The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Golf Channel, women say, sexism fuels a ‘boys’ club’ culture

Lisa Cornwell filed a complaint with the EEOC accusing the Golf Channel, where she worked for years, of discrimination. The network has disputed her claims and those of her former colleagues. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Lisa Cornwell was at her parents’ house in Fayetteville, Ark., in January when she dialed into a popular golf podcast called “No Laying Up.” Her lawyer was on the line with her.

“If you do this, you’re all in,” he had told her beforehand.

“That’s where I want to be,” she answered.

Cornwell, a former anchor and reporter for the NBC-owned Golf Channel, wanted to talk, desperately, about her seven years working there. In 2020, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination and retaliation before leaving the network. Now, over the course of an hour-long interview, she alleged publicly being unfairly berated by male bosses, sidelined for standing up for colleagues and forced out for speaking up about her treatment.

Her comments ricocheted around both the network and the world of golf, a sport with a well-documented history of struggling to include both women and minorities. The reaction was overwhelming, Cornwell said, with dozens of women reaching out to share their stories with her.

Many of those women then spoke out on their own. In interviews with The Washington Post, 16 former and two current employees echoed Cornwell’s concerns, describing sexism, misogyny and harassment they have endured at the network.

Golf Channel disputed Cornwell’s claims in a response to the EEOC. An NBC spokesman, Greg Hughes, said in an email that the network is “vigorously defending this matter.”

Presented with a list of allegations made by other women, Hughes disputed many of their claims and said “the vast majority” had been investigated and that “appropriate action was taken.” Others, he said, the network was only now hearing of and would investigate “promptly and thoroughly.” The network declined to make any employees available for interviews.

Many of the women spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of breaking the nondisclosure agreements they signed in exchange for severance when they left the network and their future job prospects. Hughes said that former employees interested in speaking publicly could contact Golf Channel to be released from confidentiality agreements, but several women said they did not feel comfortable doing that.

“Golf Channel is committed to providing a workplace where all employees are treated equitably and respectfully, and regularly conducts training to support that goal,” Hughes said.

Former employees agreed that many of the men they made complaints about did eventually leave the network. But the culture, they said, remained.

“I knew very simply the difference between right and wrong, and what was happening was wrong, and it kept happening,” Cornwell said in an interview with The Washington Post. “To me and to colleagues.”

Sexism from the start

Golf Channel went on the air in 1995, offering fans a 24/7 cable network dedicated entirely to the sport. Arnold Palmer was a co-founder, and within a few years, the network, based in Orlando, secured the rights to broadcast PGA Tour events. Comcast eventually became the full owner, and in 2011, Comcast bought NBCUniversal, which took control of the network.

Some women working at the network faced trouble from the beginning, according to court records and interviews with multiple longtime former Golf Channel employees.

At least six lawsuits were filed against Golf Channel related to sexual harassment, pay discrimination or unpaid wages between 1996 and 2009, all of which were settled by the network, court records show. In one early case, an employee alleged that the network’s executive producer masturbated in front of two women. Another included a claim that on her first day of work, a woman opened her computer to find an image of a nude woman. And another, filed in 2009, alleged that there was a “cock wall” in the office, where emails and articles were posted featuring names that included the word “cock.”

Hughes declined to comment on allegations that happened before NBC took over in 2011. After that, a new president, Mike McCarley, and executive producer, Molly Solomon, were installed. McCarley announced last month that he will step down as president this spring. Solomon remains in the same role.

“As the first female executive producer of a national sports network, I’ve strived, alongside a passionate group of leaders, to create a work environment that values inclusion, opportunity and excellence,” she said in a statement.

But even after Solomon’s arrival, problems of inappropriate behavior by men at the office persisted, at times interfering with women’s ability to work, several former employees alleged.

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In late 2012, a 22-year-old freelance production assistant received sexually explicit emails from her superior. According to emails reviewed by The Post, the supervisor wrote: “I’d like to make love to you and I dream about you every morning. … Do you feel any connection to me in that way. If not, no big deal. We’ll have the same work relationship we’ve had. The last thing I want to do is creep you out.”

The next year, after he made her feel uncomfortable again, the woman reported her boss’s behavior to human resources, according to a copy of an email reviewed by The Post. She had previously declined to complain out of fear of retaliation, she wrote. After she finally did meet with HR, she followed up in an email with concerns about the network’s response.

“I want to have faith that Golf Channel is supporting me, the victim, on this issue, but that is not how I have been made to feel at the moment,” she wrote. “I felt more like I was the one on trial.”

Hughes, the NBC spokesman, said the manager was immediately suspended and fired two weeks after the complaints were brought.

In 2019, a different woman was in the control room during an LPGA tournament, where a group of men were having a conversation about several Asian golfers. They described the women as having porcelain skin and looking like Japanese sex dolls, according to the woman and another who was told about the incident. (Hughes said the incident would have been investigated had it been reported and that Golf Channel had no way to verify it now.)

Several women told The Post the network was part of a larger culture in golf that sidelines women. That included multiple instances of women not being allowed in certain areas of private golf clubs with their male colleagues during shoots because club rules restricted where women could go. (Hughes said Golf Channel raised concerns with the clubs when the issue was brought to them.)

The network’s male-driven culture stunted some women’s careers in broadcasting, former employees said. Jen Johnson, who worked in production from 2011 until last year, said she earned less than male colleagues and was asked by a higher-up whether having kids would negatively affect her career at Golf Channel. Hughes said the higher-up was disciplined at the time, and Johnson did not raise concerns about pay disparity to the network.

Haley Zagoria, a former college golfer, worked in marketing for Golf Channel in 2016 and 2017. At one point, she said, she applied for an open job working on social media. When she didn’t get it, she said, she was told by senior director Mark Summer, who she said interviewed her, that it was because the job would be in “a masculine environment.” A man was hired for the opening, she said, and she later left the network.

Reached by a reporter, Summer, who is no longer at the network, declined to hear any allegations made against him and declined to comment. Hughes stressed that Summer did not have final say on the hire.

“It was my first job. I used to cry on my way home from work all the time,” Zagoria said. “I couldn’t do it anymore. It was just so toxic, and there was no growth opportunity for me.”

Chelsea Kite, who worked in live production from 2007 to 2019, said being a woman at Golf Channel made it hard to even know how she was performing. She said John Winch, a technical manager for live tournaments, told her that he couldn’t speak to her directly about her job performance because, as he put it, “Women and people of color rule the world. We live in an HR world.”

“Because of the way the world was changing, he was afraid to talk to women and Black people at work,” Kite said.

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Winch, in an interview, said he regretted the way he handled the situation but believed Kite was looking for a reason to report him to HR after the two had conflicts at work. “I have learned that speaking my truth is not always the truth and not all people want to hear that,” he said.

Winch was fired after Kite reported the incident to human resources, he confirmed. Soon afterward, Kite was fired, too, for what Hughes said were unrelated performance issues. She said she was told the reason was a lack of commitment to her job despite positive performance reviews.

“I feel like they were punishing me for speaking up,” Kite said. “I’m teaching broadcasting in high school right now. It took me a long time to mentally be okay with that.”

A chance to speak up

Amid the growing #MeToo movement of 2017, a group of female staffers at the Orlando office was invited to a meeting. The meeting fell, by chance, on the same day Matt Lauer, the NBC anchor accused of sexual assault, was fired.

Three women who attended said they remember it being organized by Solomon, the executive producer, and that they felt excited to talk about the network’s toxic culture. NBC’s Hughes disputes that, saying the meeting was called by Dan Overleese, a vice president of production.

Whoever called it, Overleese’s involvement made some women uncomfortable because he routinely berated women in the office, according to the three women and emails, reviewed by The Post, that one of the women wrote at the time. At the meeting, the women said, Overleese spoke about advancing women’s careers and lauded women who worked for him in a way he had never done previously and would never do again.

“We were dumbfounded,” one said. “It was like we couldn’t say anything.”

Overleese, who is no longer with Golf Channel, denied ever berating women in the office.

“It wasn’t toxic or a hostile work environment,” he said. “From a leadership team perspective, we put a lot of effort into trying to make that the case.”

Hughes shared data from anonymous internal surveys in 2019 that showed more than 90 percent of responding employees said managers and employees treated each other with respect. He said the network had around 800 employees that year, around 30 percent of whom were women. Several women told The Post they did not believe the surveys were the proper place to report serious concerns about their workplace.

To the women who were there, the Overleese meeting was emblematic of how efforts to speak to Golf Channel management and human resources did not lead to changes at the network.

Laura Laytham, who worked as a director of product and technology for digital from 2018 to 2020, said she spoke multiple times to Golf Channel’s vice president of human resources, Julie Lusk, about how she felt sidelined by male executives. But no one intervened, she said.

According to Hughes, Laytham’s complaints while an employee centered on administrative issues; the company is investigating discrimination claims she made after leaving, he said. But Laytham insists she complained about her male boss spending time away from the office with male colleagues who in turn earned promotions. She was not offered the same opportunities, Laytham said.

“It was just a boys’ club,” she said.

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It was amid this culture that employees founded a women’s networking group in 2017, two former employees said, designed to support women at the company and build their careers. The group held lunches and brought in regular guest speakers, but when organizers attempted to bring in an expert in salary negotiation, Lusk said she needed approval from higher-ups, the women said.

Hughes pointed to a meeting the group held that focused on personal finances. But according to the employees, the salary negotiation speaker was never approved.

‘The good fight’

Lisa Cornwell learned to play golf at a country club in Fayetteville, winning state titles and playing in junior tournaments around the country. After her cousin, Bill Clinton, won the White House when she was 18, she traveled to Washington regularly for rounds with the president.

Cornwell never turned pro, but she found her way to broadcasting. She joined Golf Channel in 2014, hosting a weekday news show and reporting from women’s majors. She thought she was becoming more visible at the network, until she wasn’t.

According to her EEOC complaint, Cornwell’s troubles began at a dinner in Eugene, Ore., in 2016. Her boss, Summer, was speaking in front of employees and making fun of an on-air talent who battled anxiety. Cornwell stood up and suggested it wasn’t appropriate.

After that, the complaint said, it became more difficult to get new opportunities. Two years later, Cornwell said she was harshly rebuked by another colleague, former PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee, for making a small mistake on the air. (Chamblee did not respond to a request for comment.)

Cornwell spoke to a senior executive after the incident with Chamblee, according to the EEOC complaint, because it was not the first time she had been dressed down by a male colleague. After that, she said, she began losing assignments despite what she says were positive performance reviews. She then spoke with NBC’s compliance department, according to her EEOC complaint, because she did not trust Golf Channel’s human resources department.

At the end of 2019, she was demoted from staffer to freelance, with her salary cut in half. In March 2020, she filed her complaint with the EEOC. She stayed at Golf Channel through the end of last year, when the network didn’t renew her contract.

“I love golf, and it was a dream job,” she said. “I loved being out on the tour. I didn’t want to give that up without fighting for it.”

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Hughes declined to comment on the allegations made in the EEOC complaint, which is still pending. But in its written response to the EEOC, Golf Channel argued that Cornwell was given a three-year contract extension after the dinner in Eugene. The network investigated her complaints in 2018 and found no wrongdoing, it said, and she was offered another contract for 2020, after raising issues with human resources. The network said budget constraints caused her to be moved from staff to freelance.

Golf Channel moved most of its operations from Orlando to NBC’s main sports complex in Stamford, Conn., last year. As part of the restructuring, the network laid off a number of Orlando-based employees. Cornwell, meanwhile, is waiting for the EEOC to rule. The commission could bring a case on her behalf against Golf Channel, take the case to mediation or dismiss it and give her a right-to-sue letter. Whatever the outcome, she said, she hopes there is a better future for women at her former network.

For somebody with my personality, it’s infuriating watching people cave into that intimidation and fear that was part of the culture there,” Cornwell said. “A lot of women there, we had each other’s back because management didn’t.”

In turn, her former colleagues said they will support her as she fights back.

“She’s fighting the good fight,” said Jen Johnson, the former Golf Channel employee. “I’m thankful she’s brought this as far as she has.”

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