What was ESPN thinking in publishing a text message exchange between John Buccigross and former anchor Adrienne Lawrence?
Soon after the Boston Globe published a report Thursday afternoon detailing sexual harassment allegations at ESPN, the network released a statement saying that it would “vigorously defend” itself and found a sexual harassment and retaliation complaint to be “without merit.”
ESPN might be expected to respond strongly to such accusations, but the decision to post Buccigross’s text messages was certainly unexpected and puts the anchor in an awkward position. Did he approve the publishing of those messages? Were they already in ESPN’s possession as a result of Lawrence’s complaint? (If you look at the PDF of the messages from 2016 which ESPN posted, the blue bubbles around Lawrence’s texts presumably indicate that they came from her phone.)
Certainly, calling a female colleague “dollface”and “#longlegs” is not a good look, especially with currently heightened tensions and awareness over sexual harassment in the workplace. Let’s presume Buccigross realizes that himself, even if he may have intended the remark to be good-natured and playful.
Lawrence’s complaint veers into more serious territory with the accusation that Buccigross sent her shirtless photos of himself, unsolicited. Those messages were presumably withheld from the exchanges ESPN posted online, but Lawrence’s response of “You need to wear clothes, sir” is included.
One side might argue that she was suggesting that Buccigross shouldn’t be cooking without a shirt on, if that’s indeed what the photo was showing. But sending such a photo is obviously inappropriate in a work environment and if it made Lawrence uncomfortable, there’s not even a question about that.
Buccigross told the Globe‘s Jenn Abelson that he considered Lawrence to be a friend and “I’m sorry if anything I did or said offended Adrienne. It certainly wasn’t my intent.” Unfortunately for the ESPN anchor, we’ve seen similar statements from a variety of people accused of sexual harassment during the past two months, so possibly benign intent isn’t perceived as a suitable defense.
ESPN’s intention in publishing the text message exchange appears to be demonstrating that Lawrence’s accusations are making too much of what could be perceived as a genial, albeit flirty, correspondence between co-workers. Yet if some of the messages in question have been withheld from the posting, it’s difficult to make that determination for certain. Regardless, the decision is an embarrassing one for Buccigross, especially if the exchange was posted without his approval (or knowledge). Did the network leave him out in the cold here while trying to protect its house?
(For what it’s worth, Buccigross signed a contract extension with ESPN in May, following a mass wave of layoffs. According to the Globe, Lawrence filed her complaint in August.)
Lawrence addressed the Globe story and ESPN’s response in a Twitter posting Friday morning:
Regarding the @BostonGlobe report: pic.twitter.com/cDcWcamcsY
— Adrienne Lawrence (@AdrienneLaw) December 15, 2017
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As a result, there really isn’t an aspect of our culture right now that hasn’t been affected by this. Entertainment and media have undergone significant changes. Politicians have had to resign, and we just watched a U.S. Senate election swayed by sexual misconduct allegations. Up until this point, sports has managed to largely avoid such scandals. But that’s certainly happening now with NFL Network and ESPN suspending analysts and this Boston Globe report.
The network has other accusations and concerns to address from that Boston Globe story, notably how female anchors and reporters were treated during pregnancy and maternity leave. There’s been a sordid history of sexual misconduct at ESPN, which has been documented in books by Mike Freeman and Jim Miller. Scandals involving on-air and executive talent has also been exposed (in some cases for its own benefit) by sites like Deadspin. Those incidents have reportedly been addressed as they occurred, especially as awareness over such behavior has grown.
However, that past may make ESPN reflexively defensive and you have to wonder if that’s what happened here.