Last December, SI.com wrote about the potential legal consequences of allegations contained in an investigative report by The Boston Globe’s Jenn Abelson on sexual misconduct at ESPN.
On Monday, one major consequence materialized: Former ESPN employee Adrienne Lawrence filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against ESPN in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. In this federal complaint, Lawrence’s attorneys, Brian Cohen and Russell Yankwitt, depict ESPN as a “company rife with misogyny.”
Detailing the allegedly hostile work environment experienced by female ESPN employees
The allegations contained in Lawrence’s complaint are far-reaching and highly disturbing. The complaint raises the following accusations against ESPN’s male executives, producers and on-air talent:
They keep “scorecards” which list and rank female ESPN colleagues based on sexual attraction; They frequently watch porn in the presence of female colleagues; They openly describe female celebrities with whom they would like to have sex, and then wonder what those celebrities “taste like” during sex; As a matter of workplace environment, they expect their female colleagues “to tolerate the predatory culture without protest” and to “go along to get along;” They discourage female colleagues from sharing any of their complaints and advise them to be thick-skinned about their ESPN experience; They engage in “grooming” to coerce female colleagues into sexual relationships. The complaint describes grooming as “a manipulative tactic that typically involves targeting a vulnerable victim, gaining private access to the victim, gaining the victim’s trust, desensitizing the victim to sexualization through testing and gradually increasing the sexualization of the relationship;” They are enabled by ESPN’s human resources staff, who cover up misconduct rather than credibly investigate it; They make pregnant broadcasters feel as if they could lose their jobs if they take time off; They create an environment where female on-air talent are led to believe that providing “sexual favors” to management can be a form of exchange for on-air opportunities; and They retaliate against female employees who complain about sexual misconduct. Retaliation comes in the form of fabricating performance reviews to depict the complainers as bad workers, choosing to advance undeserving male employees over more deserving female employees and awarding contract extensions to harassers.
To be clear, the aforementioned list contains allegations—not established facts. A complaint is a retelling of events from the perspective of the person suing. It is not the narrative of a neutral observer or a court. As explained more fully below, ESPN will have an opportunity to rebut Lawrence’s claims in legal filings and, potentially, in a trial. On Monday night, the company’s communication office offered this statement to SI.com:
“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.”
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 who worked in ESPN security and was fired after complaining that female employees were subject to harassment; a male who worked in ESPN’s corporate communications office an who left the company after being disgusted by witnessing harassment against female colleagues; a female who currently works as an ESPN production assistant and who was “retaliated against” for reporting to her superiors about a “serial sexual harasser” in her work environment; and a female who currently works for ESPN as a studio director who has observed disparate treatment of women and pregnant women.
Lawrence’s claims about her experience at ESPN
While Lawrence’s 93-page complaint painstakingly scrutinizes ESPN’s treatment of women since the 1980s, Lawrence only worked at ESPN from 2015 to 2017. Her complaint indicates that, after working as an associate at a prestigious law firm, she joined ESPN’s Fellowship program in 2015. She did so despite giving up a $235,000 salary for one that paid $75,000. The fellow program rotates fellows across different ESPN departments for multi-month assignments.
Although only a fellow at ESPN, Lawrence contends that she took on the functions of an “anchor” and on-air “legal analyst.” She also authored articles for different ESPN websites and associated verticals. Lawrence’s complaint contends that she consistently received high praise for her work and was regarded by her supervisors as a “rising star.”
Despite what Lawrence describes as a highly successful run at ESPN, she contends her experience was ruined by a number of male colleagues who engaged in varying forms of sexual misconduct. She recalls her two years at ESPN as a time when she was routinely harassed, often treated differently because she was a woman and regularly subjected to an unsettling and hostile work environment.
Lawrence’s complaint specifies a series of alleged incidents and patterns of misconduct, including:
Told that while on-air, she had to wear “form fitting” clothing. This clothing included tight dresses and similar styles that would accentuate her female attributes. By comparison, clothing for male on-air talent was treated with more latitude and less sexualization; Routinely subjected to sexual advances and inappropriate remarks; Ostracized by colleagues for rejecting their sexual advances; Experienced the halting of a promising career when her “objections communicated to management that she was unwilling to capitulate to sexual pressure, entertain inappropriate sexual advances, or remain silent about unprofessional behavior in order to advance at ESPN;” Eventually decided to wear a fake engagement ring to work in hopes that it would deter ESPN’s male “predators”—it didn’t work; Victimized by SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross, whom Lawrence says tried to “lure” her with a promise of mentorship “intending to groom her for a sexual relationship.” Lawrence’s complaint spends pages portraying Buccigross as a predator. She says he “pretended to like everything Ms. Lawrence liked, including things she had never mentioned to him but had recently posted on her social media pages.” He also, according to Lawrence, made sexual advances and texted her shirtless photographs of himself. Lawrence later heard from former ESPN radio host Ryen Russillo that he heard she and Buccigross were dating, and that she was receiving negative treatment from her co-workers because of it; Suffered the consequences of Human Resources “colluding” with Buccigross to conceal his conduct and, accordingly, cast doubt on Lawrence’s word; Experienced retaliation by ESPN management for her complaints against Buccigross. Such alleged retaliation included ESPN denying her a chance to cover the Derrick Rose trial in Los Angeles, and later reducing her airtime and writing opportunities; Also experienced retaliation when ESPN declined to offer her a position at the conclusion of her fellowship in 2017—this decision came despite what Lawrence describes as exemplary work product and assurances of full-time employment; and Suffered the wrath of “bots” and “fake accounts” on social media that Lawrence says ESPN used to “incite and promote hatred” toward Lawrence and support for Buccigross.
To be clear, the aforementioned list contains allegations—not (necessarily) facts. Whether these allegations will be supported by evidence and testimony remains to be seen. One of the claims Lawrence made—that longtime anchor Chris Berman left a racially abusive voicemail for fellow anchor Jemele Hill in 2016—was refuted by Hill on Monday.
“A few years ago, I had a personal conflict with Chris Berman, but the way this conflict has been characterized is dangerously inaccurate,” Hill wrote in a statement. “Chris never left any racially disparaging remarks on my voicemail and our conflict was handled swiftly and with the utmost professionalism. I felt as if my concerns were taken seriously by ESPN and addressed in a way that made me feel like a valued employee. Frankly, I’m more disappointed that someone I considered to be a friend at one point would misrepresent and relay a private conversation without my knowledge—in which I simply attempted to be a sounding board—for personal gain.”
Lawrence’s legal claims
Lawrence’s complaint takes these allegations and uses them to assert several specific legal claims.
First, Lawrence contends that ESPN—which is legally responsible for the conduct of its employees when those employees act within the scope of their employment—discriminated against her on the basis of her sex. Such misconduct, if proven, would be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To that end, Lawrence charges “throughout the course of her employment at ESPN,” she was subject to “unlawful conduct of a sexual nature that was so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of [her employment].”
Second, Lawrence insists she suffered from what’s called “quid pro quo sexual harassment.” Such a claim concerns Lawrence’s assertions that by repeatedly rejecting sexual advances, she experienced adverse employment consequences—most notably, she received less airtime, was passed over on law-related assignments (e.g., Derrick Rose trial) and, despite earlier assurances, was denied a permanent position. Quid pro quo is Latin for “something for something.” In the context of sexual harassment law, it’s a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to make threats or take punitive action against an employee who doesn’t submit to sexual advances.
Third, Lawrence charges that she suffered employment retaliation, which is also a violation of Title VII. As described above, Lawrence maintains that once she made her bosses and human resources officials aware of the harassment, her standing at ESPN diminished and she was relegated to the bench (so to speak).
Fourth, Lawrence invokes a Connecticut statute that prohibits hostile work environment sexual harassment, quid pro quo sexual harassment and retaliation. Specifically, the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act makes it unlawful for employers to tolerate unwelcome sexual advances and similar misconduct. Lawrence would be able to advance such a claim with evidence and testimony that shows ESPN management failed to take steps to remedy workplace abuse and intimidation of a sexual nature.
Lawrence’s retaliation claim goes beyond ESPN the company to also name four ESPN executives as co-defendants: senior director for talent Meg Green, senior director for employee relations Rob Gallo, senior coordinating producer Jack Obringer and former director of employee relations Donna Hricisko.
As to damages, Lawrence contends that mistreatment at the hands of ESPN and its executives caused her to suffer severe emotional distress and to lose both wages and employment opportunities. Further, she seeks attorneys’ fees and punitive damages for “intentional, willful, wanton, and malicious” actions against her.
ESPN’s likely legal defenses
In the weeks ahead, ESPN will answer Lawrence’s complaint. It will do so by denying her allegations and offering a very different depiction of the facts.
To that end, ESPN will likely contend that much of Lawrence’s complaint details allegations that predate 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 would likely respond 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. In reviewing sexual harassment claims, courts generally require the plaintiff to prove there is a pattern of misconduct and a pattern of management failing to act.
ESPN will likely also depict Lawrence in the most negative light possible. While Lawrence describes her performance reviews as exemplary, ESPN might offer documentation and testimony to the contrary. ESPN might also offer transcripts of text messages sent between Lawrence and ESPN employees, or emails by Lawrence using the ESPN.com server, that paint her claims in a different light. Likewise, ESPN attorneys will interview employees who worked with Lawrence to assess if any can share testimony that undermines Lawrence’s portrayal of facts. As described above, Lawrence accuses a number of high-profile ESPN personalities with assorted forms of misconduct. Some of them may offer testimony that rejects such accounts and, possibly, attempts to implicate Lawrence as engaging in her own inappropriate conduct.
As to ESPN not hiring Lawrence upon completion of her fellowship, ESPN could highlight (as Lawrence’s complaint acknowledges) that the company laid off over 100 employees at around the time her fellowship ended. ESPN, then, could explain that it was not in a financial position to hire her at that time. In addition, there does not appear to be any contractual guarantee that partaking in an ESPN fellowship leads to employment.
SI Senior Editor Richard Deitsch contributed to this report.
Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, provides legal and business analysis for The Crossover. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.?