NBC’s relationship with snowboarding star Shaun White is an uncomplicated one. During the Super Bowl, the network aired an ad celebrating his aim to win a third gold medal in men’s halfpipe, ending the spot with a title card reading, “Shaun White is the best of U.S.” In the runup to White’s Pyeongchang debut on Monday night, analyst Todd Richards described 2014 silver medalist Ayumu Hirano—one of the many accomplished non-White athletes swooping up, down, and around the halfpipe—as nothing more than a foil, “possibly one to take down Shaun’s quest for that elusive third gold medal.” White is the star of NBC’s Olympics show, and his victory, according to the network, would be one of the great triumphs of the Winter Games.
It would also be a comeback. After winning gold in Turin in 2006 and in Vancouver in 2010, White finished in fourth place in Sochi. Per NBC play-by-play guy Todd Harris, the 31-year-old American has been on the “road to redemption” after that disappointing nonpodium finish in 2014. What Harris and everyone else at NBC has failed to mention is that the arc of White’s life and snowboarding career isn’t as simple as gold, gold, fourth, road to redemption.
Two years after the Sochi Games, Lena Zawaideh filed a civil suit in San Diego alleging White failed to pay her for the work she’d done as the drummer in his band Bad Things. Three months later, in August 2016, Zawaideh filed an amended complaint alleging White had sexually harassed her. In that complaint, she claimed that “White sent sexually explicit and graphic images to Zawaideh of engorged and erect penises, forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos, including videos sexualizing human fecal matter, and made vulgar sexual remarks to her such as, ‘Don’t forget to suck his balls!’ when commenting on her boyfriend.”
The August 2016 complaint, which you can read in full on Deadspin, claims that in one instance, “White stuck his hands down his pants, approached Zawaideh, and stuck his hands in her face trying to make her smell them. As the financier of Bad Things, White used his role to impose a strict regime over Zawaideh, going so far as to demand that she cut her hair, wear sexually revealing clothes and underwear, and refrain from wearing red lipstick.” The complaint alleges White’s behavior got worse after he failed to win a medal in Sochi in 2014—that he “became increasingly hostile and threatening, especially toward Zawaideh. For example, on a few occasions when the band was practicing, White gestured that he was going to backhand Zawaideh. He yelled out uncalled for remarks such as, ‘I’ll fucking slap you.’ Zawaideh was fearful that White would hit her due to his irrational behavior at the time.”
White immediately denied Zawaideh’s allegations, although he did admit sending her the text messages she included as exhibits in the lawsuit. (You can see those sexually explicit images here.) “Many years ago, I exchanged texts with a friend who is now using them to craft a bogus lawsuit,” White said. “There is absolutely no coincidence to the timing of her claims, and we will defend them vigorously in court.”
In February 2017, White requested that the San Diego Superior Court compel Zawaideh to undergo a mental health evaluation. Three months after that, the two parties reached an undisclosed settlement.
It’s not just NBC that’s failed to take note of Zawaideh’s allegations and the subsequent settlement. According to a Nexis database search, no major news outlet mentioned the harassment suit between May 2017 and last week, when New York magazine’s the Cut released a video titled, “Snowboarding Superstar Shaun White Was Accused of Sexual Harassment.” Three days later, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Mark Zeigler included the suit in a list of “White’s obstacles to return to a fourth Olympics.” That list in full: “an ankle that required surgery; a grisly crash last fall in New Zealand that required him to be airlifted off the mountain, 62 stitches in his face and five days in ICU; a lawsuit (ultimately settled) with a female drummer in his rock band that turned ugly with graphic sexual harassment allegations; a slew of young riders taking the sport to unseen heights; an awkward rift with other U.S. snowboards.”
NBC declined to answer a series of questions about whether it was aware of the allegations against White, whether the network planned to mention the allegations or settlement on air, or whether it would ask White about the claims in an interview.
When we talk and write and think about athletes, our awe at their ability often overwhelms all other considerations. Perhaps that’s why the sports world has thus far been slow to embrace, or to feel the repercussions of, the #MeToo movement. It’s possible White is a sexual harasser. It’s also possible he was wrongly accused. It’s almost a certainty NBC won’t invest the time and energy to find out. (In November, NBC fired Today and longtime Olympics host Matt Lauer for “inappropriate sexual behavior.” Per Page Six, one of the claims against Lauer was that he “allegedly sexually harassed a female NBC staffer during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.”)
On Tuesday morning Eastern time, White finally dropped into the halfpipe at the 2018 Winter Olympics and put up the best qualifying score of anyone in Pyeongchang. When the run was over, NBC’s announcer focused on what was most important. There would be an “amazing show tomorrow night,” Todd Harris said. “The men’s halfpipe final in primetime. Wow.”
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.
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