Educating Isaiah

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[Closing Argument]

In a sexual harassment case, you can’t make a videotaped deposition examining how the nuances of the words “bitch” and “ho” are different when they are spewed from the mouth of a Black man versus a white man.

Before Knicks President Isaiah Thomas’s case went to court, there was no saying who would come out the victor in a legal match that often relies on “he said,” “she said” testimony. But as much as Isaiah weaved and bobbed, he ended up being a bleeder every time he opened his mouth until he was down for the count.     

It took three weeks for the jury to award $11.6 million to Anucha Brown Sanders, the former Knicks marketing executive who accused Madison Square Garden (MSG) of failing to act after she told them that Thomas sexually harassed her.    

For a man who has spent half his life in the company of handlers, someone mishandled this situation from the start. With the evidence that attorneys knew would make it into court, the case begged for a worthwhile settlement offer and no one in his circles persuaded him or MSG to come up with an offer that had teeth.     

According to court documents, Brown Sanders was offered assistance to land a high paying job and a one year $300K a year consultants job. She was already making $260K, and giving 40K from a multi-million dollar empire is like giving away 100 bucks.

When Brown Saunders counter offered, with close to $6 million, the head honcho at MSG, James Dolan, scoffed at the amount calling it “ridiculous.” Apparently it was—ridiculously small, in retrospect.

I just want to speak to the person on Isaiah’s team of confidantes who rummaged through their drawers to find the nail that sealed the coffin for Isaiah. Who is the person who suggested that his taped deposition in which he splits hairs over “bitch” and “ho” would pass the laugh test in court?  With all of his money, was there no one who could rise to the occasion?

What this case does is shed some much needed light on sexual harassment in the workplace. According to her testimony, when Anucha Brown Sanders informed her higher ups at MSG that as a result of Thomas’s actions she felt she was in a hostile work environment, they internally investigated the matter, but suspended her during the process. Thereafter MSG fired Brown Sanders claiming her accusations were groundless.        

This is often typical behavior of a company immersed in a culture like sports where women are not seen as equals.  It’s also common that someone in his high profile position like his would not be able to understand the consequences of his words and the boundaries he should have.  

While Sanders Brown was fired, Thomas will probably stay right where he is. In less high profile cases, similarly, companies sometimes elect to keep the alleged sexual harasser on the payroll. They will simply move the wrongdoer to another position or give that person one-on-one "remedial" training. The company’s HR department will draw up a series of steps that the alleged wrongdoer must do to stay on board.

In these scenarios, the alleged harasser truly believes that he is the victim. In fact, many psychological studies support that the accused simply doesn’t know his boundaries. But in professional sports, players are trained to act within the non-boundaries that exist.  Without his trademark grin, Thomas said he was "extremely disappointed that the jury could not see the facts.” No Isaiah, your jury of peers saw the facts, they just didn’t see thy facts as you saw them.  The facts that you perceived made you the victim.

Over the years, there has been a growing trend in courts across the country where anyone in the chain of command can be held personally liable for allowing certain workplace environments to exist and for retaliating against an employee. The trend in the courts is that those in Thomas’s position have been paying up. So, there is reason that Thomas’s disappearing grin could return because the jury was divided on whether Thomas should personally pay punitive damages. His higher ups MSG and James Dolan paid the multi-million dollar price tag.         

Meanwhile back at the Knick’s ranch, the players are back onto the hardwood floors in training. Floors that Dolan, who reigns over MSG, should be knocking on in hopes that the next trial he faces won’t repeat the precedent that has been set. He won’t have to wait too long to find out. The former captain of the New York Rangers City Skaters cheerleaders filed a lawsuit in 2003 against the Garden and a member of the New York Rangers public relations staff for sexual harassment.

The ironic chuckle in all of this is that each year Thomas rallies his rookie NBA players to meet the mandatory requirement of attending a six day Rookie Transition Program. Every September rookies attend workshops to learn how to deal with new pressures they will face. Guess what? Their training includes a workshop on sexual harassment.

Perhaps it would do Isaiah some good to sit in on one of those workshops to learn that in basketball and life, there are boundaries and if you don’t stay in those boundaries it’ll cost you more than points.     

Black Star News columnist, Candace Kelley, JD, is host of the PBSaffiliated television series Another View and is a Professor at RowanUniversity where she teaches Communication Law.
She can be reached via

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