January 25, 2006: Anucha Browne Sanders files sexual harassment lawsuit against the New York Knicks
In one of the darkest moments in Knicks history, former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas, James Dolan, & Madison Square Garden. The suit claimed a combination of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, & wrongful termination.
Current Knicks President Steve Mills – then Executive Vice-President for Franchise Operations at Madison Square Garden – hired Browne Sanders in 2000 as Vice President of Marketing. Mills promoted her to Senior Vice President of Marketing in 2002 and had the distinction of being one of the highest ranking female and African American executives for an NBA franchise. Up until 2004, Browne Sanders had a positive tenure working for the Knicks. After the Knicks hired Isiah Thomas, the work environment rapidly deteriorated. Isiah & Browne Sanders clashed over conflicts around job responsibilities.
Between 2004 and 2005, Browne Sanders described a culture of sexual harassment around Madison Square Garden. She claimed Isiah Thomas made multiple sexual advances towards her. Additionally, Hassan Gonslaves, Stephon Marbury’s cousin, then a Knicks’ employee, allegedly made derogatory comments towards female personnel. The Knicks eventually fired Gonslaves, and Stephon Marbury expressed hostility towards Browne Sanders.
Near the end of 2005, Browne Sanders filed a formal sexual harassment complaint that prompted an internal investigation. MSG’s legal counsel released a memo in early 2006 stating their findings and recommendations. The memo concluded that Isiah Thomas acted inappropriately at times and recommended sensitivity training. On the other hand, the memo dismissed most of Browne Sanders’ accusations and suggested that there were issues with her performance and communication skills. Furthermore, the memo suggested that MSG should terminate her employment.
As a result, James Dolan fired Browne Sanders on January 19th, 2006, and she filed a lawsuit a week later. Over the course of the next two years, Isiah Thomas & the Knicks vehemently denied all the accusations. Steve Mills, responsible for hiring both Isiah & Browne Sanders, testified in court as part of the defense.
In 2007, the jury ruled in favor of Browne Sanders and awarded her damages of $11.6 million. Of the $11.6 million, $6 million was due to Isiah Thomas creating a hostile work environment. The remaining $5.6 million was because James Dolan fired Browne Sanders for complaining about the hostile work environment. Dolan was personally responsible for $3 million in damages. The verdict affirmed all of Browne Sanders’ accusations.
The Isiah Thomas era sadly represented one of the lowest moments in Knicks history. While some tend to remember the stockpile of losses, it was the hostile work environment, including unwanted sexual advances, that tarnished the reputation of the franchise.
Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern vowed to mandate all teams to implement sexual harassment policies and sensitivity training. Stern also chided the Knicks, stating that the franchise was not “a model of intelligent management.” It was under Stern’s mandate that the Knicks cleaned house. Stern pushed Dolan to clean house and hire Donnie Walsh to fix the Knicks. Concurrently, both Isiah Thomas & Steve Mills left the Knicks within the next year.
Since the sexual harassment verdict, the Knicks have mostly kept their troubles reserved for the basketball court. Steve Mills was entangled in the sexual harassment lawsuit due to hiring both Isiah & Browne Sanders. While he did not directly contribute to a hostile working environment, he was complicit in letting the environment fester. Since returning back to the Knicks, he has mostly kept a professional reputation and fostered a diverse work environment in the front office. In particular, he’s responsible for creating the most diverse front office personnel in the NBA. James Dolan has recently strayed away from the day-to-day management of the Knicks franchise, but his reputation will most likely never change unless the team wins a championship.
Isiah Thomas continues to deny all allegations imposed on him from the Browne Sanders lawsuit. After leaving the Knicks, he went to coach the FIU basketball team and returned to manage the New York Liberty. During the NBA season, he routinely appears on NBA TV as a studio analyst. He has been able to mostly sidestep the allegations in recent years as he continues to repair his image.
Since the lawsuit, Browne Sanders rebounded in various capacities. She spent two years as the Athletic Director of Marketing for the University of Buffalo. The NCAA hired her in 2012 to be the Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships. After 5 years, she joined UNICEF as the Chief Strategy and Engagement Officer.