Sports View: Isiah Thomas returns

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

Two leagues, two modes of operation.

League A has imposed a four game ban – one-quarter of the season – on one of its premier players, a league icon and future Hall of Famer who has made more money for the league than virtually any other player in NFL history. That player has been a model citizen on and off the gridiron for 15 years. The player’s transgression was not ratting on other team employees who were messing with the game balls, a minor rule book violation punishable by a $25,000 fine.

League B recently allowed one team to hire as its president and part owner a man who has failed miserably at every single basketball-related activity he has ever been associated with after winding up a Hall of Fame career as a player. This individual is responsible for running the Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks, Florida International University, Indiana Pacers and the Continental Basketball League into the ground while serving those organizations in various capacities including coach, general manager and president. And did I mention that while he was president of the Knicks, he was slapped with a sexual harassment suit brought by a team employee that resulted in an $11.6 million judgment?

League A is the NFL, financially America’s most successful sports league. The individual in question is of course Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. League B is the WNBA, a league that has yet to earn a profit in its two decades of existence and needs all the favorable publicity it can get. Yet it apparently is allowing Isiah Thomas into the league as president and part owner of the New York Liberty despite his combined record of incompetence and despicable conduct. And you thought such things only happened in third world countries.

Thomas owes his sixth – not that anyone’s counting – or so opportunity to prove he is more than a former basketball great to his good buddy, James Dolan, head of Madison Square Garden Corporation. MSG owns the Knicks, New York Rangers, Madison Square Garden and the Liberty. Dolan has been unyielding in his support of Thomas despite the havoc he wrought on the Knicks not to mention the 2007 jury verdict that cost his company millions.

At the time, Dolan called the judgment a “travesty of justice,” an opinion he still maintains. Upon rehiring Thomas, Dolan said in a statement that “We did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now. We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations…” Sordid is an understatement of the language Thomas used and the actions he engaged in against the Knicks’ female employee, according to the testimony at trial. But with friends like Dolan, who needs a history of accomplishment?

Dolan’s support of Thomas speaks volumes about his own abilities and judgment. Dolan stuck with Thomas through five and one-half years of constant turmoil, first while Thomas was team president and coach. During that time, the team won only 38% of its games despite playing in the league’s largest market, an attractive draw for free agents, and carrying the league’s highest payroll.

Dolan has remained infatuated with Thomas since he left the Knicks.  He tried to hire him as a team consultant in 2010 but then-commissioner David Stern, ever aware of the league’s image, told him that hiring a college coach – at the time Thomas was in the process of destroying the Florida International University basketball program – was against league rules.  That rule saved Stern and the league from additional embarrassment as the NBA was still recovering from the public relations hit resulting from Thomas’ sexual harassment suit.

The decision to approve Thomas as an owner is in the hands of the WNBA Board of Governors who are unlikely to stand up to Dolan.  But the vote may not be unanimous.  The Seattle Storm issued a statement expressing concern over Thomas’ hiring and suggesting that they may not vote to approve his ownership stake.  The WNBAPA said it would scrutinize Thomas’ hiring and added that “players would not tolerate a hostile working environment.”

So while the NFL is trying to ban one of its marque players over a tempest in a teapot, the WNBA is about to embrace a sleaze ball.  Go figure.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner.  He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com  Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.)

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