Last Wednesday, Olympic legend Shaun White did the impossible: He solidified his third gold medal with his signature back-to-back 1440s and a final score of 97.75 to become the most decorated Olympic snowboarder in history.
His record-breaking showing was rivaled only by his other feat: In the face of the #MeToo cultural movement, White had mostly escaped the sexual assault allegations brought against him.
How was the face of the U.S. Winter Olympics for the past decade able to fly through his #MeToo moment largely unscathed?
The simple truth is that everyone, and especially Olympic network provider NBC, likes a comeback story.
For the past decade, NBC was able to sell White, the snowboarding prodigy child who was signed by Burton Snowboards at age 7 and turned professional by age 13. As White’s accomplishments grew, his celebrity followed. He played guitar in a band and expanded his business ventures, and Fortune estimates his net worth at $40 million.
But after dominating the competition with clear-cut back-to-back gold medals at the 2006 Turin and 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, White disappointed with a fourth-place finish at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
He had a lot to overcome during his path to Pyeongchang, including a recent ankle surgery and crash while training in New Zealand that required 62 stitches, which called into question his return.
It was now redemption time for White and storytime for NBC. Its story, however, overlooks a single, yet crucial, incident.
In August 2016, White’s former bandmate Lena Zawaideh filed a civil suit in the Superior Court of California in San Diego County, claiming that the snowboarder “repeatedly sexually harassed her and forced his authoritarian management style on her for over seven years.” In 2014, she was suddenly released from the band.
The suit claims that White sent Zawaideh text messages of erect penises, forced her to watch sexually exploitative videos and made vulgar comments while dictating her physical appearance. After his Sochi disappointment, Zawaideh alleges that White threatened her with violence.
While admitting to the texts, White has vehemently denied all other accusations, saying that “Many years ago, I exchanged texts with a friend who is now using them to craft a bogus lawsuit.”
These allegations are crude and disturbing, but they also reflect an all-too-familiar pattern of an authoritative male figure who claims a misunderstanding of consensual actions between friends to justify inappropriate behavior.
Before I get any further, it’s important to state that White has not been legally found guilty of any of the accusations. In May 2016, the two reached an undisclosed settlement. But during a period of intense and well-deserved scrutiny of those who abuse power, it is important not to normalize allegations of inappropriate behavior, regardless of the accused’s reputation.
This now leaves us with another question about White: How do you reconcile the alleged assaulter with the Olympic champion?
On the one hand, White was able to utilize his sport to escape this question. NBC’s 2018 Olympic coverage indicated the binary lens through which fans expect to view sports: By definition, clear winners and losers are determined through exciting competition. The resulting calculations of the value of an athlete can be trivial — just look at the scoreboard.
But on the other hand, when you begin to examine additional layers of White’s personal history, the calculations not only become more complicated, but shift from comparing numbers and statistics to ethics and morals.
NBC didn’t include the allegations while covering White’s comeback story because the #MeToo movement has yet to come to a consensus on White, reflecting an even deeper ambivalence in society about how we expect men to behave.
Is it appropriate to bring up old (and even legally resolved) allegations just because White did something new? Where does one define the line between sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct? Does that decision belong to the victim, the accused or society?
At this point, White’s redemption and comeback are NBC’s narrative. The sexual assault allegations? Merely an asterix on an otherwise distinguished career. But it’s NBC’s responsibility to report all accomplishments — and flaws — of White and let fans be the determinant of value.
Alicia Sadowski is the Thursday columnist who talks about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected]