Two takes on the Liberty's controversial hiring of Isiah Thomas

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Isiah Thomas is returning to New York to become president and part owner of the WNBA's Liberty, bringing with him plenty of controversy after a 2007 sexual harassment scandal. Jane McManus and Kate Fagan have different views of the hiring.

Jane McManus

Even if Isiah Thomas were the foremost basketball mind of his generation -- and any Knicks fan will tell you he's not -- there is no way he should be named president of the New York Liberty.

Let me put this simply -- in 2007 Thomas was found to have sexually harassed employee Anucha Browne Sanders and created a hostile work environment. Then, when she complained, she was fired. There was testimony that Thomas called her a "bitch" and a "ho," and when asked about this, Thomas said under oath that it wasn't as bad for a black man to call a black woman a bitch. Thomas has always maintained his innocence.

A court ordered the Knicks and owner James Dolan to pay $11.6 million for a mess of their own creation (the final settlement was $11.5 million).

So hey, let's put Thomas in charge of the Liberty!

WNBA president Laurel Richie pointed out in a statement that all ownership changes have to be approved by the WNBA's Board of Governors. Does she always issue statements like that? Why no, she doesn't. This is not a done deal, just like it wasn't when the Knicks tried to bring Thomas back as a consultant in 2010 and were voted down by the NBA Board of Governors.

After Richie's statement, Dolan responded by issuing a press release that started, "We did not believe the allegations then, and we don't believe them now."

Not allegations, but a finding -- a finding of sexual harassment. That's an important distinction. As a corporation, as a professional basketball league, it's not something you can brush aside just because you don't like it, or just because Isiah Thomas has a voodoo doll of you in his closet and you feel sharp pains in your neck whenever you think about firing him.

The NBA emerged stronger last season after ousting Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist comments caught on a recording. The conventional wisdom as Sterling left was this: You can't have an owner making racist remarks, then put him in charge of a team that includes black men.

So how is putting a harasser in charge of a team of women any different? Does the NBA or the WNBA view sexism any differently? The hypocrisy of putting Thomas in charge of a women's team couldn't be any plainer, even if he's really good at showing people how to set a pick.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is probably cursing under his breath somewhere that the Knicks are forcing this little showdown during the playoffs.

The NBA has been progressive -- hiring women in the front office and facilitating their introduction into the coaching ranks and as referees -- so putting Thomas in charge of a WNBA team would look awful.

And how about the idea that Dolan, knowing the Knicks' fan base despises Thomas for financially ruinous moves, instead figured he could keep Thomas in-house and avoid public scrutiny by maybe shifting him to the WNBA franchise because hey, who cares about women's basketball? By the way, Thomas brings a 26-65 record from his most recent coaching stop at Florida International University.

But people do care about the Liberty, and about preserving a work environment that allows players and staff to succeed. It's about basketball, but it's about more than basketball.

Dolan isn't told "no" very often, but this is one time when the WNBA Board of Governors should issue a reality check.

Kate Fagan

Hiring Isiah Thomas seems like an April Fools joke, or a piece of satire -- perhaps something from The Onion. Of course, it is not, and those who closely follow MSG might not even be surprised. The parent company of the Knicks and Liberty is widely considered one of the most dysfunctional companies in professional sports, chaired by James Dolan. Dolan's statement about the rehiring of Thomas, despite the 2007 verdict that cost the company millions, doubled down on his denial of the '07 sexual harassment charges.

But before attempting to parse out the nuance in this hire, let's start in a place we can all agree: The optics of this are terrible.

Like, really bad.

In fact, the optics might be so bad that any potential good that can come from the hire will be overshadowed by just how truly terrible this looks.

Of course, some good could come from this -- if given the chance.

Thomas has the ear of Dolan in a way that no one else working with the franchise could ever hope for. And, as you might imagine, it was Dolan's idea to bring back Thomas in this role (the two have been close for years). Because of that, and because a former NBA legend is the one asking for meetings to discuss the Liberty, the company's WNBA franchise is now getting more face time with the guy who controls the purse strings.

According to two people who work with the Liberty, Thomas has been working with the team for a month, and already has been able to add two full-time positions that might not have existed if anyone other than Thomas had asked for the additional head count. In addition, many current Liberty personnel spoke passionately about Thomas' knowledge of the women's game.

WNBA teams have a history of hiring former NBA stars to coach their teams.

An incomplete list: Bill Laimbeer (the Liberty's current coach and Thomas' former teammate with the Detroit Pistons), Muggsy Bogues, Henry Bibby, Dee Brown, Tree Rollins and Michael Cooper.

These types of hires have routinely caused people within the women's game to roll their eyes, because of the lack of coaching experience possessed by former NBA players, and because they were taking an opportunity from someone already working within the WNBA ranks. But one intangible was understood: These former NBA stars brought with them a spotlight, and some of that light usually spilled over onto the women's game.

Still, this move with Thomas is going to cause more than eye rolls from the WNBA community.

But the question is this: Will leveraging Thomas' name brand and connections be worth the bad publicity?

Truth is, that equation is probably closer than most people realize.

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