Tennis broadcaster Doug Adler, who didn’t return to ESPN’s Australian Open broadcast after commenting on Venus Williams’s “gorilla” or “guerrilla” style of play—that’s the big question here—has sued ESPN and two ESPN executives in charge of tennis broadcasts in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging wrongful termination, emotional distress, and other damages.
Adler, a former tennis pro, has appeared on ESPN broadcasts since 2008. While commenting on a second-round match between Venus Williams and Stefanie Vögele last month, he said, “You’ll see Venus move in, and put the gorilla/guerrilla effect on. Charging.”Afterward, Adler apologized on air, explaining that he was describing Williams’s aggressive guerrilla tactics, and hadn’t meant to use a homophone for a word that’s derogatory toward African-Americans.
Adler alleges that “ESPN bowed to pressure from those using social media, including Twitter,” and that the termination has caused “other employers to shun Adler, causing Adler serious financial and emotional harm.”
To buttress his claims, Adler argues that “guerrilla” is a commonly used term in tennis. He points to Nike’s “Guerrilla Tennis” commercial featuring Andre Agassi (in which “guerrilla” isn’t used as a descriptor of play, but rather the act of playing tennis anywhere but on a court), two columns by longtime tennis writer and current Tennis magazine senior editor Peter Bodo that use the word “guerrilla,” and alleges that “many other tennis commentators and writers” use “guerrilla” to describe aggressive tennis players.
According to Adler, it was tennis writer Ben Rothenberg who “ignited the flames” against him on Twitter. Rothenberg wrote a 2015 article for the New York Times about Serena Williams and body image, which was widely criticized and called racist and sexist. Adler alleges that the article caused Rothenberg to fall out of favor with the Williams sisters, and he attempted “to redeem himself and get back in their favor somehow” by savaging Adler’s commentary on Twitter, even though he knew Adler said and meant “guerrilla.”
The lawsuit then alleges that ESPN forced Adler to apologize, and then canned him anyway:
The next day, defendant ESPN forced Plaintiff to go on a live broadcast of another match and apologize for what he said. Plaintiff told defendants that there was nothing wrong with using the word “guerrilla” to describe a tennis tactic. ESPN agreed with Plaintiff, told Plaintiff it understood the use of “guerrilla” in that context, but wanted Plaintiff to apologize anyways. Defendants told Plaintiff that he needed to apologize on the air and by doing so it would diffused the situation and he could then continue with his broadcasting of the tournament. Reluctantly, Plaintiff made an on-air apology and made it clear he never called Venus a “gorilla” but had meant “guerilla.”
After making the on-air apology, Plaintiff assumed, based on what he had been told by defendants, that he would continue calling the match and the rest of the tournament. Suddenly, however, Plaintiff was told to leave the broadcast booth as soon as he finished making the apology.
Defendants then fired Plaintiff the next day and told him he was done working tennis at ESPN.
You can read the full lawsuit below.