The NBA moved quickly on Tuesday to express its disappointment with the alleged behavior of former Dallas Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery and the organization as a whole. As first reported in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, the Mavericks under Ussery ran “a real-life Animal House,” replete with “misogyny and predatory sexual behavior.” The league said in a statement: “This alleged conduct runs counter to the steadfast commitment of the NBA and its teams to foster safe, respectful and welcoming workplaces for all employees.”
There is every reason to take the league at its word; since Adam Silver became commissioner in 2014, the NBA has made a point of responding to social and political movements. Silver famously banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league after he was caught on tape making racist remarks, and he has personally championed NBA stars’ forays into activism. Regarding harassment specifically, according to a Yahoo Sports story on Thursday, the NBA had already asked its franchises to review their “respect in the workplace” policies, and next week, the league will launch a hotline for anonymous tips about harassment.
So, with the league taking all the proper steps, what is Isiah Thomas still doing on NBATV, the channel managed by the league and Turner Sports? In 2006, when Thomas was president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, a former team vice president sued Madison Square Garden, Knicks owner James Dolan, and Thomas for sex discrimination and retaliation, and a jury found Thomas liable for aiding and abetting a hostile work environment based on sex.
The workplace culture Thomas was found to have fostered in New York was hardly more professional than the one in Dallas. Anucha Browne (then known as Anucha Browne Sanders), who was the team’s senior vice president of marketing, claimed that Thomas at various points berated her, made sexual advances toward her, told her he was in love with her, and called her a “b---h” and a “h-.” She also claimed that Thomas undermined her with other executives and with Knicks players, and that Dolan fired her because she had blown the whistle on Thomas’s behavior and the organizational climate under him.
A Garden spokesperson said on Friday, “We continue to believe that Isiah did nothing wrong.”
Thomas largely denied the charges, though he admitted that on one occasion he had tried to kiss her on the cheek and had been rebuffed. The Knicks, for their part, contended that Browne instead had been fired because she hadn’t excelled in her role and her relationships with other executives were strained.
When the case went to trial in federal court in 2007, the resulting tabloid frenzy dwarfed the one caused by the lawsuit. The Knicks were painted as amateurish and misogynistic. Browne alleged in court that star point guard Stephon Marbury pressured an intoxicated Knicks intern to have sex with him in a truck outside a strip club. (The woman testified that the sex was consensual.) In court, Marbury admitted to calling Browne a bitch. And a video deposition of Thomas came to light in which Thomas explained that he had less of a problem with a black man calling a black woman a bitch than he did with a white man doing so. "I'm sorry to say, I do make a distinction." (He was making the point to illustrate his claim that a white underling of his had not, in fact, called Browne a bitch.)
The jury awarded Browne $11.6 million in damages, though it deadlocked as to whether Thomas was himself liable for any monetary damages. The Garden and Browne settled the suit for a reported $11.5 million two months after the verdict, before any appeal could occur. In announcing the settlement, the Garden called the verdict “a travesty of justice” and said that then-commissioner David Stern had pressured the organization to settle. Thomas said, "As I have said before, I am completely innocent… however, this is the best course for Madison Square Garden and I fully support it."
With a chance to support its words with action, so far the league has declined to act. How short can Adam Silver’s memory be? He was a top NBA executive during the days of the trial, and all of this already floated back to public consciousness during his commissionership, in 2015, when Dolan named Thomas team president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. (Dolan had also named Thomas a part-owner of the franchise, though the league’s board of governors put that on hold.) The move was widely seen as an insult to women. On Real Sports later that year, Bryant Gumbel said as much to Thomas. He responded, “We totally understood that, got it, accepted that, and respected it.” (Still Thomas denied the claims Browne made in her suit, and he maintains his innocence to this day.)
The past months’ reckoning has with some frequency presented a particular challenge: How should men be held to account for behavior that was implicitly (and shamefully) tolerated years ago? There is no easy answer—but it’s not all that hard to notice that the NBA whiffed back then. Thomas curiously had the league’s blessing to keep coaching and leading the Knicks, despite the jury’s finding.
Did he go undisciplined because the NBA believed his claims of innocence? (If so, did the league investigate the matter independently?) Was his non-sanction deference to Dolan’s authority over his franchise? Or did he go unpunished because the NBA of a decade ago had no real problem with hostile work environments?
If the NBA means what it says these days, fans are owed an explanation, at least, for the league’s continued embrace of Thomas. This is what they’ll get: Reached for comment Friday, NBA executive vice president of communications Mike Bass said, “Since a jury in 2007 determined that Isiah Thomas contributed to a work environment that did not meet proper standards, we are aware of no similar allegations against Mr. Thomas, who has been a proponent of women’s advancement in sports as President of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, and don't believe he should be precluded from working on NBA TV. The NBA and its teams are committed to creating safe, respectful, and welcoming workplaces for all employees.”