Madison Square Garden Boss Erupts as His Ban of Lawyers Draws Scrutiny
For weeks, as controversy raged over his brash use of facial recognition technology to bar legal adversaries from Madison Square Garden, James Dolan, whose family owns the arena, remained mute, except for guarded statements issued by spokeswomen.
That silence ended Thursday morning when he appeared in a morning talk show and lived up to his reputation as the mercurial master of Madison Square Garden.
He cited the Bill of Rights and said that as a property owner, he was fully justified in keeping opposing lawyers out of the Garden. He called out elected officials “jumping on the bandwagon” against his ban instead of addressing more pressing issues, like crime and bail reform. He even threatened a beer ban at a Rangers game.
Then Mr. Dolan trolled an obscure government official — Sharif Kabir, chief executive of the New York State Liquor Authority, which is investigating the Garden — by holding aloft a flier bearing Mr. Kabir’s photo and contact information so thirsty fans might “tell him to stick to his knitting.”
All in all, Mr. Dolan, who owns the New York Knicks and Rangers, did not exactly seem cowed by the firestorm created by his ban.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Dolan, who is chief executive of MSG Entertainment.
A billionaire who has run his empire with an autocratic flair, Mr. Dolan has publicly feuded with fans and former Knicks players at the Garden and has threatened customers with lifetime bans from the Garden on several occasions. But only last month did it become public that the venue was using cameras at its entrances to help bar lawyers who worked for firms handling civil suits against Mr. Dolan’s properties.
The Garden has been using facial recognition since 2018, but Mr. Dolan’s unusual use of it against his foes thrust him into a growing controversy and pitted him against thousands of lawyers. Some went to court to obtain injunctions to force their way back into Garden events, setting up further court battles with Mr. Dolan. Others filed complaints with government agencies.
The local grudge match has become part of a national debate over the specter of widespread privatized surveillance. While facial recognition technology is legal in New York, the Garden’s use of it has raised an outcry from civil liberties watchdogs.
Elected officials have held news conferences and proposed laws barring the exclusionary policy.
But it was the Liquor Authority investigation that provoked one of the most pugnacious responses in Mr. Dolan’s rambling 17-minute interview on FOX-5’s “Good Day New York” morning show. Mr. Dolan challenged the agency to “take away my liquor license,” adding, “People are still going to come to the games.”
“They’re being extremely aggressive, and they’re saying, ‘We’re going to take away your liquor license.’ So I have a little surprise for them,” he said.
“We’re going to pick a night, maybe a Rangers game, and we’re going to shut down all the liquor and alcohol in the building,” he added, and then held up the flier of Mr. Kabir.
A State Liquor Authority spokesman, Joshua Heller, said yesterday that the Garden, as a public business with a liquor license, must remain open to the public. He said the Liquor Authority notified Garden officials in November of a complaint that charged them with violating the terms of their license under state beverage laws by restricting certain members of the public from entry.
A group of state legislators representing Manhattan have introduced a bill that would close a legal loophole in order to prohibit Mr. Dolan from continuing to bar select patrons.
Tony Simone, a Democrat representing the West Side of Manhattan and a bill sponsor, said he himself had run afoul of Mr. Dolan’s exclusionary practices this month.
Mr. Simone, the first openly gay official to hold the assembly seat, said he was abruptly disinvited from a Rangers game shortly after a news release went out listing him among other local elected officials opposing Mr. Dolan’s policy.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Simone said a Garden official told him “it would be awkward at this time” for him to attend the game, where a Pride Night event was being hosted by Hockey is for Everyone, an inclusion advocacy group.
“I guess hockey is for everyone unless you speak out about something Jim Dolan doesn’t agree with you on,” he said.
Another bill sponsor, State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, called Mr. Dolan’s appearance on Thursday a “public meltdown.” He called Mr. Dolan a “poster child of privilege” and noted that he receives $43 million in tax breaks annually.
“New York shouldn’t allow petty tyrants to impose their warped fantasies on the public while reaping millions each year from taxpayer subsidies,” he said.
The New York attorney general, Letitia James, and the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, say they are both looking into whether the admission policies violate the law.
MSG Entertainment officials said that the surveillance remains in use primarily to identify people who could be security threats and that the watch list included patrons who had broken rules — being violent, throwing things or engaging in other misbehavior.
The Dolan family’s companies have also been a frequent target of lawsuits, from personal injuries to loss of season tickets to complaints from stockholders over business deals, and company officials maintain that the ban is geared toward keeping opposing lawyers from gathering evidence.
During the Thursday morning interview, Mr. Dolan cited his constitutional rights as a property owner to protect the Garden, comparing his situation to that of a bakery or a restaurant.
“For whatever reason. If there’s someone you don’t want to serve, you get to say, ‘I don’t want to serve you,’” he said.
For Mr. Dolan, it was a rare interview, and one that concluded with a question about his blues band.
Finally, he beamed. He said he was involved with a thrilling musical project — “but it’s sucking up all my time.”