All That and a Bag of Mail

It’s Friday, rejoice, the mailbag is here and the weekend is almost here too.

So let’s dive right into the most frequent question you guys asked me about yesterday and today. I’ve synthesized that question as follows: “What do you think about the Boston Globe story about sexual harassment and unfair treatment of women at ESPN?”

First, go read the Boston Globe story.

Second, there are several things that jump out here. The most important, I think, is the degree to which this is two different stories being written. Women at ESPN, and all over the country, frankly, face really difficult choices when it comes to the challenges of having a baby and maintaining their careers. They worry about taking off too much time or not taking off enough time, about the child’s future and their own future. That concern clearly gets exacerbated when you work in a very difficult or competitive field and the company or your career suffer if you take off too much time for maternity leave.

That’s certainly the case at ESPN and it’s the case in any competitive field. In fact, I’ve only worked in competitive fields and women having children is a major issue in law firms where I’ve worked or sports media companies. It was also an issue in my own life when we had our first two kids.

My wife worked full time as a guidance counselor and the school had no paid maternity leave policy when we had our first two kids. So she had to use her vacation time to have a baby. We couldn’t afford for her not to work at the time so we were trapped, she could use her vacation time, but then we needed her salary — and health insurance — to continue at work and there was not any paid maternity leave at all. Combine that with what child care costs — it would have been cheaper to have my two kids in college at the University of Tennessee than to pay for child care — and you’ve got an intractable problem for many young families starting out who don’t have very much disposable income.

That’s a big story to tell and I suspect that what ESPN anchors would say about their struggles are similar to what attorneys, doctors, and other professional women all face when they have children too. You’re wracked with guilt on both sides — you feel like you’re letting down your kid and your job colleagues if you don’t balance out maternity leave perfectly.

Toss in the financial concerns and the health care costs and it’s a total mess.

And it shouldn’t be that way.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I know we can do a better job of dealing with this than we do.

So I think that’s a worthy story to tell.

But then there are two random sexual harassment stories added on top of these stories that don’t fit at all. And neither belongs in the article, especially the allegations against John Buccigross. (Full disclosure, I have met Buccigross once, years ago, in New Orleans when I was there for a college football game and he was there too. We had a couple of beers in a bar as part of a large group. Other than that I’ve never spoken with him. I have never met Matthew Berry, the other person accused of sexual harassment in this story, at all.)

In the wake of this story’s publication last night ESPN took the extraordinary step of releasing Buccigross’s text messages — and the woman’s — to the public for review. You can read those text messages here.

And, guess what, they read exactly like what you would expect a divorced guy trying to have a dating relationship with a younger woman at his office might read like. Honestly, other than the use of the phrase “doll face” which just sounds awkward and 1940’s-esque, there is nothing at all remarkable about these texts. Buccigross, assuming this is the totality of the interaction, did absolutely nothing wrong at all here.

Good for ESPN for releasing these messages and lucky for Buccigross that these texts still exist. Because otherwise this could have turned into a he said – she said situation and most of the time companies decide to fire guys in cases like these because it’s the easiest way to make the story go away.

The Boston Globe makes reference to reviewing these text messages which, if true, means their decision to run this story as is was indefensible.

Indeed, assuming they had seen all these texts, this paragraph in the story is indefensible.

“Lawrence accused John Buccigross, a longtime SportsCenter anchor whom 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 messages but at one point responded: “You need to wear clothes, sir.”

By running this article and taking these texted words totally out of context — the woman responds to the shirtless photo by scheduling a date and sending her own photo — they failed their readers and they also failed the larger story they were trying to tell — about the challenges for pregnant women in the work place and the way ESPN, and other companies too, are failing those women in our modern workplace.

Furthermore, I’m actually left more interested in the question they didn’t examine — what happens in situations like these where women falsely accuse men of sexual harassment when the men have done nothing wrong? Buccigross has been publicly shamed for doing nothing inappropriate at all. Shouldn’t the woman hear bear some public consequence for falsely alleging sexual harassment?

On top of the Boston Globe also included sexual harassment allegations against Matthew Berry, an ESPN fantasy sports analyst. And, again, I think those allegations don’t belong in the story. (Further disclosure, I did a pilot at FS1 and one of the panelists was Jenn Sterger. I liked her and thought she was funny, but that’s been our only contact).

Here are those allegations:

“During her months-long audition, (Jenn) Sterger said an executive showed her a copy of a Playboy magazine that she had modeled for and then she was taken to a strip club by Matthew Berry, who was interviewing as a contributor for The Fantasy Show.

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.”

First, how can you complain about an executive showing you a copy of a magazine you posed naked for? That seems nonsensical. You’re upset because he admitted he knew you posed naked in a magazine seen by millions of people? I don’t get the connection here at all. That’s part of Sterger’s resume, would she be upset if she’d written a book and an executive had shown her a copy of her book?

Second, okay, so there was an interview for a fantasy football show and after those interviews a group went out to dinner and then went to a strip club. But Berry wasn’t an ESPN employee at the time so he had no hiring or firing authority and the event “was not a formal ESPN activity.”

So how is that sexual harassment at all?

Sterger had a choice about whether or not to go to the strip club and once she was there she was teased for being uncomfortable inside. That teasing might not be ideal behavior, but any guy who has ever been on a bachelor party knows that guys get teased in strip clubs all the time too, frequently because one of them is uncomfortable about being there or terrified his wife is going to find out about it.

And, again, that isn’t sexual harassment by Berry because he wasn’t an employee at the time and we don’t even know if he was the one teasing her.

But even though he did nothing wrong, Berry apologized.

“Today, Berry said visiting the strip club “was not a smart decision and I regret going.”

And he also apologized for a photo that was taken years ago too.

“He described a photo from that work trip in which he is pointing at Sterger’s breasts as “personally embarrassing and I did not mean any offense.”

Sterger said she had another uncomfortable encounter with Berry two years later, claiming that Berry made sexual comments when she visited ESPN to talk about a potential job opportunity — an accusation that Berry denies. When asked whether he had ever been suspended or disciplined for inappropriate behavior, Berry said, “I was talked to once about an alleged issue in 2007, which was ultimately resolved.”

Again, is any of this remotely worthy of publication in a major newspaper?

The sum total of Berry’s bad behavior is a trip to a strip club when he wasn’t an ESPN employee and a picture from before he was an ESPN employee pointing at a woman’s breasts. (A woman, by the way, who was famous to a large degree because of her breasts. That’s literally how Jenn Sterger got her start in sports media, by wearing a cleavage bearing top to a Florida State football game.) Now as a total believer in the first amendment and boobs, I welcome Sterger’s embrace of cleavage bearing tops, but would it be sexual harassment if a woman who wasn’t employed at ESPN got their picture taken with a famous male porn star, also not employed at ESPN, and gave the thumbs up in the direction of the porn star’s crotch?

Of course not.

As for the encounter two years later, that might be inappropriate, but it’s totally a he said-she said story and we have no details about what exactly was said or the context in which those comments might have been made.

So, again, we’ve got a Boston Globe story alleging sexual harassment by two prominent ESPN employees that boils down to zero actual evidence of harassment. (In fact, it’s something even more than that, the evidence actually supports that there was no sexual harassment at all.) But you know how the Internet and social media work, most people will never read the actual story and even fewer people will ever track down the actual text messages.

So how in the world could the Boston Globe have thought it made sense to mix these two stories and publish the sexual harassment allegations when there was no basis to support any actual sexual harassment?

I have no idea and it was a total editorial failure on their part. Which, I think, is a product of the sexual harassment witch hunt culture we have created. And this is indicative of a larger issue with these sexual harassment claims all going public in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case — we’ve moved from a culture where the man is always right and women have no power to one where women are always right and men have no power.

How is that any better? We’ve skipped right over impartial justice.

Right now if a woman alleges sexual harassment against a prominent man the man is presumed guilty and almost all of the accused are immediately fired. That’s not right.

Congrats to ESPN for actually investigating this case and not overrreacting, but what if the text messages between the two hadn’t still existed? What if this investigation had taken place this year instead of last year? Would ESPN have made the same decision?

Given the current environment and absent the texts existing it’s likely Buccigross would have been fired despite having done nothing wrong at all.

Now there are definitely real and serious claims of sexual harassment that deserve to be written about and publicized — and women who come forward with those claims should be taken seriously and commended — but these aren’t two of those stories. They actually serve to demean legitimate cases of sexual harassment.

The fact that a major media outlet felt that they were worthy of publicizing is indicative of how far down the slippery slope we’ve fallen.

Guess what, some times a guy at work is just trying to date a girl and isn’t doing anything wrong.

Evidently, under the standard employed by the Boston Globe, that’s sexual harassment.

Okay, I’ve got a three year old begging me to take him to Chik fil A for lunch so I’m diving out of the mailbag now.

Hope y’all have great weekends.

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