Dateline Melbourne, Australia, in sunny mid-January of 2017.
The world of sport is abuzz with excitement over tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year. Tweedy veteran writers, chatty ex-players, and disheveled bloggers, blessed with a surfeit of subject matter in the waning years of tennis’ richest era, feverishly weave narratives from the week’s trendy storylines.
Can Serena Williams reassert herself at the top of her sport at the age of 35?
Will Novak Djokovic rediscover his unbeatable 2015 form, or will his 2016 wobbles continue into the new season?
Can the sport’s rising, hot-headed youngsters dethrone any of the grizzled veteran champions?
Can Rafael Nadal produce in 2017 another miraculous return from injury as he did in 2006, 2010, and 2013?
What about Roger Federer and Venus Williams, both great champions over 35 — can either of them put together a strong run in Australia?
Starved of live tennis during the month of December and of Grand Slam action since September’s U.S. Open, the sport’s global fan base (whose semi-official slogan during the Australian Open is, “Sleep is for the weak,”) is as eager as the commentary corps for drama and action. To satisfy fans with immediate, complete event coverage, many broadcasters deliver live streams of most or all competition courts throughout the two-week event.
The principal U.S. broadcaster is ESPN, a sports programming leviathan that began presenting the Australian Open in 1984 and now covers three of the season’s four tennis Majors. ESPN supplies U.S. fans with streams from Australia of all 254 singles matches and many doubles matches, employing an army of on-air staff — some former players, some professional “talking heads” — who work either individually or in pairs to provide live play-by-play coverage.
Many of ESPN’s live-stream voices offer commentary both more analytical and more useful to the viewer than that of the big-name stars on ESPN’s flagship channels. From this “B team,” one might hear:
“Although Joe clearly walked out today with a game plan to attack Steve’s backhand, he has changed tactics and is now hitting short to the forehand to draw Steve into net against his will and either pass him outright or hit a two-shot pass.”
By contrast, the less prepared and more ego-driven of ESPN’s stars might deliver rhetorical gems such as:
“This is painful to watch.”
(Coasting on his reputation, John McEnroe rarely seems to do in-depth homework and devotes much of his commentary to reminiscence about players he faced in the 1970s. Chris Evert’s statements are at times so vapid that she has inspired a widely used, colorful hashtag. Pam Shriver talks mid-match about her children. When Mary Carillo doesn’t especially like the players in front of her, she tends to chatter about anything but the match; late in the 2014 French Open men’s final, she infamously digressed onto the subject of 1980s-era boxing.)
Prominent in ESPN’s live-stream broadcasting stable is Doug Adler, a 58-year-old former tennis pro who played during his college years the University of Southern California. A veteran of commentary since 2004 and an ESPN employee since 2008, Adler is so adept at spontaneous play-by-play narration that he frequently covers matches without a partner.
The Fatal Moment
It is Day 3 of the Australian Open, Wednesday, the 18th of January (and Tuesday evening, the 17th, in the U.S.) First up in the main stadium, Rod Laver Arena, is 36-year-old American Venus Williams, the 13 seed and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, to accompany an Olympic gold medal in singles, an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles, and a staggering three Olympic golds in women’s doubles. Her opponent is Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele, nine years younger, six inches shorter, and roughly 100 ranking spots below Williams. One of the team of two ESPN live-stream commentators is Doug Adler.
Not surprisingly, the match is a rout. Voegele is unable to counter Williams’ superior power, variety, movement, and court coverage.
Early in the second set, as Voegele struggles to hold her first service game, Adler says this:
“She misses the first serve, and Venus is all over her…You’ll see Venus move in and put the [guerrilla?/gorilla?] effect on, charging…”
What exactly does Adler say? Please listen for yourself to the following 21-second video clip.
Update: The video above was pulled from YouTube on the day after I published this article. Below is a new video. Adler’s words begin at the 40-second mark.
Adler claims he said, “You’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on,” adding that his use of “guerrilla” referred to a successful “Guerrilla Tennis” ad campaign undertaken by Nike in the 1990s.
The 1995 Andre Agassi Nike Guerrilla Tennis ad:
“Guerrilla” is indeed an appropriate descriptor for Venus Williams’ charge as she pounces on her opponent’s second serve. Tennis writers and commentators frequently invoke the term “guerrilla” to characterize sneaky attacks. Had neither player been of African ancestry, Adler’s apt comment would have passed unnoticed.
This particular match, however, made Adler famous.
Within minutes, social media were flooded with rage from indignant fans under the impression Adler had said “gorilla.”
New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg, whose deliberately provocative and bratty online snark has earned him the nickname “Trollenberg,” decided to fan the flames. Rather than ask Adler to clarify his intent, Rothenberg tweeted outrage to his 51,600 followers.
Rothenberg went so far as to dismiss out of hand the possibility that Adler had said, “guerrilla.”
Why “doubtful,” Mr. Rothenberg? Do you read minds?
ESPN suspended Adler immediately after the Williams/Voegele match, demanded that he apologize the next day on every live stream (which he did, citing an unfortunate choice of words), forbade him to comment upon any more matches in Australia, and sent him home in disgrace.
Within days, Adler was fired by ESPN.
On February 14, Adler filed suit against ESPN for wrongful termination, stating that his reputation is “damaged forever.” In the words of Adler’s attorney, David Ring, “It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man’s career.”
Since it is nearly impossible to discern from the recording whether the word uttered by Adler is “gorilla” or “guerrilla,” it would be fairest and most reasonable to assess Adler’s past record as a broadcaster before branding him a racist.
Had Adler ever exhibited any signs of racism? In his 13 years of full-time tennis broadcasting, had he ever referred in a less than respectful manner to Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Donald Young, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Gaël Monfils, Dustin Brown, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Frances Tiafoe, or any other player of African ancestry?
I believe the answer to those questions is No.
Adler’s friends and colleagues, including African American radio host Larry Elder, attest to his character (although among Adler’s friends only Elder has had the courage to speak publically about the recent travesty).
There is every reason to believe Adler’s statement that the word he used was indeed “guerrilla.”
In effect, what happened here?
- While providing commentary for a Grand Slam tennis match, Doug Adler used a completely appropriate word to describe a player’s sneak attack.
- Some viewers misunderstood the word as a racial slur.
- A social media mob called for Adler’s firing on the basis of that misunderstanding.
- ESPN caved to the mob’s demands.
Should ESPN require that its on-air staff treat athletes and coaches with respect? If they want to attract viewers, yes.
Is ESPN entitled to fire broadcasters who behave inappropriately on the air? Certainly.
But was ESPN within its rights to fire a broadcaster, and effectively brand him a racist and thus torpedo his future career prospects, merely in response to the clamoring of an hysterical mob?
I say no.
The Courts will decide.
As a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport myself, I admit that I occasionally find Doug Adler’s assessments of and prognostications about specific tennis players wrong-headed. While not always in agreement with his opinions, I cannot remain silent as he is railroaded out of his chosen profession at the instigation of a PC mob.
So here’s what I think:
Doug Adler is entitled to the benefit of the doubt from the world of sport.
Ben Rothenberg owes Adler a public apology.
ESPN owes Adler financial restitution and reinstatement as a tennis commentator.