NEW YORK — Not everyone is cheering the return of Isiah Thomas to Madison Square Garden.
Anucha Browne Sanders, who won a sexual harassment lawsuit against Thomas, the Garden and Chairman Jim Dolan in 2007, and agreed to a settlement of $11.5 million, is criticizing the move.
She issued a statement through her lawyer Anne Vladeck, saying “those who do not learn from the past will be condemned to repeat it.”
Thomas, the former Knicks president and coach, was rehired this week by Dolan as president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
Browne Sanders is a former Knicks executive and now the NCAA Vice President for Women’s Basketball Championships, who attended the Final Four in Tampa last month.
She added the Garden is attempting to “rewrite history” by issuing a statement this week that indicated what happened to her was simply “allegations” and unrelated to Thomas. She called the Garden statement “at best misleading and, at worst, a fabrication.”
The fallout after the May 5 announcement began almost immediately from commentators, women’s sports advocates and fans, who objected to Thomas running a women’s professional basketball team and the prospect of him becoming a part-owner of the Liberty with Dolan.
“Rehiring Thomas would be indicative of Dolan’s lack of respect for women and his insensitivity to the seriousness of sex discrimination in employment — something women face all too often,” said Donna Lopiano, the former women’s Athletic Director at Texas who specializes in Title IX and gender equity issues.
The Women’s Sports Foundation wrote an open letter to the WNBA Board of Governors, urging the 12 team owners not to approve Thomas as part-owner and to establish a clear policy on sexual harassment.
“Our reaction echoed the public’s overwhelming sentiment. We were shocked. We were puzzled,” the letter read.
The letter added that if Thomas becomes the Liberty president the message to young girls and women is that “sexual harassment — inexcusable behavior in any workplace — is not only tolerated but is instead rewarded with executive offices and big contracts.”
The Seattle Storm ownership group, comprised of three businesswomen, said they “believe there is no statute of limitations on the mandate that all WNBA owners and executives serve as exemplary role models and leaders.”
Owners Dawn Trudeau, Lisa Brummel and Ginny Gilder, added in a statement that “the sports world is finally beginning to address issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault, all of which have been inadequately addressed for far too long. The WNBA belongs in a leadership role in addressing these sensitive issues.”
This week, Thomas attempted to downplay his role in the lawsuit, saying in interviews that the jury “found no findings” and he “was not liable.”
The Garden also issued a statement saying “we did not believe the allegations then and we don’t believe them now” and “the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously.”
That prompted Browne Sanders and her lawyer to respond.
“The Garden’s suggestion that the jury somehow exonerated Thomas by failing to award punitive damages against him is simply untrue,” the statement read.
“To the contrary, six of seven jurors voted to assess punitive damages against Thomas personally. Had the defendants not settled after the verdict, Thomas would have had to face a retrial on that issue.”
The jury at the Federal District Court in Manhattan determined Browne was entitled to $11.6 million in punitive damages from the Garden and Dolan — $6 million the result of a hostile work environment created by Thomas and $5.6 million because Browne was improperly fired after telling her bosses. Dolan and MSG settled by paying $11.5 million.
Thomas had an unsuccessful run as the Knicks’ President from 2003-08, with the team reaching the NBA playoffs only once. He coached the Knicks from 2006-08 and went 56-108 before being fired.
“How can (ex-Clippers owner Donald) Sterling be rejected for his racist remarks and Thomas be embraced?” Lopiano said. “Women matter. Sexual violence, sexual harassment, lack of respect, all of these things matter.”
Lopiano said the WNBA Board of Governors should reject Thomas’ attempt to become a part-owner of the Liberty.
“Such decisions reflect the values of the Board of Governors,” Lopiano said. “I would think that both the WNBA and the NBA would disagree with Dolan on such a move.”
(MELISSA MURPHY, AP Sports Writer)