Doug Adler lost his job after commentating on an Australian Open match featuring Venus Williams.
Two years ago, the tennis commentator Doug Adler uttered a phrase that came to define his broadcasting career.
Calling a match at the Australian Open for ESPN, Adler suggested that Venus Williams – who was giving Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele a straight-sets shellacking – had “put the guerrilla effect on, charging”.
Or did he? On social media, a different narrative emerged: the idea that Adler had actually said “put the gorilla effect on”. For the “woke” brigade, this was another example – and a particularly egregious one – of the everyday racism directed at the Williams sisters.
Such debates are common in the instant-judgment world of Twitter.
* Kvitova testifies over knife attack
* Serena serves up dating advice
* Current stars can’t match Laver
* Murray’s hospital care ridiculed
* ‘He knows nothing about tennis’
So-called “hot takes” are the lifeblood of the entire platform. But where the Adler incident differed from the usual Twitter pile-on was that ESPN responded to the outrage. It took him off the airwaves, asked him to apologise, and then dispensed with his services.
Adler promptly responded with a lawsuit, which left the network in a difficult position. When a commentator utters a word that could have two such drastically different meanings, how can you be sure what was going on in his head?
And so to 2019. Last week, in a quote reported by the New York Post, ESPN quietly announced that it had “amicably resolved our dispute with Doug Adler”. The article suggested that he had not only received financial compensation, but had also been restored to the roster for future commentary work.
For a man who says he suffered a heart attack as a result of the stress, this is vindication – although whether it can make up for two years of ostracism is another question. As Adler told Telegraph Sport in 2017: “They threw me out to the wolves and basically, essentially labelled me a racist. They made me unemployable. They killed my reputation, my good name.”
Despite ESPN’s about-turn, this is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The fire burned so far out of control that smoke will keep trickling from the embers. As for the fateful word itself, Adler has always insisted that the military term “guerrilla” had a well-established meaning in tennis, referring to lightning raids on the net and an off-the-cuff approach.
The whole story serves as a fascinating parable for the modern age. ESPN, in particular, is constantly parting company with staff, whether it be anchor Jemele Hill (suspended after calling Trump a “white supremacist”) or baseball commentator Adnan Virk (sacked only last week for leaking corporate information). ESPN’s stance does seem awfully trigger-happy.
The point was backed up in the initial filings of Adler’s lawsuit. As part of ESPN’s defence, its lawyer suggested that “an announcer is responsible for offending the audience, regardless of the announcer’s intent”.
But this leaves the person behind the microphone with frighteningly little agency. On the same grounds, I could complain about a batch of old, balding balls at a low-level tournament, and be told that I had offended alopecia sufferers.
If there is an upside in Adler’s grim saga, it is that ESPN was obliged to abandon its lawyer’s position – a development which may influence future cases. It is not just the commentator who should be obliged to justify himself (I say “himself” because most commentators, regrettably, are still men), but the person calling him out.