It was supposed to be a news conference in which an embattled former NBA Hall of Famer and prospective owner and coach of the WNBA's New York Liberty calmed the waters about years-old sexual harassment questions. But at one point, according to the New York Times, Isiah Thomas offered that he has "great respect for humanity and also women."
The comment wasn't widely disseminated beyond the Times report, but the conservative Weekly Standard -- hardly a hot spot for sports news or a sentry on the battlefronts of subtle bigotry -- picked up on it Thursday and published Thomas's comment under the headline, "Forgive Him Lord, For He Knoweth Not What He Says."
Here's the full, poorly crafted quote: "My basketball-playing career, my life, has been dedicated to fighting racism and fighting for equality. I had the utmost respect for my mother when she was alive and I have great respect for humanity and also women.”
Would a sexist man respect his mother? Would that sexist also append his respect for "also women" when talking about his respect for people? Apparently not.
Thomas's awkward comment at a press conference during which reporters asked about the propriety of him owning and coaching a professional women's basketball team offered a public and irrefutable example of something that interests a lot of political scientists: casual sexism.
Thomas, in case you haven't tuned in, is aiming to become part owner and coach of the Liberty despite a jury finding in 2007 that he sexually harassed a female executive of the New York Knicks -- the team Thomas coached after his playing days were over -- and that she was improperly fired afterward. His prospective role with the team, which is still awaiting approval by the WNBA board, has drawn new attention to that case against Thomas, Madison Square Garden and its executive, James Dolan. The woman behind the suit, Anucha Brown Sanders, won the case and was awarded a $11.6 million payout -- though Thomas and others on his side maintain his innocence to this day.
The comment was the kind of supposed-to-be-helpful-or-nice remarks like the ones Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has described from her private conversations with her male colleague in the Senate. Last year, Gillibrand told Time magazine that she has been nicknamed "Honey Badger," dubbed the "hottest member of the Senate" and been advised that it's a good thing she works out because getting "porky" would be a very bad thing.
In March, Michigan state Rep. Kristy Pagan (D) told The Huffington Post she often encounters a kind of subtle sexism that makes her legislative work more difficult. Pagan described committee meetings in which her comments are not taken seriously and moments where her questions or attempts to speak are outright ignored. A similar situation occurred in South Carolina, where state Sen. Katrina Shealy, the only woman in that chamber, has called out a fellow Republican for repeated violations of good taste.
That's part of the reason that the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers has plans to track sexist jokes, commentary and moments in the 2016 campaign. The researchers behind the initiative don't discount the 71 percent of Americans who told the Pew Research Center they would be open to voting for a female president last year. But the kind of subtle sexism contained in comments like Thomas's can spawn pernicious effects, erode confidence in individual female candidates and the very concept of female leadership.
Provocateurs and befuddled casual sexists, you have been warned.