OPED: Snowboarder Shaun White is no hero

Robin Abcarian
Tribune News Service

You can be a wonderful movie maker and a sexual harasser.

You can be a great television talk show host, and a sexual harasser.

You can be an innovative tech genius, and a sexual harasser.

It only stands to reason, then, that you can be the world's greatest snowboarder, and a sexual harasser.

Why should Olympic athletes be immune to the reckoning that is sweeping across the rest of the globe?

And yet, a question on the topic flummoxed Shaun White at his post-victory news conference in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Five hours earlier, the 31-year-old had won his third Olympic gold medal for a near-perfect performance on the halfpipe. "I'm proud of myself," he told reporters. "I don't say that often."

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About five minutes in, Matt Gutman of ABC News tried to raise the issue: "Shaun, over the past couple days, the sexual harassment allegations against you by Lena Zawaideh have resurfaced. Are you concerned they are going to tarnish your legacy?"

Zawaideh, 26, was the drummer in White's rock bad, Bad Things, for years. In 2016, she filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment, wrongful termination and wage theft. Zawaideh met White in 2007, when she was a teenager.

White, who should not have been surprised by the question, was unprepared.

"You know, honestly," he replied, "here to talk about the Olympics, not, you know, gossip."

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At that point, the protection machine kicked in. Nick Alexakos, spokesman for the U.S. snowboarding team, interrupted: "I think we're here to talk about the gold medal and the amazing day we had today. Thank you. If you don't have another question, why don't we go ahead and pass the mic?"

Gutman tried to insist: "I'd like it to be addressed just a little bit."

"I feel like I addressed it," White said.

White's dismissive response did not go unnoticed. Later, he apologized during an interview with "Today's" Samantha Guthrie, whose co-host Matt Lauer was fired last year when his sordid history of sexual harassment was revealed.

"I'm truly sorry that I chose the word 'gossip,'" White said. "It was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today. I'm just truly sorry."

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He wasn't sorry for what he did to Zawaideh, mind you. Just sorry for how he described it.

Like many casual Olympics watchers, I did not know about Zawaideh's lawsuit against White. I don't pay much attention to snowboarding, and athletes are generally not my heroes. (I'm making exceptions this year for Chloe Kim and Adam Rippon.)

But when one of the biggest stars of the Games turns out to be a credibly accused sexual harasser and law-flouting boss, I do take notice. Particularly now, when no man should be immune from addressing questions about his past.

For at least six years, Zawaideh played drums in White's band, Bad Things. During that time, according to her 2016 lawsuit, he went from being an obnoxious boss to being a controlling, toxic presence in her life.

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And then, she claimed, from January 2014 until August 2014, he withheld her $3,750 monthly salary. White, she claimed, said she "did not need the money." And it wasn't as if the band was on hiatus; it had a 19-stop international summer tour that year.

The first version of Zawaideh's lawsuit focused on the labor violations, but she later amended it to include a litany of sexual harassment claims that she alleged took place over six years.

White, Zawaideh claimed, forced her to watch pornography, sent her sexually explicit texts that included photos of a man with a freakishly large penis (not White's).

As her boss, she said, he demanded she cut her hair against her will, stop wearing her signature red lipstick and wear Spanx. She said he threatened to slap her, forced her to drink from a bottle of vodka that he thrust into her mouth when she was still a minor, and told her in explicit terms how to sexually satisfy her boyfriend.

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White initially called the lawsuit "bogus." Then he admitted to sending the texts. (How could he not? Copies are included as exhibits in her lawsuit.) But he has denied the other allegations.

Nevertheless, last May, before the suit was scheduled to go to trial, White settled with Zawaideh for an undisclosed amount.

It's great that White is proud of himself.

Saying he is "sorry" for using the word "gossip" is hardly the same as apologizing publicly to Zawaideh, and acknowledging the damage he inflicted on her.

That's what a real hero should do.