBA serves an important function by providing young girls with role models and encouraging girls to become involved with sports. In the wake of the NFL’s initial two game suspension of Ray Rice for entering an elevator with a conscious woman and leaving it dragging an unconscious woman, shouldn’t sports welcome and encourage the involvement of women, whether as fans, players or executives? Shouldn’t leagues send a unified message that women are wanted, respected and safe? This is the opposite of the message sent by James Dolan with his obtuse hiring of Isiah Thomas to lead the Liberty. Dolan’s message is that it is not important to treat women with respect even in our own league.
Post By: Ashleigh Mattox, Ruling Sports contributor
Ashleigh Mattox is a retired attorney living in Orange County, California, with her husband and daughter. She was born and raised in Southern California and is a proud alumna of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Chapman University School of Law. She loves all things sports, especially the NFL, and holds a special place in her heart for the New Orleans Saints, the Dodgers and the (currently lowly) Lakers.