A report published today by the Boston Globe details sexual harassment and gender discrimination at ESPN, including a former SportsCenter anchor feeling forced to stay on air while she was having a miscarriage so as not to jeopardize her job and another sending shirtless pictures of himself to a younger female colleague. The report, based on interviews with roughly two dozen current and former employees, describes a culture in which men have “made unwanted sexual propositions to female colleagues, given unsolicited shoulder rubs, and openly rated women on their looks,” and in which women feel pressured to hide pregnancies or take short maternity leaves to as not to lose out on choice and scarce positions for female journalists in sports.
One day after ESPN president John Skipper reportedly told employees at a gathering of what the network described as a meeting of “forward-facing talent” that sexual harassment was not a “major issue” at ESPN, the Globe published numerous accounts of sexual harassment. One story came from Adrienne Lawrence, who filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities earlier this year. From the Globe:
Lawrence accused John Buccigross, a longtime SportsCenter anchor who she viewed as a mentor, of sending unsolicited shirtless photographs of himself and calling her “dollface,” “#dreamgirl,” and “#longlegs” in messages from 2016 reviewed by the Globe. Lawrence said she tried to remain cordial in the e-mails but at one point responded: “You need to wear clothes, sir.”
Another incident involved Jenn Sterger, who—while she was being considered for a job at the network in 2006—was shown “a copy of a Playboy magazine that she had modeled for” by a network executive and was “taken to a strip club, by Matthew Berry, who was interviewing as a contributor for The Fantasy Show.” The Globe wrote:
The strip club outing was not a formal ESPN activity, but it followed a dinner with company employees and involved several male job candidates. Sterger said she initially did not realize where they were going and she was teased about being uncomfortable once there.
Sterger and Berry say they were both admonished for the strip club outing, but Sterger did not get a job at ESPN while Berry did. ESPN said it chose another woman who had more experience, though an e-mail from the network at the time also said Sterger could have improved her chances by showing “more professional behavior.” Berry is now ESPN’s senior fantasy analyst and one of the most influential personalities in fantasy sports.
The report said the problem of sexual harassment persists:
Current and former employees say the network still faces problems when it comes to older men preying on younger women, particularly production assistants just out of college.
“It’s like cutting your arm in an ocean full of sharks,” said one current employee, who 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.”
The Globe’s story also addresses how women are forced to conceal their pregnancies, or—in Sara Walsh’s wrenching case—complications associated with pregnancy. During a live broadcast in Alabama, she had a miscarriage on air, which she wrote about on Instagram:
The Globe report says Walsh emailed her boss “from the hospital about the miscarriage, and she was soon sent back to the same Alabama set where she had miscarried,” and that she was fired not long after she complained to human resources about what happened during her miscarriage.
After Walsh raised concerns about her treatment, she was told the matter had been investigated and was handled properly even though she was never interviewed, according to the former employees. Shortly after, Walsh was assigned to fewer shows, a move that she viewed as retaliation for speaking up, according to the employees.
Walsh eventually conceived again and talked to human resources before she went on maternity leave to get assurances her position was safe. But days before she planned to return from maternity leave this past April, ESPN notified her that she was part of the layoffs.
It was inevitable that the wave of new reporting of and on sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination in politics, Hollywood, media, and other industries would reach the sports world. If there’s anything you think we should know, you can contact me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or via SecureDrop for extra security.
Update (8:05 p.m. ET): An ESPN spokesman pointed us to the network’s statement in response to the Globe’s article:
“We work hard to maintain a respectful and inclusive culture at ESPN. 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 board room, in leadership positions throughout ESPN and on air.” -Katina Arnold, ESPN Spokeswoman
Statement on Adrienne Lawrence:
“We conducted a thorough investigation and found these claims to be entirely without merit. 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. The company will vigorously defend its position and we are confident we will prevail in court.” -Katina Arnold, ESPN Spokeswoman