Isiah Thomas was the leader of the Detroit Pistons' legendary Bad Boys teams back when they prowled the courts like a pack of wolves. Now it seems he really is a bad boy. At least that's how a jury saw it in the sexual harassment suit brought against him and his employer, Madison Square Garden. Coupled with the still-simmering feud between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill that flared up the same week, we thrilled with two bouts by lumbering heavyweights in the dirty, bare-knuckled fighting of sexual politics on the black-hand side.
Thomas, coach and president of the New York Knicks, was sued by Anucha Browne Sanders, a former senior vice president for marketing at Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks organization. She charged that Thomas regularly referred to her as a "ho" and a "bitch." Not to mention sprinkling his conversations with F-bombs. Browne Sanders also said that he made unwanted sexual advances to her. To top it off, she charged that the Garden fired her after she lodged complaints about Thomas' behavior.
The jury agreed with her to the tune of $11.6 million in fines and punitive damages against the organization and James L. Dolan, the chairman of Cablevision, the parent company of the Garden and the Knicks. Thomas and the Garden have vowed to appeal the decision.
It's been a long and winding road for Thomas since he led Indiana University to a National Championship, won two NBA Championships and served as the president of the NBA Players Association. His endeavors since then part owner and executive vice president of the Toronto Raptors, owner of the Continental Basketball Association, coach of the Indiana Pacers and now the Knicks haven't been brilliant successes. And bright as his famous smile is, there has always been an undercurrent of malevolence about him that led to doubts that Thomas had left behind the streets of Chicago, where he grew up. There was always a bit of the thug in his persona beyond the Bad Boys marketing image.
And his fall from grace with Pistons owner Bill Davidson has always been a mystery.
A few days before the jury sided with Browne Sanders, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appeared on 60 Minutes in conjunction with the release of his book, My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir. Most scintillating among the issues Justice Thomas addressed were the confirmation hearings when his former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employee, Anita Hill, accused him of talking dirty about movies, his sexual prowess and a pubic hair on a Coca-Cola can.
Thomas denied the accusations, and his nomination was confirmed by a 52-48 vote in the U.S. Senate.
Here are two cases of African-American men who ascended to lofty positions rarely achieved by any man. In each case an African-American woman made the accusation and stirred up old issues between men and women in the black community. Coach Thomas' case played out in a court of law in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. The stakes were higher in Justice Thomas' confirmation hearings a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and a hand in setting our laws.
During the Clarence Thomas hearings, many black people in barbershop and hair salon gossip said that Hill was just trying to bring the brother down because he'd rebuffed her advances and married a white woman.
However, in the tough world of politics, Justice Thomas' political conservatism was the real issue. He was nominated to replace the liberal first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Liberals of all stripes found that insulting. Justice Thomas, for his part, revels in the fact that he is a black conservative. He loves to rub it in the face of liberals that he isn't the stereotypical liberal black and he'll be around a long time; he was just 43 when he was confirmed in 1991.
As much as President George H.W. Bush denied it, Thomas' nomination was an affirmative action hire, a quota hire, a replacement for the black seat on the Supreme Court. Bush just went out and found the most conservative black man possible. Although I disagree with Thomas on most points, I do agree with one thing he says: The opposition to his appointment wasn't about sexual harassment, it was about abortion. The liberals were, and are, afraid that his is a vote to overturn Roe. v. Wade.
Isiah Thomas' African-American issues are more street-level. In a video deposition he said that although it is always wrong for a white man to call a black woman a bitch, it was "not as much ... I'm sorry to say" for a black man to. During court testimony he backed off the statement. But Thomas had called on the double standard, the claim that it is OK for Snoop Dog to talk that way but not Don Imus. He perpetuated the idea that this is how we all act when white people aren't in earshot.
Author, academic and commentator Michael Eric Dyson, for one, throws intellectual support to that position. He says there's a difference between blacks' internal conversation and the external conversation with the larger culture.
That may be, but Isiah Thomas wasn't engaging in the internal conversation at work at the Garden. And as African-Americans occupy boardrooms and executive suites, it's never appropriate to talk like that. You can't have a double standard. That's part of the civil rights struggle no double standards in the public arena, nor in most private arenas.
One thing common to both Thomas cases is they belittled the work performance of their accusers. In the recent case, Garden Chairman James Dolan testified that Browne Sanders "was not capable of performing her duties and was not going to become capable of performing her duties." Justice Thomas, in his book, says of Hill, "Anita wasn't performing up to expectations and failed to finish her assignments on time." He called her "rude" and "sullen." Ah, yes, the stereotype of the sullen black woman.
I can't testify to the veracity of anyone's statements. The proceedings have played out, decisions have been made. I'd rather not see Justice Thomas on the Supreme Court, but he's there and still pissed-off about what happened 16 years ago. Hill has lived a mostly quiet life though she did publish a book in 1997, Speaking Truth to Power, and in the wake of Justice Thomas' book has released a statement standing by her past testimony.
Isiah Thomas should have learned to leave locker room talk in the locker room and faces a tough year coaching the Knicks. Who knows what NBA Commissioner David Stern will do as he struggles to save the game's image after a recent gambling scandal of referee Tim Donaghy and numerous players' brushes with the law?
Browne Sanders is flush with her victory and, if the decision stands, is newly rich. Maybe she'll become an icon with her victory for "all women."
In the 1950s and '60s, as the civil rights fight came into focus and made inroads, black women were urged to keep quiet about their personal struggles with black men in the attempt to present a unified, unsullied front to the white establishment. Those days are emphatically over.
If anyone gets to breathe the fresh air of liberty, everybody gets to. Otherwise all it's worth, in the words of Clarence Thomas, is a good "Whoop-de-damn-do."Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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