It was only a matter of time before allegations of sexual harassment walloped the testosterone-filled world of sports television.
Earlier this week, ESPN suspended Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis, former NFL players who host shows on ESPN Radio, after they were named in a lawsuit claiming they sexually harassed an employee at the NFL Network.
Today, the Boston Globe published a massive story detailing sexism, harassment and hostile treatment of women that has existed at the network for years.
“Some current and former employees say the problems for women run deep,” writes Jenn Abelson.
This story hit the web the same day that the network gathered more than 450 employees in ESPN’s Bristol, CT headquarters for a “wide-ranging” staff meeting.
According to Abelson, “Men have made unwanted sexual propositions to female colleagues, given unsolicited shoulder rubs, and openly rated women on their looks, and, in at least one case, sent shirtless selfies, according to interviews with roughly two dozen current and former employees.”
The Globe spoke with ESPN employee Adrienne Lawrence, who filed a complaint against the network this past summer. Lawrence notes “a deeply ingrained culture of sexism and hostile treatment of women” at the network over time. Lawrence had worked as a lawyer before she joined ESPN in 2015 as part of a program designed to increase racial diversity at the network.
Lawrence is accusing John Buccigross, a popular longtime SportsCenter anchor of sending unsolicited shirtless photos of himself and calling her “dollface,” “#dreamgirl,” and “#longlegs” in 2016. Lawrence said she tried to remain cordial in e-mails but at one point responded: “You need to wear clothes, sir.”
When rumors spread that the two were in a relationship, Lawrence complained to company officials and was advised by a supervisor to drop the matter, according to her complaint Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
Abelson dives into the Buccigross-Lawrence situation:
Lawrence said ESPN retaliated against her by reducing her on-air shifts and ultimately denying her a permanent position. The other fellow, a male, received a job offer. The Globe interviewed three former employees who Lawrence had confided in at the time about her treatment and confirmed her account.
Buccigross, roughly two decades older than Lawrence, acknowledged sending the photos but denied starting any rumors that the two were in a relationship.
“I considered Adrienne to be a friend,” Buccigross said in a statement to the Globe. “I’m sorry if anything I did or said offended Adrienne. It certainly wasn’t my intent.”
Buccigross noted that after he sent the first shirtless picture, Lawrence texted about the possibility of getting together that weekend. Buccigross said they texted frequently over a couple of months and talked about personal issues as well as advice on improving her on-air delivery.
ESPN said it conducted a “thorough investigation” and found Lawrence’s claims to be “entirely without merit.” Lawrence was never guaranteed a permanent position, ESPN said, and it notified her at the same time that other employees were told that their contracts would not be renewed.
Earlier this month, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities released Lawrence’s complaint at her request so she could sue in federal court rather than wait for the agency to make a ruling.
Last year, Erin Andrews testified ESPN would not let her return to work until she did an interview in 2009 about a stalker who leaked videos of her undressing at a hotel during a work trip. This was done, she said, in order to prove that she didn’t release the materials herself. Andrews, who headed to Fox Sports in 2012, testified that she was crying while waiting to do an interview with Oprah.
Then there was ESPN’s short-lived partnership with the provocative, millennial-focused sports and lifestyle site Barstool Sports that raised a lot of eyebrows among those at the network, including ESPN Countdown anchor Samantha Ponder, who has a negative relationship with some of the site’s staffers.
Writer/actress Jenn Sterger was also against the partnership with Barstool, and recalls a bizarre experience when she auditioned for an on-camera gig in 2006.
Sterger said an exec showed her a copy of Playboy that she had modeled for and then she was taken to a strip club by Matthew Berry, who was interviewing as a contributor for The Fantasy Show.
The strip club outing was not a formal network activity, but it followed a dinner with company employees and involved several male job candidates. Sterger said she initially didn’t realize where they were heading and she was teased about being uncomfortable there.
Sterger did not get a job at ESPN while Berry did.
“Sexual harassment for women in sports journalism is a huge problem,” Sterger told the Globe. “But it’s one we have been taught from day one comes with the territory.”
Another woman, one of the few solo female anchors on SportsCenter, said she was told her show was moving in another direction and she’d no longer have a job on it weeks before she went on maternity leave last year. She is one of several who said they were given less desirable positions or laid off before, during, or after maternity leave.
But to its credit, ESPN is finally starting to place women in high-profile roles. The aforementioned Ponder is the first female studio host of NFL Countdown, Jessica Mendoza is the first female MLB analyst, and Alison Overholt was recently named the first woman to lead ESPN The Magazine.
“We work hard to maintain a respectful and inclusive culture at ESPN,” network spokeswoman Katrina Arnold told the Globe. “It is always a work in progress, but we’re proud of the significant progress we’ve made in developing and placing women in key roles at the company in the boardroom, in leadership positions throughout ESPN, and on air.”
But there appears to be way more work to do. Current and former employees say the network still faces problems when it comes to older men preying on younger women, particularly the PAs who are right out of college.
“It’s like cutting your arm in an ocean full of sharks,” one current employee told the Globe. The same employee said she has received unwanted physical contact from one colleague and listened to another rate women on a score of one to ten. “The second new blood is in the water, they start circling.”