When Shaun White won his third Olympic gold medal at the Pyeongchang Games on February 13 after completing a gravity-defying performance on the halfpipe, the NBC announcers were ready.
“The return of the king in the men’s halfpipe!” one crowed, as an ecstatic White pumped his fists in triumph. “White is the new gold!”
This moment, as both White and NBC will tell you at a moment’s notice, was a long time in the making. After White dominated the sport with two back-to-back gold medals in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, he faltered in 2014, coming in a disappointing fourth place. In the fall of 2017, he crashed into the halfpipe on a practice run in New Zealand, eventually requiring 62 stitches in his face just months before he was set to return to the Olympics.
So in 2018, 12 years after he first hit the Olympics slopes with his signature tomato red hair flying through the frigid air, a more subdued and determined 31-year-old White took to the slopes with a purpose: to reclaim the gold medal he had let slip through his fingers four years ago.
But there is another aspect of White’s journey back to the Olympics podium that he’s not exactly keen to acknowledge.
In 2016, White’s former bandmate Lena Zawaideh sued him for wrongful termination and sexual harassment. The suit alleged that White had “repeatedly sexually harassed her and forced his authoritarian management style on her for over seven years,” leading to her abrupt dismissal from the band in 2014 without the payment she was owed. Zawaideh said that White forced her to watch sexually explicit videos against her wishes, texted and spoke degrading comments to her, and “at one point, White stuck his hands down his pants, approached Zawaideh, and stuck his hands in her face trying to make her smell them.”
At the time, White denied everything but the texts — which TMZ obtained — and called the lawsuit “bogus,” with his lawyer saying that there was “absolutely no coincidence to the timing of her claims, and we will defend them vigorously in court.”
The lawsuit was settled in 2017, but in light of the ongoing #MeToo reckoning that’s been holding up sexual harassment and abuse claims to renewed scrutiny, its place in White’s past has come up again. This disturbing bump in White’s road to reclamation of Olympic gold has complicated a story that was otherwise supposed to be a straightforward comeback tale — and neither White nor NBC were prepared to acknowledge it.
When journalists asked White about the allegations against him, his initial response was ... unsatisfying
When White was asked in a press conference after his gold medal run whether he was worried the lawsuit might “tarnish his legacy,” his answer was an attempt at diplomacy that quickly backfired due to some seriously questionable word choice.
“Honestly, I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip,” White said. “I am who I am, and I’m proud of who I am, and my friends love me and vouch for me, and I think that stands on its own.”
That answer did not, in fact, stand on its own, since the reporter who initially asked the question tried to follow up by asking if “gossip” is truly how White sees allegations that resulted in a public lawsuit. The moderator in turn cut off the reporter by responding that “we’re here to talk about the gold medal and the amazing day we had today” — a line he repeated when the next journalist tried to ask the same question. (For what it’s worth, USA Today reporter Christine Brennan has since said that not one female journalist got to ask White a question throughout the 13-minute press conference, despite many having their hands in the air.)
The response to White’s brush-off was swift, skeptical, and deeply annoyed. In a scathing column, Brennan called the allegations “incredibly disturbing” and asked why they weren’t being taken more seriously. “If we’ve learned anything about the #MeToo movement,” she wrote, “it’s that we should listen to every allegation and go to great lengths to find out what happened, even with an Olympic hero such as White.”
It didn’t take long for White to backtrack with an apology — though at first, it was only for his word choice. “I’m truly sorry that I chose the word gossip,” he said when Savannah Guthrie asked him about it the next morning on the Today show (where she’s taken the lead after longtime anchor Matt Lauer was fired for inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace). “It was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today.”
“I’m truly sorry that I chose the word gossip. It was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today.” @shaunwhite on his remarks at news conference when asked about harassment case pic.twitter.com/5q9jyCL61m— TODAY (@TODAYshow) February 14, 2018
Crisis averted? Not exactly. Wednesday night, White issued a more thorough statement to the New York Times. “I regret my behavior of many years ago,” White said, “and am sorry that I made anyone — particularly someone I considered a friend — uncomfortable.” He added that he has since “grown and changed as a person, as we all grow and change, and am proud of who I am today.”
Each of White’s new acknowledgements of the allegations — which at this point numbers three in the past 24 hours — grew progressively considerate. It remains to be seen, however, if NBC’s will follow suit.
NBC’s handling of the White allegations reveals its symbiotic, mutually flattering relationship with Olympic star athletes
For NBC, the Olympics are a godsend: two and a half weeks of prime programming and access to its stars that no other network can or will ever have. In fact, NBC’s dominance during the Olympics is so complete that most broadcast networks barely bother to keep up, putting much of their usual programming on hold until the Olympic storm blows over.
To capitalize on their unbeatable get, NBC crafts its Olympics coverage to best capture the nation’s attention. It embraces breakout stars like fiercely outspoken figure skater Adam Rippon and buoyant snowboarder Chloe Kim, and hoards the events that viewers are most interested in staying up through hours of coverage for, no matter what.
But nothing says “Olympics” quite like a comeback story, and so NBC plays those up whenever it can — even when that comeback isn’t exactly an athlete overcoming incredible adversity to come out on top.
Take, for instance, swimming golden boy Michael Phelps. When the athlete who was once a teen phenom struggled to replicate his historic earlier victories — including a record-shattering 18 gold medals over three Olympics — the lead-up to his return in the 2016 Olympics was peppered with profiles about his comeback and the lengths he was going to in order to make it happen. Buried in platitudes about hard work was the truth of the matter, which is that an aimless Phelps had become dependent on alcohol to the point that he pleaded guilty to drunk driving in 2014 and checked himself into rehab.
While Phelps himself has been remarkably open about this time in his life, you’d be forgiven for not knowing the details if you only watched the NBC coverage of his return in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The network largely opted to avoid specifics, instead flattening the swimmer’s turbulent history into generalized anecdotes about him pulling himself up by his bootstraps.
The same held true for White as he hurled himself back down the Olympics halfpipe in Pyeongchang, the NBC commentators holding their breath for a win. As NBC told it, this was a comeback story about a guy who faltered on his way back up to the top, whose fourth-place finish and terrible accident motivated “the return of the king.” That he had been publicly accused of taking out his frustration about that fourth-place finish on a woman was not, apparently, much of a factor.
So it’s not especially surprising that when Guthrie brought up the allegations to White’s face, it wasn’t in the context of #MeToo, but rather about the bad press his word choice had drawn. “Do you have anything you’d like to say about that and kind of clear the air?” Guthrie asked, to which White delivered his apology with the practiced ease of someone who has been giving interviews his entire adult life.
In fact, as he reminded Guthrie while apologizing, many of those interviews have been given to NBC over a period of 12 years. “You’ve known me for a long time now,” White said. “It’s amazing how life works with twists and turns and lessons learned.”
It’s impossible to say for certain whether Guthrie or NBC would have brought up the allegations had White not been pressed on them already. But given the symbiotic relationship between Olympic star athletes and the glowing coverage that launches them, it’s unlikely that either would have been eager to tarnish that dynamic with something as ugly as sexual harassment.
Updated to include White’s statement to the New York Times.