NBC tiptoes around sexual misconduct in coverage of White - and Olympics, in general

Wednesday , February 14, 2018 - 1:10 PM

Callum Borchers

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Before Shaun White won his third Olympic gold medal in halfpipe snowboarding Tuesday night - before he even traveled to Pyeongchang for the Winter Games - the 31-year-old sat down with NBC’s Lester Holt to talk about how he has matured.

“You had the bad-boy image for a while,” Holt posited.

“I don’t want to say I was a bad boy,” White replied, “but I was - I did some - wait, you ask the question.”

White wasn’t going to volunteer anything unflattering, unless pressed.

He wasn’t pressed. So he settled on a vague reflection: “I always felt like I danced on the line of things.”

At the Olympics, NBC has danced along in its coverage of White and of sexual misconduct, in general. What Holt did not specify is that for the McTwisting superstar, being a “bad boy” included sending sexually explicit text messages to a female employee, Lena Zawaideh, who sued White in 2016. At the time, White admitted to sending the texts but called the suit, in which the employee alleged other forms of harassment, “bogus.” White and Zawaideh reached an undisclosed settlement.

Beyond the Holt interview, NBC’s Olympic telecasts ignored the accusations against White until Wednesday, after a journalist from another TV network raised them in a post-competition news conference and drew this response from the snowboarder: “You know, honestly, here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip.”

Interviewing White on the “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie indicated that she didn’t want to bring up harassment but felt compelled.

“I take no pleasure in asking,” she said to White.

Guthrie pushed slightly harder than Holt did. White initially talked around the central issue by apologizing for his use of the word “gossip” to “describe such a sensitive subject in the world today.” Guthrie followed up by returning to White’s behavior, which allegedly included groping Zawaideh.

“Is there anything you want to say?” Guthrie asked. “Do you feel that you learned something from that? Are you acknowledging?”

“Yeah, you know, I’ve grown as a person over the years,” White answered. “And it’s amazing - I mean, you’ve known me for a long time now - it’s amazing how life works, and twists and turns and lessons learned. So every experience in my life, I feel like it’s taught me a lesson, and I definitely feel like I’m a much more changed person than I was when I was younger.”

White appeared to be admitting to something, but NBC seems to have decided that the Olympics are neither the time nor the place to grill him. An NBC Sports spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

More broadly, NBC seems to have decided that the Olympics are neither the time nor the place for a hard look at sexual misconduct in general, even as the U.S. Olympic Committee faces congressional inquiries into the failures that for years allowed USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to sexually abuse teenage girls.

NBC has devoted little time to the Nassar scandal in its prime-time telecasts of the Games, keeping the focus on more-uplifting Olympic themes such as perseverance and patriotism.

The network has not completely overlooked misconduct. For example, a recent online report described the Olympics’ addition of designated offices for fielding harassment and assault complaints during the Games.

“The Olympics has long been considered a pinnacle sporting event meant to showcase the most talented athletes in the world - not the place for discussing sexual assault and abuse,” NBC reported. “But for the first time, a host city is hoping to change that by opening four counseling offices - referred to as Gender Equality Support Centers - scattered across the Olympic sites.”

The Winter Games might have been an occasion to examine the risk of sexual abuse in a sport such as figure skating in which, like gymnastics, many competitors are teenagers who train and compete away from home.

In one of the best-known cases, coach Bob Young - who trained Olympic gold medalists Oksana Baiul, Viktor Petrenko and Ekaterina Gordeeva in Connecticut - settled a lawsuit brought by former skater Jessica Roos in 2002 and faced multiple accusations that he sexually abused other skaters.

More recently, a figure-skating coach in Minnesota was charged last month with sexually abusing a teenage girl he was training.

Sexual misconduct is having a cultural moment right now, but not an Olympic moment on NBC.

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