Civil court no place for off-court disputes

sideline commentary

Erin Flegg
Erin Flegg

I’ve always felt sports and feminism compliment each other very well. I spent the first four years of my childhood soccer career playing on a boys’ team and I found the fastest way to assert my presence as well as my value in any arena was simply to prove by my actions that I deserved to be where I was. In those days, there was no greater equalizer than that hideous orange and black jersey.

Obviously things get significantly more complicated when you enter the volatile business side of professional sport, but the basic principle shouldn’t change. If showing that you can execute the best slide tackle on the team earns you respect on the field, then selling tickets and promoting games should be enough to erase gender as a factor in the office.

But while the childhood bonds created by team sports seem to last into the professional leagues, so do childish tendencies towards exclusion and the idea of “old boys’ clubs.”

This means that any woman working in the front office of a predominantly male athletics franchise is automatically outnumbered.

It’s easy to argue that because a large number of team executives are made up of men who rose through the ranks of the sport, often with the team they came to manage, women in the sporting industry have it tougher than most.

But I don’t think that’s the issue. Many job markets are traditionally male-dominated.

What sets the professional sports industry apart is that a large number of these males never grew out of their childhood passion and therefore never fully grew up.

And while many things don’t change from the days of playground hoops to the big time, money changes everything.

The results of the three-week sexual harassment trial of New York Knicks head coach Isiah Thomas make this abundantly clear.

Anucha Browne Sanders, former vice-president of marketing and business operations, has been awarded $11.6 million after winning a civil case against her former employer.

While Thomas wasn’t ordered to pay anything, Madison Square Gardens and chairman James Dolan were found guilty of condoning a hostile workplace as well as sexual harassment.

Dolan told the court he fired Browne Sanders because she was pressuring her subordinates at the Garden to support her complaint.

Whether or not Browne Sanders’ complaint was justified, firing her for being vocal about it is unacceptable.

Like any woman in any profession, Browne Sanders has every right to challenge the decision. But I question her method of bringing the case to court in a civil lawsuit.

That the sports editor of this newspaper asked me to write about this particular issue instead of doing it himself is an indication that times are still not such that a man has equal right to criticize a woman, which puts a man in a courtroom at a distinct disadvantage. In every article I’ve seen about this case, one of the first things mentioned after the verdict is the ratio of men to women on the jury: four women and three men.

This pits the historical inequality of women in the workplace against the current political incorrectness of disputing a woman’s claim of sexual harassment.

This problem is present in both civil and criminal court, but the difference is the end result.

In civil court, the wrongdoer is condemned by a small group of people and essentially told that, so long as they’re willing to pay, they can get away with almost anything.

It’s nothing more than a grown-up version of a time-out—fitting in this case for a group that can often be described as over-grown children.

The label of criminal awarded to those who are convicted in criminal court has much more weight when it comes to influencing ideas of what is socially acceptable and what is not.

The criminal court system may not always offer due recourse, but that points to a need to address the workings of the system, not settling for what may seem to be only available alternative.

I am a strong supporter of a broad definition of sexual harassment—any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation. There is no other way to account for the numerous differences in personality and comfort zone of individuals. That means that any complaint of harassment needs to be taken absolutely seriously.

Attempting to win respect and equality through civil litigation not only undermines the legal system but fighting in the name of feminism and equality, whether it’s right or not, discredits the cause.

A slap on the wrist for the organization is unlikely to help women in other professions and the money certainly doesn’t help anyone but Browne Sanders.

In fact, her willingness to attach a dollar to her own struggles could prove detrimental to other women facing sexual harassment and discrimination.

Comments made on a sports blog after the verdict was released are proof of this.

Someone wrote in the comments section of ESPN, “I don’t give a damn what was said to her, nothing short of ‘rape’ could have stung her so much that the jury awards this much.”

I don’t know whether it was a man or a woman who made the comment, but it doesn’t matter. Implying that $11.6 million in enough to nullify the pain of sexual violence is wrong.

You can’t put a material value on pain and suffering. Period.

“What I did here, I did for every working woman in America,” Browne Sanders said after the verdict was released. “And that includes everyone who gets up and goes to work in the morning, everyone working in a corporate environment.”

Many people are already questioning her motives.

It’s unfortunate but, in the world of professional athletics, perception might as well equal reality, and firing a woman for making a sexual harassment complaint looks bad regardless of the circumstances.

Having a sexual harassment suit brought against him, regardless of whether or not it’s merited looks bad for Isiah Thomas.

But in the end, Browne Sanders isn’t looking so hot either

All people see is another scandal, clouded by rumours of false accusations of lies and simple greed.

No amount of money can change an attitude.

Equality in the workplace should be an inalienable right regardless of gender. I just don’t think a civil courtroom is the best place to find it.

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