Peter J. Kaplan
6 min readMar 5, 2020

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DOUG ADLER AND ESPN

Doug Adler is Jewish and no stranger to stinging ethnic slurs.

Growing up in the Griffith Park section of Los Angeles, he was on the receiving end of a good many anti-Semitic barbs as a kid. Things were said to him that won’t be repeated but which punctuated a number of scenarios indelibly etched in Adler’s mind and they will forever live in his psyche.

His soul, his vision and his spirit have risen above this bilious black vortex but were forever influenced.

Some things you never forget.

Adler was hired by ESPN in 2008. An All-American tennis player at USC, he was a ranked professional in both singles and doubles before joining the broadcast booth.

While providing commentary for ESPN during the (January) 2017 Australian Open, the longtime analyst, 59, was attempting to describe for his audience the strategy being employed by Venus Williams.

Consistent with Ms. Williams’ style of play which has produced a 796–235 Singles career record (77.21%); 49 WTA career titles; nearly $41 million in prize money; a #1 ranking; and 4 Olympic gold medals, she aggressively rushed the net in her match against Stefanie Voegele.

Sidebar:

[“Poaching,” a common term in tennis parlance executed in doubles play, is an anticipatory maneuver at the net designed to put the ball away ending the point when an opponent’s weak return is expected. In singles the equivalent would be to “rush the net” in a like effort to force the action and end the point.]

After Voegele faulted on a first serve, Adler commented, “She misses a first serve and Venus is all over her. You see Venus move in and put the guerilla effect on, charging.”

Apparently the unwitting use of homonyms can be a path fraught with peril as was certainly so in this instance.

It should come as no surprise then that in today’s world Adler’s analysis and (retrospectively) unfortunate word choice quickly went viral.

It seems that a tweet carrying a New York Times reporter’s ID claimed that Adler on ESPN — for no reason other than a boiled-over seething racism — had just called Venus Williams “a gorilla.”

Phil Mushnick, venerable columnist for the New York Post played the part of a lone wolf in his support of Adler and subsequent condemnation of ESPN.

Noted he, “Guerilla-style play — sudden ambushes at the net — had become a common expression in tennis, so much so that Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras starred in a [phenomenally successful] 1995 Nike commercial [an ad campaign during that year’s U.S. Open] playing ‘guerilla tennis.’”

He embellished thusly, “But one person ESPN presumed to have New York Times clout, decided that Adler called Williams ‘a gorilla,’ [and thereby] in his role as a freelance tennis writer for the Times, accused Adler of being an unmitigated racist. Ben Rothenberg, still a Times tennis freelancer, recklessly tweeted a defamation of Adler, charging that his racism is ‘appalling’ and that it’s ‘horrifying that the Williams sisters have to be subjected to this in 2017.’”

This was the beginning of the end for Adler.

ESPN in an effort to cover its ‘worldwide leading’ behind bought in, caved in and courted embarrassment when the network preemptively kicked Adler to the curb on the strength of Rothenberg’s absurd claim.

Had the Times not recognized Adler’s comment about Williams as an admiring one and actually complimentary, perhaps they would have published something attacking Adler and ESPN and supporting Rothenberg’s position.

They did not.

In fact, two years later they still haven’t touched the story with a ten-foot pole.

Adler, innocent of wrongdoing other than regrettably using a word which could be misconstrued was fired, defamed and ruined. His reputation was in tatters, besmirched forever.

As Mushnick astutely remarked, “…racial matters cause fear and cowardice. For fear of being called a racist, there’s no separating genuine racism from the imagined, wishful kind.”

Seemingly there was nobody else in Adler’s corner.

Not the top TV tennis analysts like John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert. Not Sampras or Agassi. Not Nike. Not any member of the ESPN brass willing to investigate more deeply before impulsively acting, unafraid of or undeterred by the likely consequences.

No one but Mushnick…

And David Dinkins.

Yes, that David Dinkins the ex-NYC mayor and self-avowed tennis junkie. Dinkins, an African-American, maintains that Adler did nothing wrong and is staunch in his belief that the comment was misinterpreted.

“It should not have been taken that way by anyone,” Dinkins told TODAY.

In an August 2017 interview with (the similarly — though for different reasons — disgraced and defiled) Matt Lauer, Adler confided, “It just makes me absolutely sick [being branded a racist]. It’s not true. It couldn’t be further from the truth, and I don’t quite understand nor accept how something like that can happen to me. [My remark had] nothing to do with an animal,” he told Lauer. “Everything to do with tactics, strategy, how to win the point.”

Adler could not have foreseen the blowback or recognized the gravity of the situation in spite of the immediate stocks and pillorying wildly unfolding on social media.

It crystallized for him the next day when he was informed by his boss at ESPN that he had been seen and cast unmitigatingly as a racist.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Are you kidding me?’ And he said, ‘It’s unbelievable,’” Adler recounted. “He said, ‘We all know what you meant. We all know what you said.’

[I’ve] never been a racist. I’ve never looked at color. Have never even thought of that term until this whole situation came up.”

For her part Williams, when queried about Adler’s comment during a press conference at the Open replied, “I pay attention and address situations that are noteworthy.”

To which Adler replied, “That’s exactly the way I read into it. It was nothing.”

Not.

Not nothing. Adler was fired, suffered a heart attack and carried around ‘racist’ on a sandwich board everywhere he went.

In the immediate aftermath of his remark and in the ensuing firestorm, his ESPN bosses demanded that he apologize, assuring him that everything would be fine and he’d remain in good standing if he complied.

Back to the wall he agreed, stating that he “simply chose the wrong word to describe her play.” He meant no ill will. His intention certainly was not to offend anyone.

Not good enough; ESPN fearful of the backlash and resultant loss of viewer share fired him anyway.

Shaken to his core and in the throes of enormous emotional and physical stress, Adler had a heart attack which nearly killed him.

Professionally he was doomed; his career was over and the public shame would swallow him whole.

He could allow that to happen or fight back.

Stand up he did.

Adler filed a wrongful termination suit against ESPN in Los Angeles Superior Court. “I knew I’d been treated badly and unfairly,” he said. “When I saw what it was doing to my reputation, I knew I’d have to fight for my name.”

His complaint alleges that ESPN “took the easy way out and bowed to the Twitter universe of haters” by deciding to axe him after a 15-year broadcasting career.

In a statement his attorney David Ring chimed in, remarking, “The irony is that Adler called everything correctly and in a professional manner, whereas ESPN did not — they recklessly made the wrong call. It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man’s career.”

Simply put, ESPN could not be allowed to act as judge, jury and executioner of an innocent employee.

Two years after the fact, and with the lawsuit — delayed until May of this year — finally settled quietly, Doug Adler says that fighting for his life both personally and professionally was “like the longest tennis match I’ve ever played in, but I have thankfully persevered. [I] can’t be more ready to move forward after all this. I feel the weight of the world off my shoulders. I was living, breathing, sleeping and eating this travesty for two years…[it, the lawsuit] was never about the money, it was always about my reputation and credibility — getting my voice back.”

As for ESPN, they decided ultimately that a full-180 was their wisest course of action.

President Jimmy Pitaro, on board since March 2018 filling the departed John Skipper’s role, said he wants “less politics and more sports” as he tries to rework the network’s culture.

Following Pitaro’s edict, the same ESPN spokesman who said at the time that “Adler made an inappropriate reference to Venus Williams for which he felt no apology was necessary [and] we disagree and stand 100% behind our decision [to remove him from tournament coverage] for making an inappropriate comment,” took one for the team.

Egg all over ESPN’s face, the source confirmed via email, “We have amicably resolved our dispute with Doug Adler,” including the intent to hire him for future ESPN tennis events (Wimbledon?).

Done.

Tell me.

Was it worth it?

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in March 2019.]

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