As the story of Isiah Thomas' sexual harassment lawsuit unfolded, I could not help but wonder what his mother would think.
The first time I really paid attention to the retired NBA star and current New York Knicks coach was back in 1989, when his mother's life story was dramatized in an NBC-TV movie, A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story.
Alfre Woodard depicted the feisty mom who raised her children alone on Chicago's West Side after separating from her husband. When the Vice Lords street gang came to recruit her sons, she memorably greeted the gang-bangers with a shotgun and a threat to blow their sorry selves across the nearby expressway.
"First off, you have to keep an eye on your children," she said in a 1990 Ebony magazine article on how to save inner-city children from gangs. "Parents have to set examples. You can't hang around the taverns and expect your children to behave differently."
Sure enough. Mr. Thomas launched into a full-tribute mama-thon on the witness stand, describing to the jury how she taught her boys to respect women. In the end, his memories of mother appeared to have helped Mr. Thomas' case. When the three-week trial ended last week, a jury of four women and three men found in favor of the plaintiff but let Mr. Thomas off the hook for paying damages.
The owners of the New York Knicks, however, were ordered to pay $11.6 million to Anucha Browne Sanders, 44, a former team executive who was fired from her $260,000-a-year job. The firing came after she endured a hostile work environment, she said, including crude insults and unwanted advances from Mr. Thomas, who denied the charges.
But what brought Mr. Thomas' mother to mind was an unnecessary but explosive revelation by Coach Thomas during his video deposition. In his version of etiquette, he revealed, it's wrong for a black man to call a black woman a "bitch" but much worse for a white man to do it.
"A white man calling a black woman a bitch ... that is a problem for me," he said. But when asked in a follow-up if he would be bothered by a black man's using the same put-down, he said, "Not as much. I'm sorry to say. I do make a distinction."
Don Imus, consider yourself vindicated. Mr. Imus, you may recall, lost his nationally syndicated radio show in the uproar over his referring to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." The I-man claimed to have gotten his defamatory words from hip-hop. That still doesn't excuse his unsporting attack on a defenseless women's basketball team. But if my fellow black folks don't object to anyone, including sports stars and rappers, who spew such insults against women, we virtually admit to the same double-standard that Mr. Thomas says he is "sorry to say" he employs.
Don't expect black sports fans to burn their Knicks tickets in protest or call for Mr. Thomas to be ousted from his job like Mr. Imus was. Ms. Browne Sanders is more likely to be vilified as some sort of Jezebel, sent perhaps by white conspirators to "bring another brother down."
Just ask Anita Hill. When U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas dismissed Ms. Hill's allegations of sexual harassment as a "high-tech lynching," his approval ratings in polls of black Americans shot up to about 55 percent from around 40 percent. The Senate barely confirmed him as a Supreme Court justice.
Mr. Imus was vulgar, but black popular culture wrote his script. In the early 1970s, films such as Superfly and The Mack glamorized and glorified the sleazy worlds of drug dealers and pimps. Despite their technical excellence, they signaled the beginning of a long slide from a period of rebellious politics into a sexist rebellion against self-respect that today infects the popular culture of a new generation.
Isiah Thomas' blase attitude toward the B-word tells us this attitude has infected top sports management. I don't know what his mother would say. But I know mine would not be happy.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Trudy Rubin's column will return next week.