Sometimes I think there’s a fantasy that feminists love a big sexual-harassment case: When a woman accuses a male superior of bad behavior, it must be a bra-burning bacchanal. But as someone who pays attention to issues of equality, I’d rather stick my hand in a blender than read more about the disheartening trial that started last week in former Knicks V.P. Anucha Browne Sanders’s suit against team coach and president Isiah Thomas, exposing the locker-room innards of a supposedly enlightened institution. That Knicks higher-ups are of mixed color and gender should, as Browne Sanders testified, signify progress, send a “tremendous message,” not create a petri dish of boorishness.
Browne Sanders told the court that Thomas peppered statements with derogatory slurs (“Bitch, I don’t give a fuck about the sponsors” and the cinematic “Bitch, I’m here to win basketball games”); that after months of friction he professed his love; that star Stephon Marbury had sex with a college-age intern (which he admits) and wasn’t held accountable; that when Browne Sanders complained about Thomas’s behavior, she was told to “accommodate” a man whose attitudes evoke Cartman in South Park. It’s all so depressing. There’s the predictable table-turning: The six-foot-one Browne Sanders is “taller than Isiah Thomas” in heels, says his lawyer; she’s “play[ing] the sexual-harassment card” to compensate for incompetence; she’s motivated to lie because her family relies on her income. Apparently, this hulking, well-paid succubus of black female power was unharassable.
In such cases, women may have money to win but much to lose. If Browne Sanders is telling the truth, it speaks volumes about the ossified cultures of sports and big business. Maybe Browne Sanders, herself a former ballplayer, assumed she’d be treated as an equal in this swaggering arena: She could play too.
As discouraging as Browne Sanders’s charges are, reactions to them are even worse. Marbury, who admitted to calling the complainant a bitch, told the court he deemed her charges “a joke,” and left the courthouse singing.
But if—and after the Duke case, who could ignore the possibility?—the jury doesn’t believe her, it will condemn another generation of boardroom bitches and high-earning hos to suck it up. It’s like a big playoff game—except that as you’re sweating out every rebound and foul shot, you understand that no one is really going to triumph.