Martha Burk: Don't Expect Madison Square Garden to Change

October, 3, 2007
10/03/07
4:22
PM ET

If you read my last post, you know that I have been wondering about Madison Square Garden. Let's assume the jury was right, and the work environment there is pretty much scandalously terrible for women.

What forces might be in play to make it better?

Dr. Martha Burk knows about that kind of stuff. You can read her full biography here.

Martha Burk

She is an expert in politics and women's equity, co-founder of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, and author of the book "Cult of Power" about sexual discrimination in the workplace. She's also the former chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations who famously pressured Augusta National Golf Club to allow female members.

She took my questions by phone earlier today.

Do you think the NBA has an obligation to, in some way, reprimand or punish the Knicks or Isiah Thomas?
They don't have a legal obligation, but they do have a moral one. The Knicks and the NBA, one's fate depends on the other. That leverage could be used to great effect. The fact that it's not shows how seriously these things are taken by the League.

The fact that the League is not doing anything about it is, frankly, not a big surprise to me.

Can we expect voluntary changes in the way business is conducted at the Garden?
This verdict is a good symbolic victory. But the judgment is not big enough to get anybody's real attention. I'm glad she did it, don't get me wrong. And I saw her statement about how she did it on behalf of working women everywhere. But this is probably a small judgment in terms of the Garden's total operating expenses. It probably won't even be a footnote in the Garden's annual report. It's like a mosquito bite. Not enough of a problem to force a change. It's just the cost of doing business and you move on.

What methods might activists use to pressure the Garden?
I haven't looked at it, but one thing somebody should do is look into the chartering of Madison Square Garden. Is there city or state money going in there? If there is, then pressuring the state or city bodies to impose real discipline, or at least strong warnings in case this happens again, would be a good step. I don't know the financial underpinnings of the Garden, but if there's public money in there, public entities would absolutely be in a position to bring pressure.

The stories that the jury presumably found most credible from the trial were, if true, amazing. A woman routinely called "bitch" in the workplace, then hugged, kissed, and propositioned. An intern having sex with a high-profile employee. Sexual harassment by the star's cousin, and the team's president. An executive fired for raising the issue. And there's another Madison Square Garden case coming down pike. It sounds like romper room.
It sounds like a frat house, doesn't it? But it's not shocking. It's part of a continuum that starts in junior high. Athletes are treated like special people. Look at any high school. I'm from Texas, and that Friday Night Lights thing hasn't changed in 35 years. Think about Lawrence Philips. He dragged a woman down the stairs by the hair. And in the long run he just got bigger and bigger as a football star. They feel things like rules -- of society, of decency, and of the law -- are beneath them.

Where else, but in sports, could an employee do something like have sex with an intern and not get fired? Can you imagine that at some bank? Or a medical facility? Any corporation?

And the leagues hold players to no accountability for that kind of behavior. That makes a huge statement.

They get in more trouble for fighting with each other than they do for mistreating women.

And yet, in promoting the WNBA, the NBA and its partners have a strong pro-woman message.
But do they mean it? The salaries in the WNBA are pathetic compared to the NBA. I know, I know, they'll tell you the NBA makes money and the WNBA doesn't. But the NBA didn't make money for the first 25 years it existed. Then they bitch and moan about paying women $40,000 more, when all they make is $40,000. David Stern himself was very very supportive in all of his public statements when he talked about women and how they make the WNBA so good. I commended him for that, until their agreement came up for negotiations three or four years ago. The union asked me to help raise the profile of their issues, which I did to the best of my ability. And then David Stern went negative, so to speak.

There has been talk that activists might go after those who sponsor the Knicks, the Garden, or the NBA.
I think that's entirely appropriate. Corporations put their dollars where their values are. And if Madison Square Garden is systematically engaging in diminishing women, and maybe even criminal behavior, it says something about the corporations who support that.

And that's a marketplace solution. They all cry about regulations. This isn't regulatory. This is the market saying we don't support this.

Do those kinds of efforts work?
It's difficult. I have tried it with some success, and some "not success." It depends on the individual at the head of the corporation in question. It depends on who's on the board. It depends on what other trouble there is for that corporation at that moment.

But in the end, they tend to look at the dollars first, and make a calculation. They look at the income from the sponsorship versus the cost of the public relations hit, and then proceed accordingly.

At Augusta National, for instance, despite what Hootie Johnson said, sponsors pulled out. They allowed him to say that he had dropped them, but they were in touch with me and I know that several walked away.

Then it all blows over, and many of them come back. Coca-Cola was a prominent one that did not return. But several others did.

If Madison Square Garden said they wanted to do better, what kinds of changes would you like to see?
There's something that, in legal circles, they call programmatic reform. It's a process for training accountability, letting everyone know what's happening, and setting up whistle-blower and ombudsman programs. The training is the main thing. And then, if there are reports of trouble, you need the whistleblower protected from being fired or marginalized, and swift action in response.

The bottom line is that people know what they can get away with, because they know what they have been getting away with. For example, if players knew they would lose their job if they got into a fight in a bar, there would be a lot less of that. It's the same thing here. If people know they won't get in trouble for mistreating women, you're essentially giving them permission to do so.

And this kind of program wouldn't cost more than a drop in the bucket.

Recently there was a big Morgan Stanley settlement. It was $46 million in a class action laws
uit. There was a $7.5 million component for programmatic relief. It will shape their policies, set up new procedures, and ultimately change how they think about women.

Is there reason to believe that program will work?
It can. The best indicator is whether or not the behavior that started it all happens again.

The other thing they can do at Madison Square Garden is put more women on the board of directors, and in "direct line" positions. Women have a different sensibility about these things, and kind of breaks up the boy's club, or frat house mentality.

I don't know how closely you keep in touch with the goings on around the NBA, but do you have reason to believe this kind of thing is common around the league?
I have no reason to believe it isn't. And for the reasons I gave earlier -- the culture of sports, and the immunity of athletes -- you have to wonder.

I think I know the answer to this, but just please explain, if you will, exactly why the kind of behavior described in the Isiah Thomas trial is bad.
You're treating someone as a lesser being. It's personally demeaning, and insulting. Every day. You're treated like someone who is there to be used. We see the same thing in racial harassment law suits, where people are objectified, made to feel lesser. You are diminished, and the organization where it's happening is diminished in a different way.

And it generalizes to your view of women outside the workplace. It's like a chicken and egg thing. Some men don't have respect for women as a group. So then individual women are fair game. And the more that happens, the more you see and partake in demeaning women as individuals, the more you lose respect for them as a group.

A lot of male bigwigs in the NBA and at Madison Square Garden presumably have mothers, wives, and daughters, right? Wouldn't that make it hard to sweep women's issues under the rug?
Many men are willing to divorce situations like this from their families and loved ones. They just don't think like that. I think it is possible to be a good husband and father and all that while behaving this way at work, because people are bifurcated. Other women are "them." And then their wives and daughters they see differently.

And until something really meaningful happens -- it costs them their jobs, or it costs so much money that the organization can't tolerate it anymore -- they don't change.

This verdict, in this case, will quite likely be reduced, too. That's what happens in a lot of these kinds of cases.

So, it's a good symbolic victory, but it will probably not be enough to stop this kind of thing from happening again.

(Photo: Joyce Naltchayan/Getty Images)

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