Let the vetting begin.
Last Monday, the WNBA’s New York Liberty filed an application to make Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas a team owner. The same Isiah Thomas who was on the losing side of a sexual harassment lawsuit nearly eight years ago.
Now, the WNBA Board of Governors will decide whether Thomas is ownership material. Asked about the approval process, WNBA president Laurel Richie said the league would “collect background information” on Thomas, but she declined to discuss whether that would include a reexamination of the sexual harassment case. Richie emphasized that she had “great respect for the process and great respect for our Board” and anticipated thoughtful discussions.
That’s the restrained and responsible thing to say. But even with the process barely under way, the right and responsible thing to do is clear: Keep Thomas out of the ownership ranks. It’s troubling enough that the Liberty named him team president. Thomas was the New York Knicks coach and president of basketball operations when sexual harassment claims surfaced.
In a 2006 complaint, former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders said Thomas created a hostile work environment, calling her “bitch” and “ho” and making it difficult for her to do her job. (Under oath, Thomas explained that it wasn’t as bad for a black man to call a black woman a bitch.) Then, when Browne Sanders wasn’t intimidated, she said Thomas switched strategies and made sexual advances.
A jury awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million in punitive damages — $6 million for the hostile work environment Thomas created and $5.6 million because she was fired for complaining about the harassment. After the ruling, Thomas and Madison Square Garden officials proclaimed their innocence and promised appeals. It never came to that. Two months later, both sides settled for $11.5 million.
How often does the legal system sprint ahead and lap sports league justice? Hardly ever. Usually, leagues hand down discipline, then wait on the ruling of an arbitrator, judge, or jury. See Deflategate. The WNBA should consider itself lucky. A judge and jury made the toughest call long ago in Federal District Court in Manhattan. The ownership approval process should respect that and what Browne Sanders said after her victory.
Outside the courtroom, Browne Sanders told reporters her public fight against sexual harassment was for “the women who don’t have the means and couldn’t possibly have done what I was able to do.” Browne Sanders hoped the decision sent a message to “every working woman in America” about their right to a respectful, civil workplace.
Working women fill the ranks of WNBA teams, not only on the court but in management and marketing and media relations. Many more girls and women aspire to play in the WNBA or start sports business careers there. For them, Thomas as Liberty president and potential part owner is an awful message. Instead of empowerment, they get a man with a record of sexual harassment who will hold considerable power over the Liberty’s employees and possibly the league’s future. It doesn’t take an approval process to see how absurd, worrisome, and wrong that is.
Considering what it would be like to work for the Liberty, Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan said, “It’s got to be tough to go to work every day even knowing a job at that caliber is not easy to find. It would be very difficult to sell it to fans and to talk to my players and convince them what a great hire it was. As a female, it would be tough to ignore the facts of what went down in 2007 [with the trial and verdict]. I’m just glad it’s not me.”
That’s not the reaction any WNBA team should inspire. Glad it’s not me. Not when it’s the lean-in age for women in the workplace. Not when women in sports — athletes, coaches, executives — have been leaning in long before it was a movement.
Starting its 19th season when training camps open Sunday, the WNBA is the world’s longest-running women’s professional sports league. The WNBA exists because of other public battles waged and won for equal rights and for equality of opportunity in sports. The league also exists because the NBA created it and continues to support it. And as luck would have it, NBA commissioner Adam Silver knows how to handle problem owners, ousting Donald Sterling from the Los Angeles Clippers after he made racist remarks on tape.
The NBA showed zero tolerance for racism in a league in which more than 75 percent of the players are black. There should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment and those found guilty of it in a league in which 100 percent of the players are women, not to mention the high percentages of women working off the court.
Thomas maintains his innocence. Appearing recently on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” show, Thomas said he was “not liable or personally held for anything” and that anyone who has reviewed the case “has come out and found, as the jury found, there were no findings in terms of Isiah Thomas.” In his version of follow-the-money, Thomas twists a mistrial over whether he personally owed damages into proof he personally did nothing wrong. A Madison Square Garden statement took the same tact. The Browne Sanders camp called it an “attempt to rewrite history.”
Don’t let Thomas, MSG or Knicks/Liberty owner James Dolan confuse the issue. Out of $11.6 million in damages, the jury awarded Browne Sanders $6 million for the hostile environment Thomas created. Clearly, that needs repeating. And don’t confuse Thomas with someone who’s earned the right to keep the past in the past. Not with sexual harassment. Not with a job in the WNBA.
The Seattle Storm’s all-female ownership group had it right when it released a statement that read: “We believe there is no statute of limitations on the mandate that all WNBA owners and executives serve as exemplary role models and leaders.” More voices should join the Storm owners, the Women’s Sports Foundation, and Donovan in expressing concern about Thomas. Said Donovan, “I would hope that the Board of Governors focuses on the W in front of the NBA in this vote. This is a statement time for us as a league.”