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Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Who's Going to Clean Up Madison Square Garden?


ESPN's J.A. Adande can't believe David Stern isn't going to reprimand or punish Isiah Thomas, James Dolan, or Madison Square Garden:

He holds players accountable for what they wear to the games, what lines they rap in a recording studio, how they behave in the offseason.

But when it comes to owners, he's been a softie. Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss pleaded guilty to drunk driving over the summer without any repercussions from the league. What's a bigger threat to society: a 23-year-old player walking into the locker room with baggy jeans and a do-rag or a 74-year-old team owner driving with a blood alcohol content of .13?

Now there's this Garden mess, in which Dolan came off as an indifferent frathouse president, Thomas was portrayed as a person who doesn't mind women being called "bitches" (as long as black people are saying it) and doesn't care about the season ticket holders (as long as they are white people), and the term "truck sex" appeared in a New York Post headline (to describe a rendezvous between a player and a team intern).

If Stern is concerned about the "culture" of the NBA, and how it's viewed by fans and sponsors, shouldn't he start with the Knicks?

Dolan and Thomas should be fined and suspended -- or even removed, if Stern could stomach all the legal bills that would entail.

Adande makes a strong case. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Strictly Business
I can't say I ever thought the NBA would publicly reprimand or punish Isiah Thomas or the Knicks. The reason? The actions of the NBA -- and most businesses -- fairly predictably, follow the dictates of what's best for the bottom line, specifically from the point of view of the 30 team owners David Stern serves.

Players are made to wear button-down shirts, because market research shows button-down shirts appeal to the audience that matters. If it makes teams more successful, it's easy to justify what may be an over-reach. (No good being right on this or that issue if you run the league into the ground.)

Would the NBA make a bunch more money if they essentially went to war with the New York franchise? Hard to see how that could happen. In fact, the opposite would almost certainly be true. Don't forget, James Dolan is not afraid of spending big money on media smear campaigns, like he did to help defeat a Jets' stadium in Manhattan. It may well be the right thing to do (how does this hands-off approach jive with the pro-woman message of the WNBA?).

But it would be a messy and scary business precedent. If David Stern drops the hammer hard, he would be telling 30 teams that if they get into sexual harassment trouble -- something that, sadly, happens at a lot of businesses -- the NBA is coming knocking.

That doesn't make owning an NBA team more attractive. That doesn't make owners in other cities feel like dumping more and more money into their NBA teams. Some of the best owners, from a business perspective, are macho billionaires living their dreams. David Stern can not be in the business of being the ultimate buzzkill -- unless he's forced into the position.

Political Pressure?
It would take exquisite work -- PR, lobbying the NBA's sponsors, etc. -- by women's rights advocates and others, to actually make this verdict, and these tales of Madison Square Garden, hurt the long-term bottom line of the Knicks and/or the league.

If history is any guide, as long as people keep buying tickets, and if the team can play reasonably well, there just won't be a pressing business reason to intervene.

One other long-shot caveat: some unforeseen force could arrive on the scene. A presidential candidate might take this on, I suppose, as a way to score points with women voters. Or maybe Oprah feels like spreading the gospel of Anucha Browne Sanders.

Or, maybe players want Isiah Thomas disciplined. That could change things, I'd think. It's a well-kept secret, but in real terms, the players hold the lion's share of power in the NBA. They sell the tickets, and drive the ratings. I can't imagine a lot of players speaking out much against Isiah Thomas, a well-decorated member of the NBA fraternity. But the Toronto Globe and Mail's Michael Grange, traveling with the Raptors in Italy, says that quietly at least one player feels it's only fair the league punish Thomas in some fashion. Grange writes:

... there is some interest among players to see exactly what happens to Thomas by way of NBA discipline. One I talked to made the point that if this was a player there would be little doubt he'd be facing a suspension. What about a team president?

Report from MSG
Surely the best thing for all involved is if the Garden somehow sees the light, and makes an honest effort to do better day in and day out, for the long haul. Policing yourself is a fantastic solution, when it works. Selena Roberts, in today's New York Times, paints a bleak picture of what things are like at the Garden now, under James Dolan:

Inside the Garden, "Got Hurt?" has become the slogan for vulnerable staffers. For years, he has wounded careers and savaged dissenters while assembling a cult of personality where only his sycophants survive amid a game of Jim-nastics.

Bend around his outbursts -- or you'll end up like the employee fired for serving flat cola. Maneuver past Jim's insecurity -- or you'll be eviscerated like the security guard who didn't recognize the Garden owner's face.

There are so many hothead tales. But the tawdry, hostile dark side of the Garden remained largely a secret kept through confidentiality agreements and severance payoffs that functioned as hush money. ...

Under Jim's reign, a perverse office lingo developed, filled with b-words and p-words -- the alphabet soup of misogyny -- that functioned as daily salutations.

Under Jim's ownership, a rise in superstar entitlement provided Stephon Marbury with a green light to rock his truck during some backseat boogie with a Garden intern after a strip-club escapade.

Under Jim's nose, Thomas added to the Garden's creepy vibe by dismissively treating Browne Sanders as if she were nothing more than a groupie he once charmed during his playing days.

All this, and with a case of Kama Sutra on the way. Soon, a former Rangers City Skater is expected to take the Garden to court for yet another sexual harassment claim in what is expected to be a lewd depiction of her workplace environment.

Roberts has sources with NBA teams saying that Stern will take action to clean up the work environment at MSG, but behind the scenes, in a way that does not further sully the name of one of his biggest-revenue teams.

Roberts' sources, who work for NBA teams, suggest Stern (and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, too) will approach James Dolan's father and boss at Cablevision, Charles Dolan. Her sources suspect Stern will encourage Charles to rein in his son for the good of the league.

Interesting side note that speaks to the mood at the Garden: Roberts also has two sources at MSG saying that a planned rah rah MSG rally by current employees -- certainly for PR purposes -- never materialized because several employees refused to take part.

No Easy Solution
I guess the other idea is: maybe this problem will all go away on its own! Maybe an appeal will succeed, and Isiah Thomas and James Dolan will be vindicated, and the leag
ue will not have to get its hands dirty in all this.

In Richard Sandomir's New York Times article, an expert warns against expecting this decision being reversed on appeal:

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond Law School and a former civil litigator, doubted the appeal would succeed.

"The jury heard the facts and it is unusual that an appeals court would overturn a jury finding which was so fact-intensive," he said in a telephone interview. "There isn't much basis unless there was a legal error, and Judge Lynch has a very good reputation for making sure his cases are fairly and properly tried."

Tobias said that the jury not holding Mr. Thomas financially liable "is not a large enough inconsistency that could have this overturned."