On October 2, 2007, Anucha Browne Sanders, a former senior vice-president of marketing and business operations at Madison Square Garden, won her sexual harassment suit against New York Knicks president and coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden. The jury awarded her $11.6 million in damages. Sanders and the Garden agreed to reduce the award to $11.5 million.
Just over 6 feet tall, slim and athletic, Sanders, 45, grew up in Brooklyn with three sisters and two brothers, played basketball in high school, and loved the New York Knicks. At Northwestern University she played for the women’s basketball team, the Wildcats, was the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year in 1984 and 1985, and was named Northwestern’s Athlete of the Decade and to the Big Ten Conference All-Decade Team.
In 2000, after more than a decade as a junior executive at IBM, Sanders was hired by Madison Square Garden. It was, she said, her “dream job.” The dream turned into a nightmare with the arrival of NBA hall-of-famer Isiah Thomas in 2003 as team president and, later, coach. Sanders says Thomas was immediately hostile, used abusive language, and referred to her as “bitch” and “ho”— behavior that over time escalated to include inappropriate sexual advances. Her complaints to management were ignored, and in January 2006, Sanders was fired. That same month she filed suit against Isiah Thomas for verbal abuse and sexual harassment, and against Madison Square Garden for firing her as retaliation for her complaint. The suit was subsequently amended to include MSG chairman James Dolan.
Essence recently sat down with Anucha Browne Sanders to find out what life has been like since she took on her boss and her former employer—and won.
Essence: How did you get the nerve to file suit?
Anucha Browne Sanders: It really wasn’t about nerve. I had been experiencing inappropriate language, been referred to as a bitch, a ho, a m----- f-----, and was regularly bringing such issues to my management’s attention. And for two years I was not getting these issues addressed. If anything, it was getting worse. It started out as a lot of verbal abuse, and then it slipped into this, “I’m in love with you.” It was clear to me that [Isiah Thomas] was trying to make me very uncomfortable. I do think that he probably was used to getting what he wanted—meaning women falling all over him. The fact that this senior-level female executive was not doing that was totally an issue for him. And he felt like he needed to conquer me. And if he wasn’t going to conquer me, he was going to destroy me.
Essence: That speaks to the whole issue of sexual harassment—that it’s about power.
A.B.S.: It’s absolutely about power. Isiah was in an environment where they were giving him whatever power he wanted, so he felt the liberty to do whatever he wanted, say whatever he wanted. They weren’t addressing the fact that he wasn’t allowed to curse me out in the office setting. By not addressing it, they were condoning it. I was incensed that I had given so much to this organization. I had gotten the best performance appraisals over the last four years, tremendous bonuses. I was the highest ranking African-American woman in indoor sports. And they were willing to just say, “You know what? You are fired.” They gave multiple reasons why. The first was my inability to get along with senior management—the same senior management that was sexually harassing me.
Essence: Did you have any problems with sexual harassment, abuse on the job at IBM?
A.B.S.: There was a situation at IBM where someone said something inappropriate to me and I told my managers about it. They talked to the guy, and it was done. They handled it so professionally, and I wasn’t made to feel like this was my fault. IBM is probably an example of how you want to do business in a corporate setting. There was an open-door policy. There were procedures and guidelines on how you dealt with complaints. Management was fair all around to an employee who might bring a complaint, and the employee receiving the complaint. IBM was run like a professional corporation. But Madison Square Garden and Cablevision were run like a Mafia family company.
Essence: You won. Do you feel victorious and happy all the time? Like the female David against Goliath?
A.B.S.: I am proud of myself. I do feel like I put my family through a living hell, though. I uprooted the family and brought them to Buffalo, including my 17-year-old son, who was a senior in high school. And that was tough. But for me, this was about principle. And so I absolutely feel victorious, because I felt like—if you’ve ever seen the movie 300—an army of 300 going up against an army of 100,000. We would walk into the courtroom every day, and there would be my three lawyers and their 30 to 40 lawyers. I mean, there was barely room in the courtroom for my family or supporters.
Essence: You said that you are struggling with anger.
A.B.S.: Well, I’m angry that we were dealing with people who just couldn’t simply say, “Isiah Thomas, behave yourself.” And I was dealing with an owner who was irrational, who didn’t have any respect for women in the workplace.
Essence: Do you think their inability to say that has to do with the way in which we, in our society, view sports figures?
A.B.S.: Oh, I think it has a lot to do with that. But I think this is a function of leadership. Because it doesn’t happen everywhere, just in organizations that have leadership that endorses this.
Essence: When you won your case, you said so eloquently that you had done this for other women who didn’t have the wherewithal to do it for themselves. That suggests that this is going on in other places.
A.B.S.: It’s happening every day. Women complain and they’re fired, or they fear retaliation, so they don’t complain and they just put up with it. And you can’t operate in an environment where there is fear of retaliation.
Essence: Did you feel that Black women, Black people, were supportive of you and understood what was going on?
A.B.S.: I think that people are inherently suspicious when you’re going after someone of stature, especially a sports figure, because it’s done so often. For two years I wasn’t allowed to talk about the case. So when you don’t have a voice, and it’s left for the media to basically have your voice for you and shape public opinion, people are like, “Who’s this going after Isiah Thomas? She just wants his money.” And what wasn’t said was that I was the most senior African-American female executive in the company, with four years of superior performance evaluations, bonuses, raises and ongoing promotions. Those are the things they didn’t hear.
Essence: Do you think that, as Black people, we have a double standard in terms of what we will accept from Black men in their treatment of Black women?
A.B.S.: I guess the way it plays itself out can sometimes be interpreted as having a double standard. I purposely didn’t listen to talk radio, but some of the things that people told me were being said were, “She’s trying to bring down the Black man.” And I’m like, are you kidding me? If this was your mother, would you be saying that? If this was your daughter, would you be saying that?
Essence: You were saying that you got a wonderful call from...
A.B.S.: I got a call from Anita Hill, and she was calling to congratulate me. We talked about the feelings of outrage, even after the jury verdict, about what had transpired. We talked for a good half hour, and she was incredibly supportive. I was just so honored to have received a call from her. I told her I really felt that she had made huge strides for women based on what had happened to her. And I thanked her for that.
Essence: I also read where you talked about your mom and how you thought she was with you the whole time.
A.B.S.: Oh, yes, she was. My mother died in 2004; she was ravaged by ovarian cancer. And even during that time she knew what I was going through, because we talked about it. I remember her saying one day, “Anucha, you don’t belong there. They just don’t have any class.” But I felt as if I had really achieved something in my career that I’d been striving for. During the entire process and especially during the trial, I felt her presence like never before. My sister would say every day, “Boy, Mom’s hard at work.” I had so many people telling me they were praying for me, and then finding out afterward that there were so many women, and also men, praying for me—I really felt the power of prayer in a way I’ve never felt in my life.
Essence: What does your 14-year-old daughter think about what her mother did?
A.B.S.: She’s very proud of me. I think I’ve raised a stand-up girl, the type who will seek out the kid who’s ostracized. She has incredible leadership qualities, and I think kids are so knowledgeable—they just know what’s going on. She just thought they were a bunch of idiots.
Essence: What about your sons? Are they real clear about how men should treat women?
A.B.S.: I’ve made it very clear. It’s probably very difficult growing up in my household.
Essence: Is there anything you want our readers to know about you that you feel we don’t?
A.B.S.: Despite everything that’s happened, I will go on to mentor. Because nothing’s going to get changed if you’re silent and if you’re willing to just put up with an environment that shouldn’t be. Perseverance is the only way that we’re ever going to change things. We have to just take a stand. We owe it to our children, we owe it to our parents, we owe it to our sisters. That’s why I did this.
Jill Nelson is an Essence special correspondent.