Shame Game

When the Knicks Took Pages From Weinstein’s Playbook

Knicks owner and former Weinstein Co. board member James Dolan lost his team’s $11M sexual harassment suit in 2007, but hasn’t stopped shaming the accuser ever since.

James Dolan, chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, owner of the New York Knicks, Rangers, and Liberty, has found himself implicated in the alleged sexual crimes of Harvey Weinstein.

On Dec. 6, a class action lawsuit filed by six women alleges that Dolan, while previously serving as a member of the Weinstein Company board, was aware of “Weinstein’s pattern and practice of predatory sexual conduct toward women.”

The plaintiffs, all of whom say they were assaulted by the now-disgraced ex-mogul, are accusing many of Weinstein’s former associates, employees, and partners, describing them as part of what it describes as the sprawling “Weinstein Sexual Enterprise,” the lawsuit states.

They claim that Weinstein’s army of spies, corporate enablers, friendly reporters, and other complicit individuals, who, either by maintaining silent or actively participating, helped facilitate a decades-long pattern of alleged sexual violence. 

But one other event from the recent past inexorably binds the pair.

In 2007, Isiah Thomas, the team’s then-president of basketball operations, and Madison Square Garden settled a lawsuit filed by their former vice president for marketing and business operations, Anucha Browne, then known as Anucha Browne-Sanders.

In the suit, Browne claimed that for the 14 months they worked together, Thomas had sexually harassed her, alternating between private, racially tinged outbursts in which he called her a “bitch” and a “ho,” and subjecting her unwanted advances and demands for physical affection. In one interaction, Thomas told her during a game of H-O-R-S-E that they shared a deep romantic bond, one akin to the movie Love and Basketball.

According to the suit, after months spent attempting to alert MSG officials and numerous complaints about Thomas’ behavior, and while MSG was still in the process of investigating her claims, she was fired. According to MSG, Browne was relieved of her duties both for incompetence and for interfering with the investigation. Browne claimed that the termination was retaliatory. 

And while the trial was firmly plastered in the center of the news cycle and the back pages of New York tabloids, the tactics used by Dolan’s team of attorneys—the attempts to paint her as an opportunistic liar and subpar employee trying to squeeze MSG for a quick buck—should scan as an all too familiar defense and deflection in the #MeToo era when hardly a day goes by without another high-profile harasser under fire and quickly removed from high-profile positions.

Dolan didn’t fire Thomas when all was said and done—and it took intervention by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern at the end of the season to get him out of the building—thanks to his unshakable belief that the harassment was a wild concoction that Browne had spun out of whole cloth.

Moreover, Thomas is the current president of New York’s WNBA team, the Liberty, and maintains a side-gig working as an analyst on NBA TV. The affair only comes burbling back to the surface for brief moments, such as the numerous attempts by Dolan to revitalize the front office career and reputation of his former employee.

The jury ultimately ruled in favor of Browne, awarding her $11.6 million in damages both for sexual harassment and unlawful termination. In a settlement agreement, the number was reduced to $11.5 million, all of which came straight from MSG’s coffers. And yet, both MSG and Thomas refused to accept reality.

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When the settlement was announced, in a statement MSG said of the jury’s initial verdict, “The outcome was a travesty of justice.”

“I want to say it as loud as I possibly can,” Thomas said outside the courtroom following the initial verdict. “I am innocent. I’m very innocent. I did not do the things that she accused me in the courtroom of doing.”

Thomas promised to appeal, adding that he was “extremely disappointed that the jury did not see the facts in this case.”

He did not appeal.

Unlike Weinstein, who expressed regret while denying that the most serious charges that were leveled are true, Thomas did not apologize for his actions. MSG, Thomas, and James Dolan never ceased proclaiming their innocence, even if it means railing against Browne again. (Browne declined to comment when contacted by The Daily Beast.)

When Dolan found a soft landing spot for his dear chum, hiring Isiah to run the WNBA’s New York Liberty, MSG’s notoriously guarded PR team said in a statement that they “did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now.”

“We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility,” the statement said. “In fact, when given the opportunity, the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously or in bad faith.”

It’s a denial that MSG turned to time and time again, even as recently as Dec. 1 of this year, all while insinuating that Browne is not to be trusted. The jury’s initial verdict didn’t agree, however, finding Thomas guilty of sexual harassment. Six of the seven jurors also found Thomas personally liable and subject to punitive damages. (Had they reached a unanimous verdict on that count, Thomas, and not just MSG itself, would have been forced to pay Browne.)

What’s more, “Had the defendants not settled after the verdict, Thomas would have had to face a retrial on that issue,” Browne said in a statement in response to MSG when Thomas was hired to run the Liberty.

When the Liberty began winning games in 2015, Thomas and Dolan took a victory lap of sorts. In an hour-long episode of HBO’s Real Sports, they took turns stunning host Bryant Gumbel by painting themselves as the victims.

Dolan claimed that Browne had fabricated much of the harassment, telling Gumbel, “I think a bunch of it she did [make up], yes,” and, as he had during the trial, confessed to foregoing the advice of his lawyers before firing Browne. For his part, Thomas denied ever screaming at Browne, “Don’t forget, you fucking bitch, I’m the president of this fucking team.”

Dolan’s lawyers dropped a motherlode of evidence at Browne in court, much of which was easily disprovable, and hired multiple firms and private investigators in an attempt to make Browne appear untrustworthy. It backfired.

Browne’s lead attorney, Anne Vladeck, in employment lawyer in New York City, claims that instead of the creating an image of a nefarious opportunist, Dolan’s legal team wound up ended up turning off the jury.

“They treated it like a PR exercise as opposed to a lawsuit,” she told The Daily Beast. “They shouldn’t have been surprised by the verdict.”

For the defendants, the allegations of sexual harassment were all a fiendish plot she’d concocted because Browne feared that she was about to lose her job. MSG never did explain why all her performance reports were uniformly excellent, she’d received a promotion, and been handed a $76,000 bonus mere months before she was fired. They suggested Browne a tax cheat, but Browne testified that any tax-related problems she’d had were due to an accounting error.

A then-community relations intern working under Browne named Kathleen Decker claimed that Browne had tried to cajole her into complaining about a sexual encounter with star guard Stephon Marbury, who testified that he may have called Browne a “bitch” but not a “black bitch, had sex with Decker in his truck outside a strip club, asking her, “Are you going to get in the truck?” Though Decker testified that the sex was consensual—and the New York Post ran with the headline “Intern Turned On”—Browne had previously testified that Decker told her, “I felt like I had to,” sleep with Marbury. Browne also added, “[Decker] basically did whatever [Marbury asked her to do. She considered it to be consensual because she agreed to get in the car.”

Yet, these details and the question of coercion were seen as a tabloid-ready, lurid sidebar in 2007. It’s doubtful that all of this would be limited back page fodder in 2017. Though the intern testified that she had consented to sleeping with Marbury, Browne countered that Decker had told her, “I felt like I had to [get in the truck].” Decker was also hired full-time by MSG in 2005, and, six weeks prior to the trial, received a promotion.

Vladeck also produced a copy of a handwritten note the intern had sent to Browne, thanking her for being “incredibly supportive and understanding” when discussing the “mistake” she’d made regarding Marbury.

Steve Mills, then serving as the president of Madison Square Garden also found his memory lacking on the stand. Though he was Browne’s immediate superior, he claimed that he had no idea about any unwanted advances Thomas had made until December 2005. This despite testifying that in a meeting held a month earlier, a tear-strewn Browne told him she’d “lost the confidence of the people she worked with,” and wanted to quit, he said. Once informed by Browne of attempts by Thomas to hug and kiss her, Mills testified that he told Thomas, “‘If she doesn’t want you to do it, don’t hug her.”

Browne further testified that Mills had warned her in November 2005, “Isiah’s going to start a rumor about you having an affair with [15-year MSG employee and then-Director of Scouting] Jeff Nix,” should she not drop the sexual harassment allegations. Mills denied that he had done so, but Nix backed Browne’s story in his testimony, calling Mills, “a fucking liar.”

After a brief respite from 2008 to 2013 when he was not with organization, Mills was brought back into the fold by Dolan, and currently serves as president of basketball operations.

Dolan’s testimony had more obvious holes in it. In videotaped testimony, Dolan claimed he’d been told that Browne was interfering with MSG’s investigation—part of their rationale for firing her—by Rusty McCormack, the Garden’s senior vice president for human resources. But McCormack, in video testimony shown to jurors just following Dolan’s, said that he’d never spoken with Dolan about their internal investigation at all. When asked if it was okay for Thomas to call Browne a “bitch,” Dolan responded, “No, it’s not appropriate.”

He continued: “It is also not appropriate to murder anyone. I don’t think that that has happened either.”

For his part, Thomas denied that he had ever directly called Browne either a “bitch” or a “ho,” though he admitted he may have used that kind of language around her. In his testimony, Nix said he had seen Thomas address Browne as such and two season ticket holders testified they’d seen Thomas try to embrace Browne without her consent.

Thomas also expanded on his thoughts regarding the use of the word “bitch,” testifying that “a white male calling a black female a bitch is highly offensive,” but were a black male to do the same, it’s “not as much.”

Howard Beck, a senior NBA reporter with Bleacher Report who covered the Knicks from 2004 to 2012 for The New York Times, did not cover the trial, but his impression is that the most damning allegations of sexual harassment were largely viewed by the public as just another example of the Knicks’ longstanding history of both on- and off-court incompetence.

“I do think that given the broad generalized dysfunction of that franchise, not just at that time, but prior to and since, that anything that the Knicks did that was scandalous or out of the ordinary or just incompetent was all blended in together,” he said when reached by phone.

Some of the allegations that arose during the trial, including those that did not necessarily involve the plaintiff and the defendants, like the sexual encounters between Parker and Marbury, only served to smooth out any differences between a hostile workplace and a poorly run basketball team.

“It seems to me that this was not treated with the gravity that it probably deserved from a standpoint of it being a sexual harassment case at its core,” Beck said. While this was not necessarily true of all fans nor all the reporting and commentary at the time, overall, “People looked at it as more Garden dysfunction”

The dysfunction has been plain for all to see. As the Knicks’ boss, Dolan has presided over disastrous trades and free agent signings, called random fans drunks on multiple occasions, insisted on pressing charges against Knicks legend Charles Oakley after he was thrown out of Knicks game while accusing him of substance and anger-related issues, sent an angry note to the employer of a fan who once criticized him, treated beat reporters like enemies, and created a “culture of paranoia” among employees. Even when it comes to his non-Knicks holdings, he’s courted public scorn, repeatedly attempting to bust the Cablevision union, while cultivating a “frat boy mentality” and “a boys’ club, a boys’ network and the boys could do whatever they wanted to do,” according to former Cablevision employees, and forcing the Rockettes to perform at President Trump’s inauguration while ignoring their protestations.

But were similar allegations to surface today—for any professional sports team, not just one owned by Dolan—Beck believes the response would be quite different.

“In today’s climate with everything that we’ve seen unfold in the last couple of months,” said Beck, referring to the alleged sexual harassment by high-profile men that arrive on a near-daily basis, “I think it’s impossible to think that it would unfold in the same way or that folks would react to it in the same way.”

Given the current climate, Beck said it would be reasonable to speculate that the NBA might respond more harshly if the same case were unfolding today. At the time, Commissioner Stern declined to punish the Knicks following the settlement announcement and seemed to be far more concerned that the Knicks hadn’t come to terms with Browne long before the case ever went to trial.

“It demonstrates that they’re not a model of intelligent management,” Stern said in a ESPN interview. While he promised that the NBA would continue to do everything in its power to ensure that all teams follow league-mandated sexual harassment policies, and stated that “sexual harassment is not acceptable,” Stern added that “there were many checkpoints along the way where more decisive action would have eliminated this issue.”

Dolan amicably resigned from the board of The Weinstein Company in June 2016, calling Weinstein and his brother, Bob, “close personal friends.” At the time of his departure, Weinstein was equally complimentary of Dolan, also referring to him as a “friend.”

Over the last two months, a total of 83 women have come forward to accuse Dolan’s friend and colleague Weinstein of all manner of sexual crimes, including coercion, harassment, and rape.

Reached for comment, a representative from Vision Public Relations said MSG and Dolan declined to respond the class action lawsuit in which he’s named until they had completed a review of the complaint. The PR firm released the following statement: “Mr Dolan is confident that he acted appropriately in all matters relating to his time on the Weinstein board.”

For Vladeck, a born and bred New Yorker who once upon a time rooted for the Knicks, it’s still stunning to her that Dolan hasn’t managed to show more self-awareness.

“The question I have about [Dolan] is, he’s constantly rewriting history. Does he really believe it works?” Vladeck asked.

“I think that [very wealthy people] think that pesky little facts can go away if you’re rich enough,” she added. “Gee, isn’t it interesting that [Dolan and Weinstein] are friends?”