More than two years after some tennis fans on Twitter set in motion a chain of events that appeared to have destroyed tennis broadcaster Doug Adler’s career, there’s a happy ending.
Awaiting more details from ESPN on this, but according to the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick, ESPN has settled the lawsuit Adler filed on Feb. 14, 2017.
Reached in California, Adler confirmed to tennis.life that he has dropped the lawsuit.
“I am no longer pursuing legal claims against ESPN. I have been asked about my lawsuit and claims for more than a year. And at this point I believe it is in my best interests to move forward and to focus on the future,” he said. “ I look forward to my employment with ESPN.”
No word so far on the nature of the settlement. But the fact that it appears Adler now will be an ESPN employee is, in fact, big news for the longtime broadcaster.
Major props to new @espn president Jimmy Pitaro. ESPN has settled Doug Adler’s lawsuit after he was fired for using phrase “guerrilla effect” in a Venus Williams match and they have rehired him to cover tennis matches. As close to a public apology as I have ever seen.
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) February 7, 2019
Adler had always been working freelance. In fact, in the early documents ESPN brought to the table when the case appeared headed for trial last fall, his employment status – who his employer/superior actually was – was one of the elements of the company’s defense.
The statement issued by an ESPN spokesperson was brief.
“We have amicably resolved our dispute with Doug Adler.”
The jury trial to rule on the lawsuit was to begin Oct. 15, 2018. It later was postponed to April. Now, it won’t happen at all.
Venus Williams and the “Guerrilla Effect”
The on-air incident that led to the legal action came in the first week of the 2017 Australian Open.
It involved Adler’s use of the term “putting the guerrilla effect on” during Venus Williams’s match against Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland.
It’s a phrase that likely first came into the tennis vernacular with the iconic Nike commercial in the mid 1990s. The commercial starred Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and the theme was “guerrilla tennis”.
When I first heard the video, after the issue blew up, I immediately knew what Adler was referring to.
But the word “guerrilla” was heard as “gorilla” by some fans watching at home. And given Williams is African-American, and given the long history of racism the sisters have endured throughout their brilliant careers, it pushed a hot button. A couple of Tweets turned into a relative avalanche. And ESPN went into damage control mode.
Adler was dismissed from his duties for the rest of the first-week interactive ESPN coverage. His disappearance from the booth (which was in Los Angeles, not Melbourne) followed an on-air apology Adler said he didn’t feel he should make.
Rather, he wanted to clarify his comments. But Adler says he did it because he was assured by his superior that it would result in him not losing his gig, that it would calm the situation down.
He apologized. He lost the gig.
Significant health consequences
The now 61-year-old’s devastation in the aftermath led to multiple physical and emotional issues, including a heart attack. (Adler had coronary bypass surgery March 29).
On Feb. 14, 2017, he filed the suit against ESPN for wrongful termination and four other complaints.
The lawsuit filing explained what Adler meant by the term.
“To someone like Plaintiff, who has over 40 years of tennis experience, the phase “guerrilla tennis” is something that has frequently been used to describe a player’s aggressive surprise tactics in the sport,” it states. It also states that “many other tennis commentators and writers have used “guerrilla” to describe aggressive tennis players”. And that it “became widely used by those who actually understood tennis vernacular and followed the sport closely.”
The document even quoted Mao Tse-Tung’s definition of “guerrilla warfare”.
Social media reaction creates storm
The biggest reason that this issue became a full-blown crisis within ESPN was that it quickly spread across Twitter – as these things tend to do.
Adler’s claim stated he was pulled out of the broadcast booth the next day to “discuss issues raised by a handful of people on social media”. He referred again to “a few people on social media”, and “a couple of media outlets” that had contacted ESPN.
For its part, ESPN described the reaction as a “viral uprising on social media, and mainstream global media accused him of making a racist comment”.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova Tweeted her agreement after ESPN let Adler go.
Amongst the 1,128 documents and exhibits that were entered into evidence for this case were numerous Tweets – approximately 100 in all.
According to the ESPN court filing, the initial Tweets appeared to come from an account called @pinacocoblog. A quick search reveals that there were numerous Tweets on the subject from that account.
Others weighed in or reTweeted. Down the list, the 15th Tweet in chronological order in the ESPN court documents was made by NY Times freelance tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg.
With his large number of followers and visibility within Twitter’s tennis community, that reTweet of the @Pinococoblog Tweet (and video clip) was the catalyst for the issue taking on a significantly larger scope.
The chain of events that followed was laid out in those court documents, as the situation went up and down the chain within ESPN and resulted in Adler being let go, even though he had done nothing wrong.
Finally, it seems the regrettable incident is resolved, although Adler can never get those two years of his life back.
But perhaps the new gig will serve as salve for those wounds.
Mushnick has been consistent in his crusade to get justice for Adler – and, in the process, if he’s able to get shots in at the New York Times and ESPN, he seems happy, too. He may have been the only writer to point out Chris Evert’s gaffe at this year’s Australian Open, although Twitter did notice.