If you’re a regular reader, you know that sexual harassment and intimate partner violence is a subject to which I frequently return in these digital pages. It’s also something I handle in my day job as a legal aid trial lawyer. Late last year, I wrote about how the rampant spread of intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment was rotting baseball, pointing out that baseball media had done a poor job of handling the allegations. Part of that was an unwillingness to address the issue, to be sure, but in an overwhelmingly white and male field, it’s also undoubtedly true that many sports journalists and commentators simply don’t know how to deal with these subjects.
Enter Adrienne Lawrence - lawyer, sports commentator (and someone who, in the interests of full disclosure, I’m proud to call a friend). Her new book Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Sexual Harassment is being released this month, and it’s a masterwork. Lawrence wrote it to aid survivors of sexual violence and harassment, but it’s a book that all of us in sports journalism should read, for multiple reasons. Lawrence was kind enough to sit down with me (virtually) to talk about her book.
How we talk about sexual harassment and domestic abuse matters.
“With the #MeToo movement, people are more likely to speak out about assault and abuse, and reporters must be knowledgeable in how to appropriately cover the topic that is far more sociological than legal. No reporter wants a story they covered to suddenly become about their unintentional yet offensive use of language or misunderstanding of sexual violence,” Lawrence told me.
Lawrence uses the term “harasshole” to describe people who engage in sexual harassment and other acts of sexual violence, and, as she points out, “sexual harassment in sports media indeed impacts how sports media covers sexual misconduct.” Indeed, “harassholes are more likely to engage in victim blaming and to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes. If a reporter is a harasshole, they’re unlikely to condemn fellow harassholes, or to at least objectively portray them in their coverage, as they too engage in the same misconduct. Also, if you work in a media space where harassment is an engrained part of the newsroom culture, it will impact how reporters in that environment portray harassment and allegations in their coverage. There’s just no way to divorce the two. You can’t expect a cannibal to write an objective piece on cannibalism.”
She’s right, of course. For instance, as I wrote last year, this is how Domingo German was described by sports media after being suspended for domestic abuse:
The New York Times began by noting that Germán was a “young pitcher” who “led the team in victories” in 2019. Randy Miller of NJ Advance Media noted that Germán was a “breakout star” and noted his win-loss record and earned run average before saying he would be “dealing” with a suspension. Ryan Gaydos of Fox News praised Germán’s “career-high 153 strikeouts . . . before he left the team.” Connor Byrne called him a “stabilizing presence” in the Yankees’ rotation.
That’s one reason reporters and sports journalists should read Staying in the Game. Lawrence told me that we in sports media struggle with reporting on intimate partner violence and sexual harassment because of just how commonplace they are in our own world. “It’s rampant in media, impacting mostly women but also men,” she explained. Bullying in the business world is commonplace. Every professional should be fully prepared for sexual harassment, as it’s just another way in which people make workplace power plays.”
Power is the key, of course. “There is a connection between sexual harassment and intimate partner violence,” Lawrence explained. “Both are about subjugation and stem from insecurities, a drive to feel a sense of power over another.”
Lawrence would know. It’s worth noting that Lawrence herself is a survivor of sexual harassment whilst working at ESPN. (Lawrence filed a lawsuit against the media giant and later settled.) This gives her the ability to write about this issue from two perspectives: as a survivor herself but also as a sports media insider. “I successfully sued ESPN because I had a game plan that started months before I ever had to file a lawsuit,” she said. “That game plan enabled me to protect my former coworkers from retaliation, and it ultimately led to no depositions being taken or NDAs signed. The key is knowing the game and how to play it. My book unapologetically lays that out.”
So this is a book that every member of sports media should read - not just because of how deftly it covers the issue of sexual harassment, but also because of how it correctly - and importantly - discusses the intersection of that issue and race, something I’ve discussed in these pages before in the context of MLB’s domestic violence policy.
Lawrence provides a keen guidebook for understanding the intersecting power structures of race and gender, explaining how women of color are more likely than white women to experience sexual harassment and noting how men of color, particularly Black men, are often depicted as hypersexualized, contributing to racist systems even in workplaces where sexual harassment is considered unacceptable. This supports something I wrote last year:
By some estimates, ninety percent of writers covering professional baseball are white and a similarly dismal percentage are male. It is therefore no surprise whatsoever that a white, male corps of journalists would act, perhaps even unintentionally, to protect its own. The result contributes to the sport’s lackadaisical attitude towards intimate partner violence generally, and to the disproportionate targeting of players of color when discipline and scorn are meted out. As I wrote earlier this year, for example, Felipe Vazquez is facing criminal charges for sexually assaulting a teenager, whilst Roger Clemens is being considered for Hall of Fame induction and Luke Heimlich was nearly signed by both the Astros and Royals after pleading guilty to raping a toddler.
But there’s another reason Lawrence’s book is important. Women (or at least cis women) are for the first time breaking into coaching jobs in the four major North American men’s sports, with Katie Sowers, Alyssa Nakken, and Justine Siegal among the trailblazers. That they will encounter sexual harassment in an environment rife with toxic masculinity is a near certainty; consider what Brandon Taubman just last year as evidence or the allegations made by Lorena Martin against the Seattle Mariners. For these women, Lawrence’s book will be - unfortunately - necessary.
“[M]y book teaches you how to keep the upper hand with heinous employers who allow you to be harassed or retaliate against you. You don’t want to be in a position where your career and economic independence ends because you stood up for a colleague or yourself,” Lawrence told me. “Start being prepared. As this business changes, harassholes will become more aggressive in trying to keep you down and companies will support them in the process. Don’t let anyone force you to play small. Be ready.”
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and Legal Director at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.