The ESPN tennis commentator who was fired last month after being accused of using racist language to describe Venus Williams’s playing style at the Australian Open has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the network.
Doug Adler’s controversial comment came on Jan. 18 during Williams’s 6-3, 6-2 victory over Stefanie Voegele when he said what many heard as, “You see Venus move in and put the gorilla effect on, charging.”
Many on Twitter, including New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg, reacted quickly. Some even called for the termination of the 58-year-old former pro, whom ESPN hired in 2008. Adler ended up apologizing on air the next day, and clarifying that he said “guerrilla effect,” referring to a style of play made famous in the 1990s.
The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday, reiterated Adler said “guerrilla,” noting “ESPN bowed to pressure from those using social media, including Twitter, who mistakenly believed Adler used the word ‘gorilla’ to describe Venus Williams.”
“I knew I’d been treated badly and unfairly,” Adler told the Southern California News Group on Tuesday. “When I saw what it was doing to my reputation, I knew I’d have to fight for my name.”
The lawsuit alleges ESPN’s firing of him “has since caused other employers to shun Adler, causing Adler serious financial and emotional harm.” As a results, Adler is seeking an undisclosed amount in compensation and damages.
According to the Southern California News Group, Adler was only informed that his comment caused controversy when ESPN replayed the tape for him 24 hours later and asked him and his broadcast partner whether they noticed anything unusual. They didn’t, according to Adler, who said he was then informed about why it had gone viral.
“They told me the Twitter world had basically started labeling me as a racist,” Adler said.
Adler said ESPN instructed him to issue an apology on air, which the network wrote for him.
He said he “simply and inadvertently chose the wrong word to describe her play,” and added of Williams, “She’s a great champion and I respect her immensely.”
Adler did not call any more matches after that and the next day he was fired, he said.
“The irony is that Adler called everything correctly and in a professional manner, whereas ESPN did not — they recklessly made the wrong call,” Adler’s attorney David Ring told the Southern California News Group. “It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man’s career.”
When reached for comment on the lawsuit, ESPN told The Post on Tuesday, “We have not been served.” The network declined to comment further.
When ESPN relieved Adler of his duties last month, the network told The Post, “Doug Adler should have been more careful in his word selection.”
The Times’s tennis correspondent echoed that statement, noting the special consideration commentators should give to Williams and her younger sister Serena, who have been subject to racism before.
“Whether it was intended or not, people should know not to compare black people to African animals,” Rothenberg said to RTSport. “Sadly, there’s a history of it happening with the Williamses in particular, and I’d hope that everyone would be aware of those very basic sensitivities by 2017.”
One of the most prominent racist episodes occurred in 2001 when the Williams sisters were jeered, and according to their father Richard, called racial epithets at Indian Wells in California. The incident was so nasty that the sisters, who would go on to achieve the sport’s highest honors, decided to boycott the event for 13 years.
Around the world, at times, the racism can be even worse. For example, in 2014, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation referred to the sisters as the “Williams brothers” and said “it’s scary when you really look at them.”
Serena Williams called the comments both sexist and racist, noting, “I thought they were, in a way, bullying.” The WTA ended up suspending the Russian tennis chief for a year.