Sexual Harassment at Madison Square Garden

In one of the most high-profile sexual harassment cases in recent history, on October 2 a jury decided that New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden (MSG) Chairman James Dolan had sexually harassed a female team executive. Charges against Thomas included subjecting the employee to unwanted advances and a barrage of verbal insults.

While the jury ruled that Thomas does not have to pay punitive damages, his employer, Madison Square Garden has to pay damages to the tune of $11.6 million.

Anucha Browne Sanders was a married mother of three working as VP of Marketing and Business Operations for the Knicks. During a spectacular college basketball career at Northwestern University, Browne Sanders set 24 team records. Browne Sanders set an NCAA women’s record by scoring 30 or more points in six straight games. She was Northwestern’s first All-Star player, named Big Ten Player of the Year twice, and an All-Conference selection three times. In 1992, Browne Sanders was named Northwestern’s player of the decade.

Isiah Thomas had an illustrious career as a player with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to Championships in 1989 and 1990. Thomas was voted one of the 50 all-time great basketball NBA players. He currently ranks 4th in all-time assists and 9th in all-time steals.

Browne Sanders’ testimony painted the Garden as a place where nepotism and sexism were rampant, illustrated by insults and crude language. One news story characterized the behavior as “Animal House in sneakers,” referring to the classic movie on fraternity hi-jinks.

According to Browne Sanders, Thomas initially called her a “bitch” and a “ho” in angry tirades. At some point Thomas’ attitude changed, and he began propositioning her.

Thomas denied most of the charges, but admitted to trying to kiss Browne Sanders during a business meeting.

Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan fired Browne Sanders after she filed a sexual harassment complaint in the case – a move that some construed as illegal retaliation. Dolan argued that Browne Sanders just didn’t understand team politics, and was pressuring other employees to support her claims.

This case is unusual because Thomas was accused of both of the most commonly recognized types of sexual harassment – quid pro quo and a hostile work environment.

In quid pro quo harassment, an employee of either sex is subject to unwelcome sexual advances by a member of either sex. Often, the harasser is a supervisor, and the employee believes that he or she must comply to advance within the company, or to avoid being fired. “Quid pro quo” literally means “one thing in return for another.” In this case, it suggests an exchange of sexual favors for salary increase, promotion or continued employment.

A hostile work environment exists when an employee is subject to verbal abuse or an intimidating work environment due to his or her gender. In one recent case, a female New Jersey firefighter won a case for a hostile work environment after receiving pictures of naked women in her mailbox every day for six months.

The concept of a hostile work environment has been expanded beyond sexual harassment, to include discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, age or disability. For example, in a recent Ohio case African American employees who were exposed to graffiti of nooses and racial epithets in the workplace, successfully sued based on a hostile work environment.

Generally an employer must be aware of the conditions for a hostile work environment to exist. However, in the case sited above, the court ruled that the employer “should have been aware of” the conditions, even if no employee complained. In the Isiah Thomas case, the jury’s findings suggest that they believe that Madison Square Garden was – or should have been – aware of the hostile working conditions faced by Anucha Browne Sanders.

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