By J.A. Adande
My biggest question after receiving my first Olympic credential since 2006 was how much the changes in technology and shift toward an always-online world had changed the Olympics media experience. It turns out they haven’t had as much of an impact as the changes in the media have changed the Olympic media experience.
There is less automatic deification for the medal-winners and more accountability at all times. And on Wednesday in Pyeongchang that meant some uncomfortable moments for Shaun White, who defied gravity in the snowboard halfpipe but couldn’t escape the web of the #MeToo movement when he met the media.
Ordinarily White’s story would be the quintessential Olympic experience, a golden reign that began in Turin in 2006 and appeared to end with a medal-less trip to Sochi in 2014, only for him to ascend to the top again with a dramatic final-run masterpiece here. It’s impossible to keep the narratives that simple anymore. The Internet opens every file and spreads them across the desktop. So while social media marveled at White’s athletic excellence it also debated his character through the retelling of a sexual harassment lawsuit against him by a former member of rock band White formed. White paid an undisclosed settlement in the lawsuit last year.
At an early-evening news conference in the Main Press Center, Matt Gutman of ABC News asked White if he was concerned that the allegations in the lawsuit would tarnish his legacy. White’s concerns about his image might not be the most important part of this story, but the question was a way to finesse a discussion of serious issues into what was supposed to be a celebratory moment. It reminded me of two years ago, when Peyton Manning’s NFL retirement press conference included a question about a sexual harassment allegation from his college days in Tennessee that had resurfaced.
Manning chose to end his reply with a quote from “Forrest Gump.” White chose to dismiss the topic by saying, “I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip. But, uh, I don’t think so. I am who I am and I’m proud of who I am. And my friends, you know, love me and vouch for me. And I think that stands on its own.”
Guttman persisted: “So you’re saying that the allegations against you are gossip?
White gestured with his arm, as if to say, can’t you do something about this guy, and the moderator obliged by saying: “I think we’re here to talk about the gold medal and the amazing day we had today.”
Shaun White on if he thinks the sexual harassment allegations against him will tarnish his legacy: “You know, honestly, here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip.” pic.twitter.com/45I1DjTB2u
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) February 14, 2018
The news conference ended shortly afterward, before any of the women reporters had a chance to ask a question. At least Guttman had the, uh, guts to fulfill his journalistic responsibilities. The subject had to be addressed; otherwise there would be no point in credentialing media members.
I have to admit I wasn’t as dutiful as Guttman when I covered White’s Olympic debut in 2006 for the Los Angeles Times. I called White “the beta version of the new American sports hero.” I didn’t check him on his ongoing shtick of lusting after figure skater Sasha Cohen. White had made it clear from the moment he arrived in Turin that he had the hots for Cohen, and as soon as he won the gold medal he demonstrated at the press conference how he planned to use it to woo her: “’Hey, babe. Oh, this? Oh, yeah, I just got it. How you doin’?’”
In a post-Olympics interview with Rolling Stone magazine, White described the time a man tried to get his attention/approval at a music festival by lifting up his girlfriend’s shirt and exposing her breasts. In retrospect there was a consistent message emanating from White: the role of women – even other people’s girlfriends — was to gratify him. That doesn’t mean he made all the lewd comments and crass moves that he was accused of in the lawsuit, although he did admit to texting sexually graphic messages and pictures to the woman. What it does allow for is the possibility that he grew more empowered and entitled thanks to the media’s complicity.
The media wasn’t an ally on Wednesday. It was the day everything turned up at the Winter Olympics. The wind went from interfering with events to menacing everything not ensconced in concrete. And the press conferences went from cute conversations with teenagers to a sobering continuation of America’s reckoning with sexual harassment. In the latter case, it wasn’t an overnight change. It’s been 12 years in the making.