Hiring Isiah Thomas to be president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty has to be some kind of a joke, right?
That would be like hiring a chain smoker to teach a fitness class or Captain Ahab to head Save the Whales or Franz Kafka to lead a comedic improv troupe.
But it’s true. Thomas, notorious for his degrading treatment of a female executive when he was coach and president of the New York Knicks, is back at Madison Square Garden. Thomas, found by a jury in 2007 to have sexually harassed colleague Anucha Browne in a hostile environment, is in charge of the workplace for a women’s basketball team.
The appointment of Thomas as president and part owner of the Liberty sends a disturbing message to girls and women in and out of sport: Gender discrimination will be tolerated and excused in U.S. society. Always has been, always will be.
Thomas abused his position of power to make Browne’s life miserable. He repeatedly called her “bitch” and “ho,” according to trial testimony. He made unwanted advances, and tried to hug and kiss her. He suggested they have an affair. When she complained, she was fired.
The NBA acted swiftly last year to banish Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league when his racist remarks were made public. Everyone was appalled that a man with such hateful disdain for black people — apparent for years in his track record as a landlord — could own a team in a sport dominated by black players.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver did not hesitate to excise Sterling, declaring that racism could not be tolerated in 21st century America.
Sterling’s rant was secretly taped at home by his baiting girlfriend. Thomas sexually harassed Browne at the Knicks’ offices. His behavior was aired at trial. Yet he’s getting a chance to run and own a women’s team? Had he directed racist insults at Browne, he wouldn’t be considered for this job, nor would FIU have gotten away with hiring him as its men’s coach in 2009.
The WNBA Board of Governors must act as Silver did in the Sterling case and veto Thomas’ appointment as a new owner. WNBA president Laurel Richie should seize the moment to declare that sexism cannot be tolerated in 21st century America. The W in WNBA is a symbol of gender equity, of the opportunity women deserve to excel at the top of their chosen game.
Browne didn’t get that chance as vice president of marketing with the Knicks. The jury awarded her $11.6 million in punitive damages from Madison Square Garden and James Dolan, chair of Cablevision, the parent company of the Garden, Knicks, Liberty and Rangers. They settled for $11.5 million.
Dolan is responsible for hiring Thomas and reviving his dormant career. Dolan’s loyalty to Thomas is inexplicable, and a source of not only black humor but panic among Knicks fans. When Phil Jackson retires, or gives up on the mess the franchise has become, will Dolan put Thomas back at the helm?
Thomas has been a failure at every position he’s held since his playing days with the champion Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys.” Once an NBA darling, he was an NBA disaster with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Knicks. He bought the Continental Basketball Association, then took it to financial ruin. Hired by FIU’s Pete Garcia for publicity value rather than coaching competence, Thomas went 26-65 in three seasons before he was fired. He couldn’t even win in college basketball’s basement.
Now he’s returned to the Big Apple. His disarming dimpled smile — adorable when he was a baby-faced star, creepy today — can’t disguise the fact that he’s an awful fit for a 19-year-old league that is still growing (about half its 12 teams are profitable), still building credibility.
Thomas and Dolan are still in denial, contesting the jury’s verdict, refuting Browne’s “sordid allegations,” and claiming that Thomas was never held personally liable.
Browne, a former Northwestern University basketball player, mother of three and the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball championships, said Thomas and Dolan are attempting to “rewrite history” and that six of seven jurors voted to assess damages against Thomas. Had the case not been settled, he would have faced a retrial.
“Sadly, it appears that those who do not learn from the past will be condemned to repeat it,” Browne said.
That doesn’t have to happen with Thomas. The WNBA and its players should take a stand to show that women have power over those who would wield it against them.