This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (May 8, 2015)
I grew up as an Isiah Thomas fan. He was the hard-nosed leader of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. Thomas was an example of what it meant to fight as the underdog. His competitiveness brought pride to the City of Detroit, and we collectively cheered “Bad Boys” as they won back-to-back NBA Championships. To this day, I applaud his accomplishments on the basketball court.
But I cannot use his championship banners and basketball legacy as justification for overlooking his participation in gender-based harassment – neither should the WNBA.
In 2007, a federal jury found that Thomas, then the New York Knicks’ coach and president of basketball operations, sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks’ former vice president of marketing and business operations.
The jury ruled that Brown Sanders was entitled to $11.6 million in punitive damages from Madison Square Garden and James L. Dolan, chairman of Cablevision, parent company of the Garden and the Knicks. $6 million of the award was for the hostile work environment created by Thomas and $5.6 million for the retaliation. The parties eventually settled for $11.5 million.
In a surprising and questionable move, Dolan recently appointed Thomas as the president and part-owner (pending approval) of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
“It is shocking to see an organization put [Thomas] back in such a prominent position,” said Don McPherson, gender equity educator and former NFL player.
“What is even more concerning, in a time when the sports world is coming to terms with the level of misogyny and sexism in our society, you would think there would be a sense understanding of the optics of this.”
Being a leader in the WNBA – a league that worked tirelessly to rebrand its image, while maintaining a foothold as the premier destination for elite women’sbasketball players – is a privilege not a right.
From the 2011 hiring of Laurel J. Richie, former senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Girls Scouts USA, as its president, to the 2014 WNBA Pride initiative, the WNBA’s resounding message is that woman’s voices and gender equality in sports matters.
Without question, the league’s leadership from the top down must inwardly and outwardly reflect these values as well. Therefore, Thomas’ ties to creating a hostile work environment cannot be ignored.
At this stage, whether he will have a role in the New York Liberty’s future – as an owner – is in the hands of the WNBA’s Board of Governors. President Richie released the following statement:
“The Madison Square Garden organization announced that Isiah Thomas has been named president of the New York Liberty and that he will take an ownership interest in the team, pending WNBA approval. New owners are approved by our WNBA Board of Governors, and this process has not yet begun.”
While the voting standards set forth by the Board of Governors are not a matter of public record, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Esq., CEO of Champion Women, notes that sex discrimination must be viewed as seriously as race discrimination, which the NBA Board of Governors recently used as cause for terminating an ownership interest.
“Isiah Thomas’ appointment as president and potential owner of the New York Liberty just shows how differently people perceive race discrimination and sex discrimination,” said Hogshead-Makar in an email to Forbes.com.
“Donald Sterling merely had a recording leaked where he made racist comments, and he was forced to sell the Clippers. Yet a jury found, after an extensive, well-covered trial, that Isiah Thomas sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, and awarded her $11.6 million in damages against the Knicks enterprise. Sterling made racist remarks to his girlfriend, whereas Thomas sexually harassed Browne Sanders repeatedly. Sterling made racist remarks in the privacy of his own home, while Thomas sexually harassed Browne Sanders publicly. If Thomas had made equally as racist remarks, he would never be considered for a position in professional sports, anywhere.”
As Thomas continues to refute any wrongdoing, San Francisco-based civil rights attorney, Deborah England, wonders, “What has he learned?”
She notes that along with awarding damages, courts quite often require additional measures that call for training. But in this instance, England expresses concern for Thomas’ continued denial of what happened. Moreover, she questions Dolan’s decision not to hire a qualified woman to fill the presidency and ownership role, but rather chose Thomas, who professionally has this dark mark in his past.
In the end, sexual harassment is tied to the larger conversation of leadership.
Rha Goddess, founder & CEO of Move The Crowd an entrepreneurial training company dedicated to the next generation of Change Makers, recognizes that too often personal growth and development is a not a perquisite for leadership.
Goddess suggests that if Thomas – or any individual for that matter – wants a role within the WNBA, a question that should be asked is, “Have they done their gender work?”
This includes exploring: How does this executive perceive women? What do they see women being capable of in the context of growth and innovation? How are they speaking and interacting with women in a professional setting? What are their perceptions – unconsciously or consciously – that would cause them to treat women differently than men?
The New York Liberty and its fans deserve a leader who has answers to these questions, and someone who is prepared to champion and advance the needs of women – not belittle them.
In a statement released by MSG, Thomas and the Garden continue to vehemently disagree with the verdict in the sexual harassment case. It appears as though they have not considered what behavior had them embroiled in a sex discrimination lawsuit or acknowledged the fact that harassment can occur whether the harasser intends to harm or not.
“We did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now. We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility. In fact, when given the opportunity, the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously or in bad faith. We believe Isiah belongs in basketball, and are grateful that he has committed his considerable talent to help the Liberty succeed.”
As the WNBA enters its 19th season, the league must remain true to its core identity. All current and potential leaders should be held accountable for their actions. A generation of young girls and women are closely watching how the WNBA responds to its Isiah Thomas problem.