LAS VEGAS (AP) — The WNBA has been thrown into the national conversation about domestic violence and sports, and now is facing a decision involving sexual harassment.
The league is reviewing the hiring of Isiah Thomas — once the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit — as president of the New York Liberty, an announcement that caught the WNBA president off guard. The WNBA was already immersed in a domestic dispute involving All-Stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson, who were arrested two weeks ago after assaulting each other at their home.
How the premier women’s sports league handles both is drawing interest.
WNBA President Laurel J. Richie told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday night that Thomas’ hiring was “first and foremost a team decision, but there’s ultimate responsibility with the league and that rests in my office.”
Anucha Browne Sanders, a former Madison Square Garden executive, brought a lawsuit in 2007, contending Thomas sexually harassed her. It cost MSG $11.5 million, but the Basketball Hall of Famer maintained his innocence and said he was never found personally liable.
Browne Sanders responded through her lawyer in a statement on Thursday. She says the Garden is attempting to “rewrite history” by saying what happened to her was simply “allegations” and unrelated to Thomas.
“The Garden’s suggestion that the jury somehow exonerated Thomas by failing to award punitive damages against him is simply untrue,” the statement said. “To the contrary, six of seven jurors voted to assess punitive damages against Thomas personally. Had the defendants not settled after the verdict, Thomas would have had to face a retrial on that issue.”
Richie said she was surprised by the Liberty’s announcement and that the league wasn’t given much advance notice.
Thomas also was given an ownership stake in the team, but Richie said the WNBA hasn’t received a completed application yet.
“The announcement came out (Tuesday), we’re less than 48 hours” into the process, Richie said. “I’d say both on behalf of the league and personally, I’m in the process of gathering information. Ultimately this is a decision in terms of ownership that is a board-level decision. I will participate in that discussion.”
The WNBA Board of Governors has to approve Thomas’ ownership application.
“Once we receive that application our vetting process will begin,” Richie said. “We have read the reports in the news and that will be a part of our vetting process, absolutely. We have an annual meeting in December and the rest of our meetings are ad hoc meetings. This would be an ad hoc meeting.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation wrote an open letter Thursday to the WNBA Board of Governors, urging it not to approve Thomas as part-owner of the Liberty.
“Our reaction echoed the public’s overwhelming sentiment. We were shocked. We were puzzled,” the letter said.
The letter added that if Thomas becomes the Liberty president the message to young girls and women is that “sexual harassment — inexcusable behavior in any workplace — is not only tolerated but is instead rewarded with executive offices and big contracts.”
While the Thomas hiring is new, the domestic violence case is not.
Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury, and Johnson, a 6-foot-3 forward with the Tulsa Shock, were arrested April 22 on suspicion of assault after their fight.
The 6-8 Griner entered into a diversion agreement, where she will plead guilty to disorderly conduct and attend 26 weeks of domestic violence counseling. All charges will be dismissed if she completes her counseling.
Richie said the league is still investigating the fight.
Griner talked with league officials last week, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because it is a personnel matter and the investigation is still pending.
The league has the option to fine, suspend or even terminate the contracts of Griner and Johnson.
“My hope is by the time our season starts, we will have done the due diligence on both fronts so that when our players are on the court and our seasons begun we are focused on what I think is incredible talent and terrific entertainment in the WNBA,” Richie said.
WNBA players are waiting to see what action the league takes.
“Brittney will learn from this and grow,” said Diana Taurasi, who had a DUI arrest in 2009 and was suspended two games by the WNBA. “There are things that happen in life, but … domestic violence is unacceptable. There are so many questions that the league has to answer and set a precedent for.”
AP Sports Writer Melissa Murphy in New York contributed to this report.
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