Knicks lose in court of law, too

Former team exec wins sexual harassment suit against Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden.


Lynn Harris
October 3, 2007 8:24PM (UTC)

Well, it has been a while since the New York Knicks lost by 11 million. Surely you've heard by now that -- after a rather salacious trial -- a federal jury Tuesday found that Knicks coach Isiah Thomas sexually harassed former team executive (and former Northwestern hoops star) Anucha Browne Sanders. While the jury could not agree on punitive damages for Thomas (a mistrial was declared on that count), it did plunk the Madison Square Garden organization with a big fat $6 million bill for allowing a hostile work environment to persist, plus $2.6 million for retaliating when Browne Sanders complained. MSG chairman James Dolan, himself apparently a real charmer, owes $3 million. Legal experts expressed amazement that the Knicks and MSG let the case go to trial in the first place, suggesting that this failure to take the charges seriously -- and pursue a settlement -- was the same swaggering attitude that swayed jurors against the organization. One online commenter suggested that sentencing for Thomas "should include forcing him to play for his own awful, awful team."

"What I did here I did for every working woman in America," Browne Sanders told reporters outside the courtroom.

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Thomas, for his part, made the following statement, delivered to Salon following the verdict: "I am extremely disappointed that the jury failed to see the truth in this case -- that I never sexually harassed Anucha Browne-Sanders and had nothing to do with her being fired. I didn't do what she said I did. I am innocent. I remain confident in the truth -- and am committed to appealing this decision and clearing my good name. During this period, I will focus on the basketball operations of the New York Knicks, and will have no further comment on this case."

Likewise, a statement from Madison Square Garden: "We believe that the jury's decision was incorrect and plan to vigorously appeal the verdict. We look forward to presenting our arguments to an appeals court, and believe they will agree that no sexual harassment took place and MSG acted properly. The normal operations of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks will continue unabated." (This, of course, is what people are afraid of.) MSG management added that it will have no further comment until the end of the appeals process.

Reaction to the verdict appears to be mixed. Mixed, that is, between "Go, girl!" and "Buncha jerks." In other words, noodle around the print and electronic media, and you'll see a preponderance of support for the ruling, though it's shaded in different ways. Only a handful of online commenters appear to be trotting out the old "she ain't even cute enough to get in trouble for" defense. So that's a bit refreshing.

But does this mean a new day has dawned for sexual harassment law? That the travails of Anita Hill -- revisited just this week in Clarence Thomas' autobiography -- were not for naught?

Eh, not so fast. Times and perceptions have certainly changed, to a degree. But in terms of public opinion, when it comes to Thomas and Dolan, theirs was not exactly a fall from grace. Being a (previously) known jackass does not make you a harasser, but it also does not predispose fans of your team to rush to your defense.

So what next? We await possible further action by NBA commissioner David Stern, to say nothing of league sponsors; we await possible further action in yet another pending sexual harassment case, this time a Rangers cheerleader vs. MSG; and we await -- though this has complications of its own -- the return of the Nets to New York City.

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Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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