At the 2017 Australian Open tennis tournament, ESPN commentator Doug Adler described Venus Williams’ game as having a “guerrilla effect.”
ESPN (and many on social media, who savaged Adler for his perceived insensitivity) heard it as “gorilla effect,” widely considered a racial slur when directed at black athletes.
Adler, for his part, apologized, saying he “simply and inadvertently chose the wrong word” and claiming that he meant no offense to Williams or black people in general.
ESPN, though, wasn’t satisfied and promptly let him go.
Now, Adler is getting his day in court.
Adler is suing for wrongful termination on the grounds that ESPN’s reaction to the viral outcry led them to fire him for something he didn’t actually say.
“They didn’t have good cause and I didn’t do anything wrong,” Adler told NBC’s “Today“ last August. “They killed me, they made me unemployable. They ended my career, they killed my reputation, my good name. What else was I supposed to do?”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, ESPN is fighting back with a three-pronged defense.
The first prong is that despite the continued use of his services, employing someone on a freelance basis in the past does not imply a contract to do so in the future. ESPN claims it was under no legal obligation to renew its agreement with Adler.
The second prong can be seen as a rebuttal to Adler’s “Today” comments.
“No ’cause’ was needed” to get rid of Adler,” ESPN said in a motion for summary judgement filed last week. “But even if cause were required, Adler’s controversial comment supplied it. It is unnecessary to decide whether Adler meant ‘gorilla’ or ‘guerrilla’; even crediting Adler’s spin, he chose his words poorly and provoked a public outcry that ESPN had to take steps to quell, to stem criticism of Adler and ESPN itself and return the focus to the competition on the court.”
Or, in plain English, he damaged the brand.
The third prong is that ESPN didn’t even back out of the freelance contract as it was originally drawn up.
“ESPN had no contractual obligation to put Adler on the air; its contractual obligation was to pay him for seven days of possible work,” the sports giant argues.
“ESPN did pay Adler; he received 100% of his daily rate for all seven days of the coverage of the 2017 Australian Open, including days he did not work. ESPN was under no contractual obligation to retain Adler for a future announcing assignment.”
So ESPN, from its point of view, fulfilled its obligation, chose not to retain the services of a freelancer beyond the assignment and appeased angry viewers.
It remains to be seen whether the court will agree and dismiss the lawsuit out of hand.
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