Verdict in Thomas Trial May Send Message to Sports World

The Associated Press
October 3, 2007

Even with a $11.6 million sexual harassment judgment against New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, Madison Square Garden has shown no signs of contrition.

Garden CEO James Dolan will soon have to defend against a similar lawsuit brought by a New York Rangers cheerleader, who has accused her Garden bosses of having her instruct fellow cheerleaders to look more “doable.”

The Garden has vowed to fight the case.

But some legal experts who were closely watching the Thomas trial predict that the verdict won by fired Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders will send a message that locker room behavior cannot be tolerated in team offices.

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That’s the message Browne Sanders was hoping to send.

In a television interview Wednesday, she said she hoped her victory was a “wake-up call” for corporate America as well as sexually harassed women.

“I hope it has an impact … for employers across industry to take heed and pay attention and take responsibility for the workplace,” Browne Sanders said, adding she hoped her case also would embolden women to speak up about workplace abuse.

“Silence never makes change,” she said.

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The jurors found the MSG chairman fired Browne Sanders out of spite and should pay $3 million out of his own pocket as punishment. Thomas, meanwhile, pays nothing.

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In the Knicks’ universe, according to plaintiff’s lawyers, Thomas could address Browne Sanders as “bitch” and “ho” and get away with it; star guard Stephon Marbury could bed an intern and still be coddled by Thomas; upper management could draw up rules against sexual harassment and fail to enforce them.

Jurors were shown a videotaped deposition in which Dolan, wearing a black T-shirt and slouched in his chair, portrayed Browne Sanders once a rising star in the organization as an incompetent malcontent who offended him by demanding a $6 million severance package. He personally made the decision to can her from her $260,000-a-year job without consulting a lawyer, he said.

On the witness stand, Dolan’s testimony could have left the impression he had a lax attitude about vulgarities: Asked if he had ever heard Thomas curse, he replied, “I’m sure I have.” Asked if he would admonish Thomas if he heard him call the plantiff “bitch,” he responded, “Possibly.”

Defense attorneys sought to portray Browne Sanders, a 44-year-old former Northwestern basketball star, as tough enough for professional basketball’s boys club scheming, foul-mouthed and physically imposing.

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In the end, the defense may have offended the jury by using a faltering strategy for a sexual harassment case, said Kathleen Peratis, an employment and discrimination lawyer with the Manhattan firm Outten & Golden.

“The playbook is to smear the plaintiff,” said Peratis, who represents the woman in the Rangers cheerleader case.

“In this case, it completely backfired,” she said. “That’s not going to change everything overnight, but we all take a lesson away from a case that’s so hotly contested and so hotly reported.”

Like the Browne Sanders case, the cheerleader case already has gotten ugly.

The plaintiff, former head cheerleader Courtney Prince, has accused her Garden bosses of having her instruct fellow cheerleaders to stuff their bras and lose weight to look more sexually appealing.

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“We believe that the jury’s decision was incorrect,” the Garden said. “We look forward to presenting our arguments to an appeals court, and believe they will agree that no sexual harassment took place and MSG acted properly.”