How the Madison Square Garden Lawsuit Changes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
On October 2nd, a federal jury found that a former executive of the New York Knicks was sexually harassed by her bosses, including coach Isiah Thomas. Anucha Browne Sanders will receive $11.6 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages from Madison Square Garden, her former employer. As USA Today reported, “though Thomas is off the hook for any damages, he leaves the case with a tarnished image.” Browne Sanders insisted that her victory was more about sending a message than the money: “What I did here, I did for every working woman in America,” she said. “And that includes everyone who gets up and goes to work in the morning, everyone working in a corporate environment.” But what impact will this verdict have on corporate America?
Isiah Lord Thomas III is a Hall of Fame basketball player. Being neither very tall nor very big, he overcame his physical shortcomings through being truly gifted and by being tougher than anyone on the court. This is a man who sparred with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, among others. Any time he felt he wasn’t getting the respect he deserved, he would go out on the court and earn it, as evidenced by the US Dream Team and John Stockton incident. Thomas would play injured, and, just as famously, led to the injuries of many other players through his rough, and sometimes dirty play, with the other members of the back-to-back champions Detroit Pistons: a group dubbed “The Bad Boys.” This “Bad Boy” play was what helped propel Isiah Thomas to an induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But once Isiah Thomas moved into the front office, he lost his ability to overcome his shortcomings. A long laundry list of misdeeds since his playing days include Thomas being pushed out by the Toronto Raptors after a dispute with ownership (allegations arose that the dispute was due to Thomas illegally giving tickets to NCAA players), his purchase of the minor-league Continental Basketball Association which two years later went bankrupt, and his inability to lead the Indiana Pacers as head coach past the first round of the playoffs. Yet where Thomas may have had the most problems since leaving the court has been with the New York Knicks. While many of his issues with the New York Knicks had to do with player/personnel issues and overspending on less than premier talent, the sexual harassment case – and what has come out about Thomas and the Knicks during investigations – could have reverberations well beyond the National Basketball Association.
Browne Sanders’ sexual harassment suit alleged, according to ABC News, that from the time he was hired in 2003, Thomas created a hostile workplace rife with unwanted advances including hugs, invitations to leave the office for trysts, and kisses on the cheek. She alleged that Thomas “verbally harassed her, calling her sexually charged names and swearing at her crudely.” In a video deposition, Thomas appeared to argue that “a black man can say things to a black woman that white men cannot.”
“The only way you make change is by being there, being silent never makes change, so speak up,” Browne Sanders said, encouraging women in similar situations to speak up.
While some predict this will give courage to other women all over America to speak out, the reverberations have already been seen not too far from where Browne Sanders once called home. According to reports, the verdict in this case could help former New York Rangers City Skaters captain Courtney Prince, who filed suit in October 2004 against Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, claiming she was fired from her job after complaining of unwanted sexual advances from executives. Prince’s attorney Kathleen Peratis said the verdict does offer encouragement for women’s rights in the workplace.
“It certainly has a very important effect on these claims in general and I think on the way defendants present their defense,” Peratis said.
Peratis added that the claims validated by the jury verdict in the Browne Sanders case are generally the same in most sexual harassment cases – a claim is made for sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, followed by a claim for a retaliatory firing.
“The thing that I think this enormous punitive damage verdict suggests is that the defendant really undermined all of its credibility with the jury by going after the plaintiff the way they did,” Peratis said. “I think that typical strategy of defendants, there may be a little reality testing going on. That’s certainly what they did to Courtney Prince and that is sort of from the game book of employers defending these cases.”
The verdict definitely resounds in the sports world, where one Sports Illustrated writer proclaimed: “This jury said women in the world of sports can go ahead and be women.”
Sixteen years ago, Anita Hill had a very famous sexual harassment lawsuit against a different Thomas, Clarence Thomas. Hill was asked after this trial whether she thought things have changed in the sixteen years since her day in court. “What I want to know is whether we’ve made progress in the last 16 years,” Hill said. “I do hear from people who say things in the workplace have improved. And I think that’s significant. But what’s behind it, I don’t know. Is it a fear of litigation, or is it because employers want to do the right thing? And if they’re doing it right, does it really matter?”
Although the defendants have asked that the punishment be reduced, claiming that the award is “grossly excessive,” the damages may not end with the financial payment required by the verdict. Thomas singled out the rich, white businessmen who give the financial support to his constant signs and trades, and said he didn’t care about them. Thomas’ treatment of Browne Sanders has also drawn the ire of the black community, with Reverend Al Sharpton claiming that Isiah Thomas owes an apology to black women. And Thomas is not the only one under fire.
According to NPR, the Browne Sanders trial has “reflected rather disastrously on James Dolan, the billionaire CEO of Cablevision, which owns the Knicks. In a videotaped deposition that was played at the trial, Dolan sat slumped in a chair wearing a black crewneck shirt with the sleeves pushed up. His demeanor and answers may have seemed flippant to the jurors. Laughing off this case may have been Madison Square Garden’s undoing. Cablevision is valued by the stock market to be worth more than $10 billion. When Browne Sanders left the Garden, she offered to drop her suit for $6 million. She was rebuffed.”
How can you prevent a similar situation from happening in your organization? There are many lessons that should be taken out of this cautionary tale for Human Resources professionals:
- Educate employees who enter your organization about sexual harassment, through written policies and active discussion / training,
- Hold employees accountable if they behave poorly or against policy,
- Constantly monitor the situations in the office to identify potential issues at the start, and
- If any potential situations arise, address them in a swift, thorough, and just manner.
“While sexual harassment is a terrible thing for anyone to endure, we hope that the Browne Sanders case will cause all people to think before they act at work. Relationships often cannot be changed back once certain lines have been crossed. It is everyone’s responsibility to act professionally in the workplace,” explains National Director Jennifer Loftus. “With Human Resources’ watchful eye, and common sense thinking on the part of everyone, sexual harassment situations need not arise.”
In the end, Browne Sanders will probably not—according to the New York Daily News—see any of that money in the near future. She will most likely not have an easy time finding jobs in the professional sports world. Yet even if she never receives a dime from this lawsuit, she has forever stamped her name in history and won another battle for women and African Americans in the workplace.