State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal has a “complicated relationship with organized sports.” But on Thursday night, he bought a ticket to a Knicks game and headed to Madison Square Garden anyway.
“I was cut from my peewee basketball team when I was a kid, so I'm not, generally speaking, a big fan,” he said on Thursday.
The senator was there to find out just how far MSG Entertainment CEO and Knicks owner James Dolan takes his grudges. Dolan has made headlines for using facial recognition technology to keep his perceived enemies out of his various venues, including Madison Square Garden. So far, most reported cases have involved attorneys working for law firms suing his holding company MSG Entertainment, which also runs Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre.
Both men have publicly feuded in recent weeks, and Hoylman-Sigal heard through the grapevine that he’d made it onto Dolan’s blacklist. As we approached the arena, he confessed that he felt "some trepidation."
The state senator is among a number of public figures who have criticized Dolan’s use of surveillance technology to keep opponents out of his venues. Hoylman-Sigal recently introduced a bill that would add sporting events to an existing law prohibiting “wrongful refusal of admission” to patrons with valid tickets to “places of public entertainment or amusement.”
“I'm only trying to work with my colleagues to ensure that when you visit a sporting arena, you don't have to suffer the embarrassment or humiliation of being denied entry,” Hoylman-Sigal said on Thursday. “That's why we have a public accommodation law and that's why we have laws to protect civil rights and free expression.”
Last week, Dolan doubled down on the tactic in a defiant interview on FOX 5 where he lashed out against his critics. The Knicks owner called out Hoylman-Sigal by name, railed against the state senator’s politics surrounding bail reform, and criticized his support of the “Clean Slate” bill, which would seal the criminal records of people convicted of certain felonies or misdemeanors once eligible. He also argued that because MSG is private property, he has the right to deny service to his adversaries.
“The public needs to tell these politicians and the SLA [State Liquor Authority] to start working on the things that matter to us,” Dolan told FOX. “Like law enforcement, making it safe in our streets, getting our taxes in line, stop people from leaving New York and ruining our city. Those are the things that Brad Hoylman should be caring about.”
The next day, Hoylman-Sigal shot back. On the same morning show, he called Dolan’s use of facial recognition technology “unfair” and “unacceptable.” He also said he’d sent a letter to the NHL and NBA commissioners, urging both organizations to sanction Dolan unless he stops using the technology. Shortly after the TV appearance, Hoylman-Sigal got word from someone in Dolan’s circle that the Knicks owner “had eyes” on him, and that he’d been declared persona non grata at Dolan’s venues.
We arrived at the Garden shortly after the doors opened for the Knicks game against the Miami Heat, and got in line at the entrance on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street. As we neared the front of the line, we could see security cameras atop a metal scanner. Once it was his turn, Hoylman-Sigal took his keys and wallet out of his pockets, placed them in a bin, and looked straight into the security camera before walking through the security device. Nothing happened.
The security guard then gestured to the person behind us.
“I think we’ve officially made it in,” Hoylman-Sigal said. As the minutes passed, it became clear no one was coming to escort him out. As he munched on popcorn, he mused about what this could mean.
“Maybe MSG has reformed its practice. Or maybe I don't rise to the level of anyone's threat, which is probably more likely,” he said.
For a brief moment, the senator, who earlier described himself as not being a basketball fan, cheered when the Knicks scored.
“Great arena, wonderful crowd. Exciting game. No one should be afraid to come to Madison Square Garden,” Hoylman-Sigal said.
Maybe his support was just what the Knicks needed that night — the team ended up winning by a mere two points.