SportAmerica at Large

Knicks’ owner James Dolan keeps finding ways to make a bad situation worse

Politicians and pundits alike speak out against man who uses facial recognition to keep ‘enemies’ out of Madison Square Garden

New York Knicks owner James Dolan is widely unpopular among fans, pundits and local politicians. Photograph: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Kerry Conlon volunteered to chaperone her nine-year-old daughter’s Girl Scouts troop to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular, a staple of the holiday season in these parts. Having had their tickets scanned, Conlon had just passed through the metal detector when security pulled her aside and requested her to produce ID. The venue’s facial recognition software had identified her as an attorney with New Jersey-based law firm Davis, Saperstein and Salomon, and she was asked to leave the premises immediately. She had to wait outside in the rain for her child until the show was over.

Alexis Majano arrived at Madison Square Garden with a group of friends on their way to watch the New York Knicks entertain the Boston Celtics, the best team in the NBA. He was on an escalator when a man in a suit stepped across his path, asked him his name and told him the manager wanted a chat. Then, a security guard wearing a body cam hovered into view, warned Majano he was being recorded, and began firing questions about his career as a lawyer for Sahn Ward Braff Koblenz on Long Island. When he confirmed his name and occupation, he was escorted off the premises. No marquee basketball game for him.

There have been other cases of attorneys turning up to watch the Knicks or the New York Rangers hockey team and getting unceremoniously ejected before reaching their seats. Their crime is a simple one. They all work for companies currently involved in litigation with Madison Square Garden Entertainment, owners of the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous arena” and Radio City Music Hall. They have all fallen victim to the paranoid whims of James Dolan, the CEO who inherited the Garden and all its ancillary businesses from his father in 1999.

In a peculiarly Orwellian development, Dolan has opted to deploy facial recognition technology to wage war on his perceived enemies. Biometric identifier information helps to pick out fans working for firms with whom his own outfit is involved in legal squabbles and they get prevented from watching matches or shows for which they have bought tickets. It doesn’t matter if they have never worked on the specific cases involving MSG, just that they are employed by companies that have filed suits.

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“People say, ‘You’re so sensitive, you shouldn’t defend yourself’,” said Dolan. “Its like something out of The Godfather – like, ‘It’s only business’. The Garden has to defend itself.”

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This is the latest episode to bolster Dolan’s hard-won reputation as the worst owner in professional sports. A competitive enough category but nobody has achieved less with more than this guy. If the Knicks make the play-offs this year, it will be just the second time in a decade and most won’t fancy their chances of getting past the Philadelphia 76ers in their projected first round clash. His time in charge has been hallmarked by mismanagement off the court, mediocrity on it, and recurring scandals. Through it all he’s paid himself a tidy $25 million a year, his exorbitant salary just one more reason die-hard fans (even those allowed into the arena) resent him so much that an ESPN pundit last week casually described him as “a cancer”.

Whether engaging in constant warfare with local media, waging petty vendettas against retired players who dare to criticise his dysfunctional regime, or alienating rabid fans like Spike Lee, Dolan brazens out every shameful episode from his prominent courtside seat. Nobody likes him. He doesn’t care. Evincing the grudge-bearing of Donald Trump, the thin skin of Elon Musk, and the tone deafness of Richie Rich, this is the character who once infamously fired a female employee for reporting that she’d been sexually harassed by the Knicks head coach. A dismissal that later cost the corporation $12 million in compensation.

“James Dolan is the poster child of privilege, as someone who inherited his wealth and receives an annual $43 million tax break from New Yorkers,” said New York State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal. “New York shouldn’t allow petty tyrants to impose their warped fantasies on the public while reaping millions each year from taxpayer subsidies. I’m grateful to both the New York State Attorney General and the Manhattan District Attorney for launching inquiries into Dolan’s vindictive business practices intended to silence his critics.”

With political pressure mounting, Dolan tried some typically ham-fisted damage limitation last week with an appearance on Fox’s New York television station. As usual, he made a bad situation worse, threatening to go to war with the state’s liquor licensing authority and to stop selling beer at his venues to turn fans against politicians. After that spawned more criticism, he went on WFAN sports talk radio where, even when being soft-soaped by a couple of pals, he came across as a curious amalgam of sinister, petulant, and childish. Remember, this is somebody so clueless he once wrote a song about how guilty he felt about the crimes of his good friend Harvey Weinstein.

Readers of a certain age might remember Ivor Lott, the spoilt rich kid whose misadventures were once chronicled in the Buster comic. Every time Lott tried to one-up and outspend his more content rival, the mendicant Tony Broke, his plan backfired, inevitably making him look like an entitled idiot and perennial loser. Imagine Ivor running your favourite sports teams and the city’s most esteemed venue. New Yorkers don’t have to.