Thursday, February 22News That Matters

NBC’s botched attempt to ignore the sexual harassment allegations against Shaun White

On Wednesday morning in Pyeongchang, Shaun White won the his third gold medal in thrilling fashion in the final of the men’s snowboard halfpipe. Four years after his surprising failure to medal at Sochi, 31-year-old White returned to the biggest stage in sports and outdid 19-year-old Ayumu Hirano in his final run to add to his 2006 and 2010 Olympics titles.

It was, without a doubt, an Olympic moment for the ages.

But as I went to sleep on Tuesday night on the East Coast — time zones make scene-setting particularly complicated — I wasn’t thinking about White’s back-to-back 1440s, or his sobs of joy when the score for his final run was posted, or his climb back atop the olympic podium. Instead, I found myself dwelling on an interview that aired earlier in the night between White and NBC broadcaster Mike Tirico. It was the type of pre-recorded, soft-focused interview that Olympic viewers know all too well: perfectly filmed, meticulously edited, and precisely scored to educate the prime-time audience of White’s internal and external struggles over the last few years, and frame his upcoming moment of triumph or despair.

It wasn’t the cheesiness or the careful packaging of the interview that irked me; it was the topic that was left untouched: the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against White in 2016 by a former female drummer in his band, which was settled in 2017 for an undisclosed amount.

I’ve been told that we live in a new era, one where the #MeToo movement has officially changed the conversation regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment — or, if not changed, it’s at least moved the conversation from the background to the foreground. These stories are no longer supposed to be reserved for websites like Deadspin and Slate; this is a mainstream conversation that we’ve all agreed needs to be had. Or so I thought.

And yet here was NBC, the former home of Matt Lauer, casting Shaun White as its chosen face of the Pyeongchang Games, a hero in his own redemption narrative, and not even making him answer even the most softball of questions about a sexual harassment lawsuit he settled less than a year ago. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, Tirico — the man filling a role occupied by Lauer four years ago and tasked with asking the questions — is no stranger to sexual harassment allegations himself.

If this is what the #MeToo revolution looks like in practice, then it’s safe to say this battle is far from over.

I want to be clear: I am not saying that Tirico shouldn’t be allowed to have a career, that White should have been banned from the Olympics, or that we shouldn’t be able to thoroughly enjoy his gold-medal winning run on the halfpipe.

But I am saying that neglecting to even mention the lawsuit in their coverage of the event is a journalistic failure, and that if that failure occurred because NBC was afraid of the optics — of Tirico, a man who has been accused of sexual harassment in the past, asking the tough questions to White — then NBC needs to reconsider whether it’s worth entrusting Tirico with such a prominent role within its company.

Is it uncomfortable to talk about? Of course it is. But that’s no excuse to avoid it. Sports broadcasts, particularly the Olympics, broach uncomfortable topics all the time — hello, Ryan Lochte circa Rio 2016. Why should this be any different? It’s news. It’s part of White’s story. And while it’s up to each individual to decide whether it should define him or not, he needs to be confronted with the question.

The lawsuit against him was filed in 2016 by Lena Zawaideh, who was a drummer in White’s band for about six years. According to the lawsuit, which was published in full by Deadspin, during band practices in 2008 and 2009, White would consistently make “sexual and vulgar comments” to Zawaideh, and show her “sexually explicit images and videos,” all while referring to her as “bitch” regularly. Zawaideh was 17 and 18 at the time; White was 22 and 23. In 2010, White texted her pictures of “naked men with engorged and erect penises and videos of vulgar sexual acts.” After Zawaideh rejected White’s advances when he drunkenly attempted to kiss her at a party, he would often ask her “inappropriate questions about her sex life or make inappropriate comments about her sex life” — such as telling her, “Don’t forget to suck his balls,” when she was dating her boyfriend at the time.

Around 2013, during a band practice, White “stuck his hands down his pants, approached Zawaideh, and stuck his hands in her face trying to make her smell them.” Another time, after practice, White “grabbed Zawaideh’s buttocks.” In 2014, after his disappointing performance in Sochi, White threatened to hit Zawaideh during practice. He stopped paying her, but still paid the male members of the band. He criticized her appearance often, one time texting her, “I need u to go out in the morning and have your hair cut in a new style at shoulder or above but keep your bangs. This is really important to me …. Thanks.” Soon after she refused to cut her hair, she was fired from the band.

At the time of the lawsuit, White said, “Many years ago, I exchanged texts with a friend who is now using them to craft a bogus lawsuit,” and accused her of filing the lawsuit because she was mad about being fired from the band.

In the book, “These Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” by Jim Miller, Tirico is described as “one of the most notorious cases” of sexual harassment and assault at the company in the early 1990s. According to Miller, Tirico was “very unpopular” with women on staff, and never took “no” or “leave me alone” as an answer.

After Tirico, who was married at the time, was rejected by a woman at a staff party in 1992, he “reportedly followed the woman to her car when she left the party, then reached in through the car window and thrust his hand between her legs as she attempted to start the engine.”

In another incident, reported in the book, “ESPN: The Uncensored History,” by Michael Freeman (via The Intercept,) Tirico walked up to a female producer at a bar after covering an NCAA game, and said, “I wish I was single. If I were, I’d throw you on the table right here and fuck your brains out.” When she rejected him and left the party, he followed her in his car, even as she sped up to try and get away from him. At least six other women made similar complaints against Tirico, who was suspended without pay for three months, then brought back to ESPN like nothing ever happened.

Tirico, who has never directly addressed the allegations, told Miller, “Most of the people over time who have worked with me have enjoyed working with me. I hope they have. At least they said they have, and I hope they always will.” When asked about the allegations against Tirico when they hired him last year, NBC told The Intercept, “Mike has repeatedly assured us that this behavior is long in his past, and we have no evidence of anything to the contrary in his tenure at NBC Sports.”

While Tirico didn’t ask White about the allegations, ABC News reporter Matt Gutman asked him about it in the press conference after his gold medal — a press conference in which no female reporters were called on to ask questions by the moderator, despite holding their hands up throughout. He dismissed the question about the sexual harassment lawsuit, saying, “Honestly, I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not you know, not gossip.” Later, on the NBC Today Show, he apologized for that comment, saying, “it was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today.”

In other words, despite NBC’s attempt to skip over more troubling parts of White’s past, it made the news anyway. That’s because it is news, through and through. You can’t pick a man who just settled a disturbing sexual harassment lawsuit as the face of your Olympic Games and not expect to address the subject, not in 2018 at least. And you can’t have a reporter leading your Olympic coverage if he isn’t willing to do the addressing because of his own sordid past. That’s not a very high bar, and yet it’s one that NBC didn’t even lift a foot to attempt to clear.

I don’t have all the answers to this; grappling with it is neither easy, nor enjoyable. But I firmly believe that we can appreciate high-caliber athletic achievement, while also weighing that against the reality of the achiever’s past transgressions. I believe we can both want someone to succeed, and want them to face accountability for their actions. I believe we can handle the truth.

Mostly, I believe that we can never go backwards, to a place where this stuff was brushed under the rug and never spoken of again. NBC attempted to go that route this week. Thankfully, its competitors made sure that wasn’t a winning strategy.