Why Shaun White’s Apology for Calling a Harassment Allegation “Gossip” Rings Hollow
On Wednesday, snowboarder Shaun White won the third gold medal of his Olympic career by crushing the competition in the halfpipe event with an impressive 97.75 score in his final run. But before we go glorifying him as an Olympic champion, there’s another narrative to consider: the 31-year-old athelete was previously accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit that dates back to 2016.
White’s former bandmate Lena Zawaideh accused him of sexually harassing her over the course of seven years in the suit. Zawaideh, a drummer and the only woman in the group called Bad Things, was reportedly under contract with White, the band's founder and guitarist. She first sued White in May 2016 for breach of contract for failing to pay her monthly retainer.
In August of that same year, Zawaideh amended the lawsuit to allege that he had sexually harassed her. She alleged that he sent sexually explicit and graphic images to her over text message, forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos, and made vulgar remarks to her about her boyfriend. Zawaideh also accused White of grabbing her, attempting to kiss her, and touching himself in front of her.
"I am pursuing this case because women should not have to tolerate harassment at work. Shaun White should not be allowed to do whatever he wants just because he is famous. Although I am embarrassed to have been treated this way, I cannot sit by and watch him do this to other women," Zawaideh said in a statement in 2016.
The Olympian has admitted to sending the texts but denies the other allegations. The lawsuit was reportedly settled privately in 2017.
After taking home his third gold medal on Wednesday, White was asked about the lawsuit and dismissed it as tabloid fodder. “I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not, you know, gossip,” he told reporters.
White later apologized for his turn of phrase. “It was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today,” he told Today’s Savannah Guthrie, whose co-host Matt Lauer was recently ousted after sexual misconduct allegations came to light.
White may have apologized, but the initial comment still hangs in the air.
White's dismissal of the accusation as gossip is reminiscent of a time before the Time's Up movement took shape, when allegations were not always taken seriously. The sad reality for many of the men and women who've recently spoken up is that when they told others in power about specific instances of harassment or assault, they were often dismissed, from being accused of exaggerating the experience out of proportion to lying about the encounter.
White's apology harkens back to James Franco’s response to the allegations against him. Women claimed Franco coerced them into performing oral sex on him, made sexual advances toward two different 17-year-olds, and removed protective coverings while filming a nude orgy scene.
“The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate, but I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long,” he said of the allegations against him. “So I don’t want to, you know, shut them down in any way. It’s, I think, a good thing and I support it.”
In the age of Time’s Up, there’s still a lot left to change.