Anucha Browne Sanders Speaks Out on Knicks Case

Former New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders recently won a multimillion-dollar sexual harrassment suit against Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden, the basketball team's owner. Browne Sanders talks about Thomas, her case and why she sued.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, the powerful stories of two young men trying to survive war in West Africa.

But first, we have one woman's story. As a student at Northwestern University, Anucha Browne stood out for her skills on the basketball court. By 2002, she stood out as one of the top-ranked women in the male-dominated world of sports management. That's when she won the post of senior vice president of marketing and business operations for the New York Knicks basketball team.

But her fast rise ended, she says, when former NBA star Isiah Thomas joined the Knicks front office. The executive - now Anucha Browne Sanders, a married mother of three - says that Thomas humiliated her with sexual comments, profanity and unwanted touching. And when she brought those complaints to management at Madison Square Garden, Browne Sanders says the organization retaliated by firing her.

On Tuesday, a New York jury sided with her. Browne Sanders was awarded $11.6 million in damages - that was more than the $10 million she had asked for. Anucha Browne Sanders joins us now by phone, and we want to warn listeners that they may hear some strong language, because that was the kind of language at issue in the case.

Mr. Browne Sanders, welcome to the program.

Ms. ANUCHA BROWNE SANDERS (Former Senior Vice President, Marketing and Business Operations, New York Knicks): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How did you come to work with the New York Knicks, and what attracted to the job?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I was recruited to work at Madison Square Garden. I grew up in New York City. I was a huge fan of the team and had spent a number of years working in a sports marketing capacity, so it seemed like a perfect combination.

MARTIN: Did you like the work?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I enjoyed it, yes.

MARTIN: When did it start to be a problem? Was there a problem when Isiah Thomas first came to the operation, or was it fine for a while and then deteriorated?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: It started when Isiah came to the organization. A good amount of the interactions were very hostile and inappropriate, and I couldn't really figure out why.

MARTIN: What did you think was going on?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I really wasn't certain. I was really more focused on trying to work through it, trying to make it workable, and trying to accommodate his working style.

MARTIN: Which was what? I mean, I guess, I'm just wanting - you say he was hostile. Was he personally hostile? Did you have the impression he was short-tempered with everybody, or did it seem to be aimed at you individually?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: In this particular instance, it was aimed at me individually. I tried to really work through it. I got management involved. And I tried to adjust to some of the things that he wanted. I just really impressed upon him to work with me in a professional manner.

MARTIN: And when you said that, what did he say?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: All righty, thanks. But he really didn't have an interest in working with me in any type of professional manner, and he made that quite clear. You know, as I have said in - to the many people, he referred to me as a bitch repeatedly, and many of his sentences started with the word bitch.

MARTIN: You mean, speaking to you directly?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Yes.

MARTIN: Not having these comments within your hearing, but speaking to you directly. He addressed you that way as if it were your name.

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Exactly. I think there was a time where I needed to check to make sure my ID said the right thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: It certainly wasn't something I was used to. And it was so unprofessional.

MARTIN: And when you talked to management about what was going on, what did they say?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: The management did little to nothing. There was one meeting that we had to try to resolve any type of confusion in terms of roles and responsibilities, and I was told to accommodate him. And I was told that this was his working style, and I was told things like, oh, that's just the way Isiah is.

MARTIN: Did you raise the profanity and the expletives being directed at you? This is a multimillion-dollar corporation. Surely, they would have to be aware workplace standards don't generally include that language.

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: No, they usually don't. And this workplace obviously did.

MARTIN: How did you make the decision to sue? It's not an easy thing to do.

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I made the decision to sue because when I finally pressed a sexual harassment and hostile work environment with management, they fired me.

MARTIN: What was their explanation when they fired you?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I really didn't receive an explanation. And since the time I was fired, there have been many explanations - none of them consistent.

MARTIN: How did they tell you that you were fired?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: They phoned my counsel and told my counsel, and then my lawyers told me.

MARTIN: Were there any other women in your office…

Ms. Browne Sanders: Yeah.

MARTIN: …in your operation?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: There were several other women in the office.

MARTIN: Did they encounter similar things? Did Isiah Thomas treated them in the same way that he treated you?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of. There was one woman who I became aware of that some things were said, but as it pertains to Isiah Thomas, his behavior was directed at me.

MARTIN: What role do you think race may have played in your interactions? As, of course, everybody knows, the testimony that I think stands out for most people who've been watching this trial even casually is the deposition where he describes an opinion about the use of the B-word? And, I mean, I think we can play a short clip of that.

Mr. ISIAH THOMAS (Head Coach; President, New York Knicks; Former NBA Player): A white male calling a black female a (bleep) is highly offensive to me.

Unidentified Man: Would you find it also offensive of black male to call a black woman a (bleep)?

Mr. THOMAS: Not as much.

MARTIN: Do you think race may have played a role in the way you were treated?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: It may have. And that was crystallizing, as far as I was concerned, to the overall treatment toward me by Isiah. And I found it extremely ignorant. It doesn't matter what color you are. And if you refer to a woman as a bitch, it's insulting and it should never be acceptable, regardless of who you are and what race you are. I find it just as insulting, potentially more insulting if an African-American man does it. But really, equally insulting. The word is unacceptable in any form.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Anucha Browne Sanders. This week, she won her sexual harassment lawsuit against New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden.

I wondered if in the course of preparing for this, in the course of pursuing your complaint against Thomas and Madison Square Garden, if you encountered people who thought, you know what? She's working for a professional sports team, a male team. This literally is a locker-room environment. This is just how people talk. I wonder if that was said to you, and how you respond to that.

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Well, I didn't encounter it until the courtroom. And I found that just as offensive because I wasn't working in a locker room. I was working with professional men and women, and we're in a corporate environment.

MARTIN: And as we are having our conversation, an interesting confluence of events - Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has just released a new memoir where he describes, in very angry terms, the confirmation battle years ago in 1991. And in the course of the confirmation battle, sexual harassment charges were leveled against him by Anita Hill, among other women.

And one of issues that arose in the course of that experience was this whole question about racial loyalty, that some expressed the view that, you know, African-American women are just supposed to keep quiet about this kind of thing, that they should not speak publicly against a successful African-American man, and that this is just not good for the community to have this kind of dirty laundry, if you will, aired publicly.

I wondered if that issue ever arose in the course of this experience for you, and what would you say to people if they have that point of view?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I did have a discussion while I was at work with Isiah about the importance of us trying to figure out a - you know, a professional environment or relationship. Because, you know, where else in sports would you see African-American president of the team, African-American president of Madison Square Garden and an African-American woman who was a senior vice president of the franchise? So I did bridge that with him. But in the end, this was not about keeping quiet. This was about raising an issue that affects so many women across corporate America and saying, you know what? This is just simply unacceptable, regardless of your color, regardless of who you are, where you are. This behavior and the conduct and what took place at Madison Square Garden is unacceptable, and it should be unacceptable for everybody.

MARTIN: When you raised this issue with Isiah Thomas, what did he say? This argument that, you know, you should be working together, not at odds, what did he say?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I got a good nod, but the behavior didn't necessarily change.

MARTIN: And the jury found Isiah Thomas - they agreed with your complaint that you were sexually harassed, but they did not require Isiah Thomas to pay punitive damages, preferring that the corporation pay those. I just wonder, do you have an opinion about that?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Well, that's still an open issue. It hasn't been decided.

MARTIN: Have you had difficulty finding employment since?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: I - yes, I did. I had a tremendous amount of difficulty finding employment.

MARTIN: Do you think it's related to your complaint against Thomas and the Knicks?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Oh, I'm sure it was. And I think what people are left with is the question, you know, of what happened. And during this whole process, I really wasn't able to speak freely about what had happened. So when you have a new employer, of course, you kind of want to know, what's this person about? What in the world happened here? And when you can't speak to it, it's very hard to get a job, really, kind of sight unseen.

MARTIN: Do you think that you were blacklisted, or do you think it's more a question of there being questions about why you left such a senior and prominent position so quickly?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Well, you know, there were people I called that I didn't hear back from. But I will say, in light of that, I was offered a job with a man of incredible courage, and that's Warde Manuel of the University at Buffalo. And he knew me and was willing to hire me. And the university really made a loud statement by saying we would like her here, we respect her, and we want her as part of the University of Buffalo community.

MARTIN: And is that what you're doing now?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Yes, I am.

MARTIN: And, of course, I - it has to be said that Isiah Thomas vehemently denies these charges. Even after the verdict he, you know, insists that he is innocent, and he insist that he will eventually be vindicated. And he does plan to appeal. And what is your response to that?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: You know, a jury of our peers made a decision and spoke loud and clear. We both had opportunities to present our stories, and we did. And my story was very consistent.

MARTIN: And finally, what would you like people to draw from this whole experience?

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Just the fact is that this exists in many other places across a variety of industries. And I think women need to be able to speak freely without the fear of retaliation, which is exactly what happened here. You know, I feel like my story speaks to the importance of being able to get up in the morning - every woman - get up in the morning and go to work, and feel that you're going to be treated respectfully in the workplace.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Anucha Browne Sanders recently won her sexual harassment lawsuit against New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas. She joined us on the phone from New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BROWNE SANDERS: Appreciate it. Thank you.

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Jury Awards $11.6 Million to Ex-Knicks Executive

Isiah Thomas

hide captionNew York Knicks head coach Isiah Thomas looks on during a game in a photo from December 2006. Thomas and Madison Square Garden were found guilty Oct. 2, 2007, in a sexual harassment suit brought by a former Knicks executive.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

A federal jury has found that a former executive of the New York Knicks was sexually harassed by her bosses, including coach Isiah Thomas. Anucha Browne Sanders will receive $11.6 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages from Madison Square Garden, her former employer.

Browne Sanders was once the Knicks' vice president of marketing and business operations. She testified that she was repeatedly cursed at and hit on. Thomas denied cursing at Browne Sanders but said he cursed around her. In a deposition, Thomas said that a white man calling a black woman a "bitch" was worse than a black man doing the same. A season ticket holder testified that he saw Thomas put his arm around Browne Sanders and compliment her appearance, causing Sanders to grow uncomfortable.

Thomas was not found liable for punitive damages after the trial, but the jury decided that he had harassed Browne Sanders, herself a former college basketball star.

"I'm innocent, I'm very innocent, and I did not do the things she has accused me in this courtroom of doing," Thomas said after the decision. "I'm extremely disappointed that the jury did not see the facts in this case."

Browne Sanders said hers was a victory for all working women.

The case has reflected rather disastrously on James Dolan, the billionaire CEO of Cablevision, which owns the Knicks. In a videotaped deposition that was played at the trial, Dolan sat slumped in a chair wearing a black crewneck shirt with the sleeves pushed up. His demeanor and answers may have seemed flippant to the jurors.

Laughing off this case may have been Madison Square Garden's undoing. Cablevision is valued by the stock market to be worth more than $10 billion. When Browne Sanders left the Garden, she offered to drop her suit for $6 million. She was rebuffed.

The Knicks haven't had a winning record in seven years, but the loss they suffered Tuesday can't be undone with draft picks or clever trades, though the Garden does vow to appeal.

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