Isiah Thomas Is Bad at His Job
The WNBA is, thankfully, reviewing the hiring of Isiah Thomas as president of the New York Liberty, a proposal that also includes an ownership stake in the team. The move, to put it mildly, doesn't make much sense. It's like hiring Bernie Madoff to do your taxes, or putting Fred Wilpon in charge of baseball's finance committee. (Oh, wait.)
Much has been made of Thomas's troubled past with women, the lowlight of which was a 2007 sexual harassment case brought by a high-ranking, female New York Knicks executive while Thomas served as the team's general manager. A jury ruled that Thomas had approached the woman with unwanted verbal and physical advances, and that the team had fired her for coming forward with the allegations, ultimately awarding her $11.6 million in punitive damages.
And yet, in the long run, Thomas's record of hitting on female employees and calling them derogatory names might not actually be the worst part about his being tapped to run a women's basketball team.
It's not just the optics of putting a man with such a history in charge of a team full of women at a time when women's issues are at the forefront of the national conversation surrounding sports. And it's not just the understandable unease some WNBA players are feeling at the prospect of a guy who has treated women as objects when they're under his employ rising to the ownership ranks in their league -- though at least one team, the Seattle Storm, has publicly expressed concern over Thomas and hinted it might not vote to approve him.
It's not even that, frankly, the basketball world should know better than to hire an owner with a discriminatory track record after the year it had with Donald Sterling -- though it does go to show you how differently gender discrimination is sometimes treated than racial discrimination, especially in the workplace.
No, despite all that, the most damaging thing, for anyone who cares about equality in sports, might not be Thomas's terrible record with women -- it might actually be his terrible record with basketball.
That might sound rather callous to say, and I don't mean to imply that winning basketball games is more important than not harassing your female employees. But hiring someone with Thomas's track record of proven front-office incompetence speaks to the same disregard for women in this industry as does the act of sexual harassment. The underlying message of this baffling move by Liberty owner James Dolan (who also owns the Knicks) is basically, "Well, Isiah, you couldn't hack it running a men's team -- let's see how you do with the women."
This mentality is an enormous problem for women's sports, which are in a constant struggle for legitimacy and acceptance. The WNBA is especially emblematic of the perception problem women's sports face -- that their failure to be profitable in the short term means that they aren't viable in the long term.
If the WNBA has enjoyed some relative prominence among women's sports leagues, that's partly because of the support it has received from the NBA, which owned the league until 2002. Many WNBA teams, like the Liberty, are still owned by their NBA counterparts, and NBA TV is one of the WNBA's broadcast partners. But that same support is invoked by those who dismiss the WNBA as some sort of charity case, a misguided attempt for equality that is, in reality, a lost cause.
These critics tend to overlook -- or intentionally ignore -- the multiple decades of "support" from both the government and private businesses that were needed to sustain those men's sports that would become the most popular leagues of today. Let's take a minute to remember that it took the better part of 50 years and various antitrust and tax exemptions to get Major League Baseball and the National Football League to where they are now. The NBA had been around for 40 years when it was still airing playoff games on tape delay in 1986.
Meanwhile, the WNBA is only in its 19th season, younger than even Major League Soccer, and nearly half its teams are profitable. What the growing league needs is continued support by the NBA as well as competent ownership and front offices with the patience and willingness to see the WNBA's long game.
Isiah Thomas won't help the WNBA be taken seriously. The people who hired him clearly already don't.
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