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Unspeakable act

NBA's silence on Isiah verdict sends wrong message

Posted: Wednesday October 3, 2007 4:13PM; Updated: Wednesday October 3, 2007 4:24PM
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Because Isiah Thomas was involved in a civil case, the NBA has said it won't penalize the Knicks' coach and president.
Because Isiah Thomas was involved in a civil case, the NBA has said it won't penalize the Knicks' coach and president.
David Bergman/SI

So the New York Knicks lose again, this time in court instead of on it, which shouldn't be surprising because when is the last time Isiah Thomas' Knicks won anything important? The smart money knew all along to take Anucha Browne Sanders and lay the points. Basic incompetence coming from Knicks executives is business as usual; the utter, bumbling mismanagement of what was once one of the NBA's proudest franchises over the past several years has been nothing if not low comedy.

But now we see that there was something darker at work as well. At least, that's what the jury who found in favor of Sanders in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Thomas and Madison Square Garden believed. Thomas isn't just a clueless team president who makes foolish trades and throws good money after bad free agents; he's a predatory boss who made unwanted advances on a female employee and then watched as she was fired for complaining about his harassment, according to the jury's verdict. (Despite the ruling, Thomas has not wavered from his insistence that he did not harass Sanders, and says he plans to appeal.)

By the time Cablevision, the Knicks' parent company, was ordered to pay Sanders $11.6 million in punitive damages on Tuesday, untold damage had already been done to the Knicks, and by extension the NBA. In addition to Thomas' behavior toward Sanders, his twisted etiquette regarding calling a black woman a "bitch" (it's less objectionable when a black man does it than when a white man does, in Isiah's world) was made public, not to mention the details of point guard Stephon Marbury's tryst in a truck with a team intern outside a strip club.

All of this was spilling out into the public domain in a courtroom not far from NBA commissioner David Stern's Manhattan offices, and you would think that the sordidness of it all would have made Stern reach for his hammer, ready to bring it down on Thomas and owner James Dolan when they were found liable. Stern, after all, is the commissioner/dictator, the ruler who vigorously guards the league's image. He can institute a dress code for the players, telling grown men what they can and cannot wear to the arena, because he doesn't want the league to have a street thug persona. He can uphold the ridiculous rule that calls for a player to be suspended merely for taking a few steps off the bench during a fight because he doesn't want the league to have a violent image.

Yet when team executives like Thomas and Dolan are found to have created a hostile work environment for a female employee and generally to have acted like Neanderthals, Stern is strangely unable -- or unwilling -- to act. He has said the NBA policy is not to deal with civil matters, so it is unlikely that the Knicks will face any league punishment for their actions. It's hard to imagine how some rookie on the injured list wearing a baseball cap sideways on the bench is more damaging to the league's image than team executives being successfully sued for sexual harassment, but apparently as long as Thomas and Dolan were wearing jackets and ties while making Browne's work life miserable, it's OK with Stern.

The NBA owes it to its fans, particularly its female ones, not to mention the considerable number of women who work for the league and its teams, to add its own punishment to the jury's award. At the very least, Stern should make Thomas and Dolan dig even deeper into their wallets to pay a substantial fine -- $1 million from the organization and $500,000 from Thomas sounds about right -- and a suspension for Thomas is in order as well. Stern hasn't hesitated to be the tough guy on other, less serious matters. If he wants to send a message about what the league will and will not condone, he can't go silent now.