Another day, another crisis at ESPN. Former ESPN on-air personality Adrienne Lawrence filed a federal lawsuit in Connecticut this week against the World Leader in (Liberal) Sports that describes a disturbing culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. Lawrence’s attorneys, Brian Cohen and Russell Yankwitt, filed the suit portraying ESPN as a “company rife with misogyny.”
A past winner of the Women in Cable Telecommunications Signature Spirit Accolade Winner, ESPN prides itself for diversity, inclusion and equality. However, if what the Lawrence lawsuit alleges is true, then those claims are just PC happy-talk.
Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann, a law school professor at the University of New Hampshire, writes: "The allegations contained in Lawrence’s complaint are far-reaching and highly disturbing."
Among the charges outlined in the lawsuit, male employees at ESPN:
- Keeps “scorecards” that rank female colleagues based on sexual attraction;
- Frequently watch porn in the presence of female colleagues;
- Expect female colleagues “to tolerate the predatory culture without protest” and to “go along to get along;”
- Discourage female colleagues from sharing any of their complaints and advise them to be thick-skinned about their ESPN experience;
- Engage in “grooming” to coerce female colleagues into sexual relationships.
- Are enabled by ESPN’s human resources staff, which covers up misconduct rather than investigate it;
- Create an environment where female on-air talent are led to believe that providing “sexual favors” to management can improve on-air opportunities; and
- Retaliate against female employees who complain about sexual misconduct, through performance evaluations and advancing males over more deserving females.
ESPN will respond to the court with a brief of its own. Its communication office released the following statement to Sports Illustrated:
“We conducted a thorough investigation of the claims Adrienne Lawrence surfaced to ESPN and they are entirely 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. The company will vigorously defend its position and we are confident we will prevail in court.”
McCann wrote that Lawrence’s complaint "draws mainly from her own experience at ESPN but also from information shared by four 'confidential witnesses.'” These four unnamed persons are described as a male security guard who was fired for reporting sexual harassment, a male in corporate communications who left ESPN out of disgust over the sexual harassment he witnessed; a currently employed female who was retaliated against for reporting a "serial sexual harasser" to superiors and a female studio director who observed "disparate treatment" of women and pregnant women employees.
Lawrence left a law firm to accept a fellowship at ESPN, where she worked as an anchor, legal analyst and writer from 2015-2017. Her lawsuit claims she was seen by ESPN as a "rising star," but the experience was ruined by several men who engaged in varying forms of sexual misconduct against her.
She alleges she was routinely subjected to sexual advances and inappropriate remarks, ostracized by colleagues for rejecting their sexual advances and experienced the halting of a promising career because she was unwilling to capitulate to the sexual pressure in order to advance her career. Lawrence's complaint includes several pages about how SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross (see photos above and below), a "predator," allegedly tried to groom her for a sexual relationship. We have proof that Buccigross sent photos of himself shirtless to female colleagues like Miko Grimes and others:
McCann expects ESPN to defend itself by contending that "much of Lawrence’s complaint details allegations that pre-date her employment and that haven’t been proven in a court of law. Lawrence relies on several books and news articles to frame ESPN as a misogynistic employer. ESPN is poised to argue that these sources promote sensationalized headlines and also offer claims that are irrelevant to Lawrence’s specific experience. In fact, the court might classify such sources as inadmissible should it deem them more prejudicial than probative."
Lawrence could counter, McCann writes, "by arguing that a historical assessment of ESPN’s workplace is essential to her claims. If, as Lawrence asserts, ESPN has a long history of permitting workplace misconduct, it would help to explain why Lawrence experienced harassment during her two years with the company."
ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady had previously responded to charges of sexism at the network with this denial of wrongdoing: “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.”
Brady also ticked off a list of women who advanced at ESPN, such as baseball announcer Jessica Mendoza. The allegations of Lawrence, though, question what happens to women after they get hired at the network.