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‘I can’t leave those girls behind’: Inside the sexual harassment lawsuit against ESPN

"I couldn’t just take a paycheck and be silenced, and it’s disappointing that others can."

Adrienne Lawrence CREDIT: screengrab via www.adriennejlawrence.com
Adrienne Lawrence CREDIT: screengrab via www.adriennejlawrence.com

On Monday, former ESPN anchor Adrienne Lawrence filed a discrimination lawsuit against the company which detailed a culture of sexual harassment and misogyny, and alleged that female employees at ESPN are “humiliated, degraded, and forced to navigate a misogynistic and predatory culture.”

The extensive lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut, elaborated on claims that Lawrence made in a sexual harassment and retaliation complaint she filed last summer with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. According to the Boston Globe, who reported on the matter last December, that complaint primarily dealt with alleged sexual harassment by SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross, who referred to Lawrence as “dollface,” “doll” and “#dreamgirl” in text messages, sent her shirtless photos of himself, and reportedly spread rumors that they were in a relationship.

ESPN responded to that report by releasing misleading excerpts of text messages between Buccigross and Lawrence, and issuing a statement saying it “conducted a thorough investigation” of Lawrence’s complaints which “found these claims to be entirely without merit.”

But that failed to deter Lawrence, a lawyer who worked at ESPN from 2015  to 2017 as part of a fellowship to increase diversity at the network. Her lawsuit dives deep into ESPN’s “long history of sexually harassing and mistreating women,” and alleges that not only that Buccigross sexually harassed her, but that after she reported it, human resources covered it up and didn’t properly investigate her claims. Moreover, her suit goes on to allege that the company subsequently retaliated against her for speaking up by denying her a full-time position when her fellowship ended. Additionally, the suit also accuses the company of encouraging predatory grooming practices by male employees, mistreating pregnant women, and fostering a workplace environment where porn consumption is common and women are hyper-sexualized.

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This isn’t about me. It’s for the women there who I left behind that would come to me and ask me for my help,” Lawrence told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Monday night. “There are women that are scared, there are women trying to get into this business, and they’re siloed in silence.”

On Monday, the aspect of Lawrence’s lawsuit that garnered the lion’s share of media attention was its allegation that former ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman had left a “racially disparaging” voicemail for his colleague Jemele Hill, and that ESPN management failed to handle the matter appropriately. However, after this news broke, Hill released a statement of her own in response, in which she said that Lawrence’s description of the voicemail was “painfully inaccurate.” Hill went on to add that she was “disappointed” that Lawrence would “misrepresent” this for “personal gain.”

Lawrence stuck by her characterization of the incident to ThinkProgress, insisting that she while she never heard the voicemail, she is describing it exactly the way Hill characterized it to her.

I’ll be damned if anyone says this is for my personal gain,” Lawrence said. Play the voicemail then, the one that you kept. Play it, I know you have it. I’ve never heard it. I went off of her description of it.”

Lawrence explained that she wrestled with her decision to include stories from other female ESPN employees in the lawsuit, but ultimately opted to do so on the belief that changing what she described as a toxic culture at the Worldwide Leader required widespread accountability.

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“It wasn’t easy sharing what others had confided in me, but someone has to speak up if anything is to change,” Lawrence said. “These are things people came to me and told me about, and they weren’t right. If you don’t bring things to light they won’t get better.” 

Asked about Hill’s response to her lawsuit, Lawrence said that the most disappointing part about coming forward has been the lack of public support from other women who she worked with at the network.

I can’t leave those girls behind. I couldn’t just take a paycheck and be silenced, and it’s disappointing that others can,” Lawrence said. “It’s really disappointing to see all of these women who have the power to say something, and yet they will do anything to protect the shield. The shield abused them when they were on the way up, and it will abuse them on their way down.”

Hill’s voicemail is only a small part of the disturbing 93-page lawsuit. Elsewhere, Lawrence describes a culture that was rife with toxic masculinity and sexual harassment.

Lawrence’s lawsuit includes stories from Confidential Witnesses — current and former ESPN employees who provided Lawrence and her legal team information about their personal experiences with ESPN’s hostile work environment, but wanted to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. CW2, described as a Caucasian male who worked in Corporate Communications and Production ESPN from 2000-2016, said he observed an “ESPN Predators’ Playbook” during his time with the company.

CW1, a Caucasian male who worked in ESPN’s Security Department on its main campus from 2011 to 2017 — and who says he was fired without explanation after he complained to HR about the about the sexual harassment he witnessed — describes how security guards, who were supposed to be there to keep women safe, contributed directly to this discriminatory environment.

According to the lawsuit, human resources was not merely complicit in the company’s toxic culture, it often would actively encouraged it. CW2 claims that ESPN HR — including Paul Richardson, a Senior Vice President and member of the Board of Directors who leads the human resources team — assured predatory men in the company that they had “nothing to worry about … I’m in charge,” and that “senior leadership will just look the other way.”

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Those who did speak up about harassment– such as CW3, an African-American female and current production assistant at ESPN, and CW4, an African-American female studio director who has worked in studio production at the company for well over 10 years — say that they were subjected to retaliation.

While Lawrence hasn’t received much public support, she says that many current and former employees at ESPN, and throughout sports media, have privately reached out to her personally over the past few months, thanking her for speaking out.

Former ESPN President John Skipper allegedly told employees last December that sexual harassment was not a problem at the network, just days before he resigned abruptly to receive treatment for addiction. On Monday, ESPN announced that longtime Disney executive Jimmy Pitaro would be their new CEO. Lawrence hopes that he is open to making significant changes.

“I’d like to see an independent body that handles sexual harassment and retaliation, and uniform application of the rules — holding people accountable equally,” Lawrence says. 

On Monday, ESPN re-released the same statement it issued in December, when the Boston Globe report came out, saying that Lawrence’s claims were “without merit.”

“Ms. Lawrence was hired into a two-year talent development program and was told that her contract would not be renewed at the conclusion of the training program. At that same time, ESPN also told 100 other talent with substantially more experience, that their contracts would not be renewed,” ESPN said. “The company will vigorously defend its position and we are confident we will prevail in court.”

Court certainly doesn’t scare Lawrence, who is determined to keep fighting. And she is adamant that this is not about money. Lawrence only made $75,000 a year during her fellowship with ESPN, well below what she was making as a practicing lawyer, so she recognizes that she might not be entitled to substantial compensatory damages in the judgement as a result. She just wants to see things change for the better.

“Others can be disappointed in me but I’ll never be disappointed in myself for telling the truth and breaking the culture of silence,” Lawrence said. “I am very disappointed in the women there who have the power and don’t say anything. I hope their silence is their legacy.”