News broke Tuesday that Isiah Thomas is returning to basketball as president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. That’s right: A notorious sexual harasser is going to be in charge of a women’s professional sports team.
"I am honored to have the opportunity to lead the New York Liberty and help the franchise reclaim its position as one of the elite teams in the WNBA," Thomas said.
Honored. Yes, honored. That’s not exactly the word that I would choose. More to the point, James Dolan hiring Thomas is yet another reminder that the sports world—through casual misogyny, glass ceilings, and indifference to violence—really, really doesn’t care about women.
All the way back in 2007, Thomas and his then- (and now current) employer, James Dolan, and the Madison Square Garden Corporation were forced to pay a former executive, Anucha Browne-Sanders, $11.6 million in jury-awarded punitive damages, after a trial that made the New York Knicks come across as a deranged frat house.
Her complaints to that effect were ignored, and ultimately resulted in her being fired. Moreover Thomas made repeated, unwanted advances at her, calling her a “bitch” and a “ho," and in note of bleak irony, told her, “I'm in love with you. It's like the movie 'Love and Basketball.'" The trial also made public the revelation that an intern and Knicks guard Stephon Marbury had sex in a truck following a “group outing” to a strip club. (Through a representative, Browne-Sanders declined to comment for this story.)
This isn't just a matter of letting a bumbling fool like Thomas, who since retiring as a pro has botched each and every single team he's ever managed to get his slippery fingers on. Beyond his destruction of the Knicks, he also sent an entire pro sports league, the Continental Basketball Association, to its grave, mishandled a talented young Indiana Pacers squad, and made himself persona non grata in Toronto. Forget his oily personal shortcomings: There's no way this guy gets hired except through the good-est and oldest of good-ol'-boy networks.
This is James Dolan: the worst non-Daniel Snyder owner in sports, giving a stubby middle finger to anyone who thinks sexual harassment in the workplace remains a serious problem. Oh, and to any fan who might have thought, amid the progressive recent tilt toward LGBT inclusivity, that sports were becoming any less hostile to women. (Then again, last weekend's “Fight of the Century” helped debunk that notion when it larded a reported $200 million or more into the bank account of one Floyd Mayweather Jr., a repeated and unrepentant abuser of women who, in a final dirtbag move, tried to rescind the credentials of two female reporters who have dared to question his violent record.)
What’s so depressing is that it does feel as if sports have moved past the modus operandi of "Mad Men." Reports from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport do show more women and minorities working pro teams' front offices than ever before, but as one woman Major League Baseball executive told me, truly heinous behavior like that is waning, but “women are held to a higher standard not because they're viewed as less competent. I just think you have to... and I'm not really sure how to describe this, but you have to exude a much higher level of professionalism.
“I advise women that come to work in a professional sports environment that you are going to be held to higher standard and you need to try to defy stereotypes,” she said. “That doesn't mean that you have to 'act like a man' at all. I think there are a lot of very feminine women that work here. But you have to comport yourself in such a way that you are to be above reproach.”
This is the bigotry in sports. The simmering fear and hostility towards women hasn’t changed. Sometimes it doesn’t reach the level of lawyers and lawsuits. Sometimes, as was the case with knuckle-dragging lunkheads running the Mets, who marginalized, humiliated, and ultimately fired a woman for the crime of being single and pregnant, it still does.
The New York Post detailed the accusations against Mets co-owner Jeff Wilpon:
University of Pennsylvania grad Leigh Castergine says in the suit that Wilpon “frequently humiliated [her] in front of others by, among other things, pretending to see if she had an engagement ring on her finger.”
The suit claims Wilpon even stated “in a meeting of the team’s all-male senior executives that he is ‘morally opposed’ to Castergine ‘having this baby without being married.’”
“Wilpon told her that when she gets a ring she will make more money and get a bigger bonus,” the filing claims.
A woman pro basketball executive explained to me that such troglodytic attitudes remain because management perpetuates a “continuous cycle of hiring the same, younger versions of themselves. It's the lack of diverse opinions, just continuing to hire somebody that looks like them but younger; a good ol’ boy, buddy-buddy system. ‘I'm gonna bring you along, and you're going to be the next C.O.O.'
“It's constant and it never ends," she continued. "The lack of female leaders, the lack of African American leaders, the lack of—you name it—any marginalized groups. They just continue to hire the same people over and over, or talk over people in meetings, or shut down other people's opinions because they're diverse." She has seen her male colleagues receive credit for work she did and has been passed over for promotions.
So here’s the choice, because sometimes it is that stark. We can try to forget James Dolan’s crass decision to bring back Thomas and ignore this shameful explanation for the hiring, or accept that this too is what we’re buying every time we plunk down on the sofa and tune in to the MSG Network. We can choose to watch or not, but we can’t escape that this is what we're enabling. Even, this season, when we watch the WNBA.
This article has been updated.