sexual misconduct

Gold Medalist Shaun White Misses Mountainous Opportunity

Shaun White soared in the Olympic snowboard halfpipe event, winning his third Gold Medal and solidifying his legacy as one of America’s greatest Olympians. His handling of a sexual misconduct allegation was less soaring.

Shaun White soared in the Olympic snowboard halfpipe event, winning his third Gold Medal and solidifying his legacy as one of America’s greatest Olympians. His handling of a sexual misconduct allegation was less soaring.

Shaun White thrilled his countrymen, including me, with a sparkling final run to win his third Olympic gold medal in the men’s snowboard halfpipe. Unfortunately, he also disappointed many of his countrymen by failing to own responsibility for his sexual misconduct as alleged in 2016 by a female member of his band.

Few American athletes, and certainly even fewer winter Olympians, have scaled as high of a mountain of success and acclaim as White. He is credited with putting skateboarding on the athletic map and turning his particular event into a breathtaking spectacle of big air and jaw-dropping spins.

In the gleaming light of his success on the halfpipe, White shone less brightly in his post-event interview at which he dismissed the sexual misconduct allegations as “gossip.”

Still basking in the limelight, White had a mulligan to get it right the next morning when he was interviewed on NBC’s Today show by Savannah Guthrie. He didn’t get out of the rough. Guthrie gave him a wide lane by asking if he had anything further to say about the allegation. White expressed regret for his “gossip” comment, in what appeared to be a scripted moment. Guthrie pressed him ever so gently to say something about the sexual misconduct allegation itself. All White could muster was that he has changed. No mention of the woman he allegedly harassed.

White undoubtedly had been prepped by his legal counsel. He should have sought advice from a reputation counselor. White will never have a grander moment to apologize. That would have made him not only king of the hill, but also a man willing to admit his fault, even as he is celebrated for his greatness.

You could call it a mountainous missed opportunity.

Unquestionably White’s legacy as an Olympic great will remain. But his reputation as a man could have soared along with that legacy if he bucked the trend of other accused men and owned his misconduct. If White had, the issue would have faded into the shadows instead of continuing to dog him as he contemplates participating in newly authorized 2020 Summer Olympic skateboarding and possibly yet another winter Olympic try in 2022. He apparently failed to call upon any female reporters at his post-victory press conference, which will be hard to sustain going forward.

Preserving a reputation has an Olympic quality of requiring discipline and courage. If it was easy, no one would have a bad reputation, unless like Charlie Sheen you cultivated one. White passed the test of athletic discipline and courage with literally flying colors. Too bad, he crash-landed on a test of his maturity and manhood. White is great. He could have been even greater.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Reflections and Lessons to Learn About Sexual Misconduct

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is an explosive issue and recent allegations, denials, admissions and equivocations serve as a manual on what to do and not to do. They also are a mirror on how much or how little progress we have made on an issue that evokes raw emotions.

Rumors and charges of sexual misconduct by men in power positions aren’t new. The casting couch has been a longstanding image in Hollywood. But the flood gates of anger and frustration blew open with waves of revelations concerning big-time Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Despite Weinstein’s denials and his self-admission to a sex addiction clinic, he was booted out of his own company and expelled by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Weinstein’s company is considering a name change. His wife is seeking a divorce.

Allegations about Weinstein’s misconduct emboldened other women and men to reveal their long-suppressed horror stories about men who abused their power positions. The list, which is still growing, includes House of Cards star Kevin Spacey, NPR news chief Michael Oreskes, NBC political analyst Mark Halperin, celebrity photographer Terry Richardson, comedian Louis C.K. and even former President George H. W. Bush.

The response to Weinstein’s abuses also provoked sharper, swifter responses to subsequent allegations – Netflix divorced itself from Spacey, Oreskes and Halperin were fired and Richardson was banned from working for Condé Nast, publisher of glossy magazines. However, critics questioned why Weinstein friends and associates didn’t blow the whistle sooner on his behavior that stretches back years. NPR’s CEO also took heat for not acting sooner when earlier allegations were made.

Many of the alleged abusers denied any wrongdoing or said they couldn’t remember. Richardson said everything he did was consensual. Former President Bush cited his physical condition to explain his ass-touching during photo opps. Halperin and Oreskes apologized for their conduct and its impact on news team colleagues. Louis C.K. admitted his behavior was inappropriate and said he was withdrawing to reflect.

Amid the fallout from Weinstein, organizations with ties to alleged abusers quickly disassociated themselves and many issued statements about a zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. There have been calls to elevate more women into positions of power.

Then came The Washington Post bombshell last week about Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his thirties and serving as an assistant district attorney. Moore denies the allegations and claims they are a political hit job just weeks before a special election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading GOP officials urged Moore to step aside “if the allegations are true.” McConnell went further this week, saying he believed the allegations and reiterated Moore should exit the race and not imperil Republican chances to hold onto the seat and their precarious Senate majority.

Fox News commentator Sean Hannity went in a different direction. He blew past Moore’s denials and said Moore’s relationship with a 14-year-old girl appeared “consensual,” even though Alabama law puts the age of consent at 16. Hannity’s defense of Moore prompted Keurig and other companies to pull advertising from Hannity’s show, which in turn led Hannity defenders “to throw their Keurigs out the window.”

Alabama voters quoted in news stories expressed the range of reactions. Some were upset to hear the allegations; others saw the allegations as fake news and dirty politics. One convicted and conflicted Moore supporter said he would rather vote for a pedophile than a Democrat.

There are a lot of things to learn from this still unfolding series of stories:

  • Women and men who have been victims of sexual abuse or harassment should be respected for the courage it takes to tell – or in some cases retell – their stories. The sudden release of a spate of stories is a direct reflection of the hopelessness and fear many victims felt at the hands of men with power who they presumed, not incorrectly, would be protected. Questioning the timing of their revelations should be secondary to listening carefully to the content of their revelations.
  • We shouldn’t be surprised that men in powerful positions (and a few women, too) have abused their positions to take advantage of people. Whether it involves pressuring women to have sex, forcing women to watch a man pleasuring himself or seducing minors shouldn’t matter. The gradations of abuse aren’t the issue and can’t be part of an explanation or excuse. Sexual abuse is, without any qualification, sexual abuse.
  • Owning the abuse, as Louis C. K. did, is a good start, but not full redemption. The worst toll of sexual abuse befalls the victim, not the abuser. Abusers may have to pay a price and even in some cases go to jail, but victims have to live with the stain of abuse for a long time, often with life-changing consequences. Give your emotional empathy to the victims.
  • While statements of zero tolerance are important and clearly timely, actions speak louder than words. Make sure your work environment hasn’t been turned toxic by sexual harassment or abuse. If you discover instances of it, take action. Don’t let it fester and, most important, don’t force victims to cower in the shadow of your inattention or inaction.
  • There may be a statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assaults, but there is no final deadline for allegations. If you think sexual abuse can be pushed under the rug or will just go away, think again. When allegations are made, pay attention. It may be time for rug-cleaning.
Gary-Conkling.jpg

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.