NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CN) – A former host at ESPN filed a lawsuit accusing the network of sex discrimination, claiming male executives watched porn in the open and kept scorecards on female employees with whom they wanted to have sex.
“ESPN is, and always has been, a company rife with misogyny…[where] women are humiliated, degraded, and forced to navigate a misogynistic and predatory culture,” according to the complaint filed Sunday in Connecticut federal court.
Adrienne Lawrence, who worked at the sports network from 2015 to 2017, also claims in her lawsuit that several producers openly discussed that pop star Rihanna “must taste good” and that they used several methods to groom female subordinates for sex. Lawrence is represented by lead attorney Brian Cohen of Lachtman Cohen in Greenwich, Conn.
“At ESPN, male executives and talent keep ‘scorecards’ naming female colleagues they are targeting for sex. Men openly watch porn on their computers without a care and make repulsive comments about women in front of women, like when they discuss the women in the office ‘they want to fuck,” the 85-page lawsuit states.
ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said in a statement that the network “conducted a thorough investigation of the claims Adrienne Lawrence surfaced to ESPN and they are entirely without merit.”
“The company will vigorously defend its position and we are confident we will prevail in court,” Soltys said.
Most of Lawrence’s allegations concern longtime anchor John Buccigross, who took on the role of mentor to Lawrence when she first joined the network.
According to Lawrence, Buccigross called her a “doll” and texted about her “long legs” before meeting her, even sending her shirtless photos of himself.
“It was a predatory dance and a predator’s dream,” the lawsuit states.
She rebuffed his advances—which included Buccigross telling her he had been sexually assaulted as a child—but he later spread false rumors about them dating, according to the complaint.
Buccigross, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was quoted last year as apologizing to Lawrence for any misbehavior on his part but noted that he had not intended to offend her in any way.
After the alleged misbehavior, Lawrence notified human resources but says she was told that the producer was a “good guy.” An HR rep added that rumors of sexual relationships among company employees were common and that Lawrence should “get used to it,” the lawsuit states.
Lawrence claims she was eventually was denied prized assignments covering rape trials, had her shifts and radio opportunities reduced, and eventually was laid off in April 2017.
In response to a story in the Boston Globe, ESPN said last year that Lawrence’s claims were “entirely without merit” and her two-year contract was simply not renewed.
“At the same time, ESPN also told 100 other talent with substantially more experience, that their contracts would not be renewed,” network spokeswoman Katina Arnold said.
The situation with the producer was not the only problem, Lawrence claims. She also says security guards at the company “make a sport of stalking high-profile female talent around campus because they like to ‘check out her ass’ and tell degrading tales about seeing their ‘pussy.’”
Lawrence, who had left her career at a law firm in 2015 to join the sports network as an analyst on domestic violence cases involving athletes, claims she reported the issues to ESPN human relations.
However, the company allegedly covered-up the abuse and insisted Buccigross was harmless, later releasing text messages that falsely implied Lawrence had stalked the producer. The company also used bots and fake social media accounts to further defame her, according to her lawsuit.
One of the alleged Twitter bots cited in the suit called Lawrence “a disgrace to us black people” while another said Lawrence “was trying to use her stunning beauty to entice a guy into helping her get promoted. Disgraceful.”
To back up Lawrence’s allegations, the lawsuit relies on four current ESPN employees as confidential witnesses: a male security guard, a male corporate communications official, a female studio director, and a female production assistant.
One of those witnesses allegedly said about male executives at ESPN: “The more unattainable you seem, the more they want you.”
According to Lawrence, it was “an open secret” that some female talent engaged in sexual favors with management for on-air opportunities.
Lawrence claims that since coming forward, she has received online threats and had her reputation tarnished.
However, she also says other current and former ESPN female employees have thanked her for bringing the company’s harassment culture to light.
“There is no question that the impact of Ms. Lawrence’s claims extend far beyond this litigation,” the complaint states. “Failing to hold ESPN accountable would set a dangerous precedent that will signal to ESPN and other powerful brands in sports and in media that ‘anything goes’ and that they are free to run amok, marginalize and degrade women, and defy federal and state anti-discrimination laws.”
The network has been targeted in other high-profile lawsuits in recent years, including a former makeup artist who sued broadcaster Chris Berman for inappropriate text messages he had sent her.
Berman was also mentioned in Lawrence’s lawsuit, which alleged he left a voicemail for ESPN broadcaster Jemele Hill with “threatening and racially disparaging” remarks.
But Hill denied that claim in a statement in response to reports about the lawsuit: “A few years ago, I had a personal conflict with Chris Berman, but the way this conflict has been characterized is dangerously inaccurate. Chris never left any racially disparaging remarks on my voicemail and our conflict was handled swiftly and with the utmost professionalism. I felt as if my concerns were taken seriously by ESPN and addressed in a way that made me feel like a valued employee.”