What would you do when no one is looking? What choices would you make? The questions, posed by Anucha Browne Sanders, are on the surface simple, even elementary. The answers, however, have the potential to spark a debate much larger in scope and cultural import.
What would you do? Would you make the same choices if you were being filmed or recorded? True leaders would, said Browne Sanders, who spoke Sept. 22 to a group of students in the Schools of Business at Wake Forest University. Browne Sanders is Senior Associate Athletic Director for Marketing at the University of Buffalo.
“You can look around you in an organization and see the leaders pretty clearly,” she said. “You can see through people. It’s pretty transparent who is incredibly political and who is there for leadership, and (for) doing the right thing. It’s pretty cut-and-dry.”
Browne Sanders earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where she was a star on the women’s basketball team. She earned a master’s degree from Florida State University and spent 11 years with IBM; her duties included selling software and services to the United Nations, in places throughout the world.
She adapted to the people, their culture and their traditions. “I’ve learned to treat people the way they want to be treated.”
In 2002, she was named one of the Sports Business Journal's Top 40 Under 40 Sports Executives, according to her bio on the University of Buffalo website.
Before coming to Buffalo she was Senior Vice President for Marketing and Business Operations for the NBA’s New York Knicks, where she worked with people such as Isaiah Thomas, General Manager, Jim Dolan, Owner and Steve Mills, President and Chief Operating Officer of Madison Square Garden.
Jeff Nix, a former coach with the Knicks who worked with Browne Sanders in New York, helped bring her to Wake Forest. He is entering his first season at the university as Director of Basketball Operations. He has worked at several universities, including Xavier, Notre Dame and is alma mater, Canisius.
With the Knicks, Sanders Browne said, she encountered a workplace infected by hostility and inappropriate behavior. It was a place where leadership and ethics gave way to an environment of fear and dishonesty. She was harassed, she said, both verbally and sexually.
She complained. For that, she says, she was fired. Browne Sanders sued, and in 2007 a jury ruled in her favor, saying she was sexually harassed and improperly fired for complaining about the unwanted advances, the N.Y Times wrote.
A jury awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million in punitive damages from the Madison Square Garden, though the case was later settled.
That ordeal, as painful as it was, she says, led to her to the University of Buffalo and into academia, which she called a “much better environment now.”
Browne Sanders was a lifelong fan of the Knicks. She wanted to
work with the team so badly she would have accepted a pittance. The job paid well, but her attitude and general lack of research about the organization was a mistake, she said.
She saw the red flags wave, and she ignored them.
Browne Sanders said, “Do your homework, do your research, because they’re doing it on you.”
Value yourself, she told the faculty, staff and students who gathered in Carswell Hall on campus for her discussion, called “Business Ethics: Straight Talk and Lessons Learned.”
Coming from a corporate environment, Browne Sanders brought structure to the office, and within a year and a half she was promoted. There were issues and challenges, but she liked her job.
The Knicks started slowly in 2003, and Scott Layden, the general manager, was fired. Thomas was named to replace him. She respected and admired Layden. She also realized his dismissal was a business decision.
“As you will find in your careers, you have to be flexible, and you have to adapt to those transitions,” she said.
Thomas approached things differently, sometimes in a way she deemed offensive.
“It didn’t take long to realize I was working with somebody very opposite, and (he) had a very different value system and a very different sense of integrity and humility.”
She asked herself whether she should continue in that environment, but she enjoyed her job and was determined to make things work. She took her complaints to MSG executives, including Mills.
No one listened.
In retrospect, she says, “I should have been planning my exit strategy much earlier.”
Ultimately, Browne Sanders was fired, an act, she said, of blatant retaliation. She turned to the courts.
“I was publicly fired, and my life was under siege,” Browne Sanders said. “I was fired because I complained. “The fact that they fired me in such as public way was meant to send a message.”
The press hounded her and people sifted through her garbage. Because of the lawsuit, Browne Sanders was effectively silenced. “I really couldn’t tell people what was going on.”
The women whom she worked to defend stepped up to the witness stand and testified against her. People she thought were her friends were eerily silent.
“People scattered like roaches; they were scared.”
The Knicks decided against retaining Nix, who supported Browne Sanders in court. He reached out to former colleagues throughout the NBA over the past three years and has been unsuccessful in his return to the professional ranks. When Wake Forest head basketball coach and former fellow Knicks coach Jeff Bzdelik offered an opportunity to return to the collegiate ranks, Nix jumped at the chance to work with young men and assist in their growth on and off the basketball court.
To Nix, defending Browne Sanders was as simple as discerning between right and wrong. “You can’t buy character,” he said.
Brown Sanders characterized the act of bringing a lawsuit against a company such as MSG like this: “You’re stepping in hole so deep you have no idea where the bottom is. I had no idea of what I had gotten myself into.”
But would she do it again? “Absolutely,” she said.
The presentation by Browne Sanders was part of the Business Ethics Lecture Series sponsored by the Schools of Business and the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism.
The next speaker in the Business Ethics Lecture Series is on Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 4:00 p.m. The featured speaker is Marjorie Benbow (MD/MBA ’99), Executive Director of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.