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ESPN’s release of Buccigross texts shows network is focused on wrong thing

Any underlying culture problems at ESPN won’t be resolved by releasing text messages between employees. (Reuters)

The case of former ESPN employee Adrienne Lawrence and current anchor John Buccigross is heading down an unfortunate and familiar path.

Rather than addressing an alleged culture where women say they feel the need to hide pregnancies and brush off sexist comments, ESPN has decided to publicly nitpick an individual claim against one of the network’s more well-known anchors following a   Boston Globe story about harassment within the company.

Lawrence, in talking with the Globe and in filings with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, shared examples of harassment by Buccigross who repeatedly called her “dollface”, “#dreamgirl” and sent a shirtless photo of himself to Lawrence via text message.

In response, ESPN released edited text messages between Buccigross and Lawrence “to provide important context about their friendship”.

The decision to release text messages between Lawrence and Buccigross doesn’t exactly prove the point the company wanted to. Instead it may underscore Lawrence’s argument.

It’s not worth parsing each individual message here. The overall tone, however, is worth noticing. There’s a playfulness on the part of Lawrence when talking about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA title and then there’s Buccigross seemingly overreaching the level of familiarity between the two.

This isn’t an example of a gray area in the case against ESPN’s workplace culture. It’s another view of a broken system.

The national moment of reckoning is not kind, nor should it be. It is not meant to evaluate the supposed spectrum of acceptable workplace harassment. It is meant to throw the whole system out, emphasize that no one should be made to feel they need to tolerate a certain level of degradation in order to advance his or her career, and put a stop to the idea that intent matters more than impact.

To this end, Buccigross referring to Lawrence as “dollface” can’t be as playful as the anchor may assume because of his position of power and prominence within the company. It forces Lawrence to make an unfair decision between going along with Buccigross’ nickname, or calling out a superior and potentially ruining her relationship with higher-ups at ESPN.

Calling someone dollface is certainly not as harmful as the allegations against the likes of Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis, but the notion of claims being compared to one another to discern the severity of the allegations is ludicrous. Severity of harassment claims, needless to say, is irrelevant when claims exist. Lawrence’s case is a prime example of this.

It’s easy to suspect that ESPN prefer you get caught up in the “he said, she said” aspect of the Lawrence-Buccigross story. The more you focus in on the smaller, individual pieces here, the less of the full picture is in plain view. From the 2011 book  Those Guys Have All The Fun to the book  ESPN: The Uncensored History published in 2001, there have been significant, documented examples of the culture called out by Lawrence and the Globe piece.

None of this should be new to the folks on campus in Bristol. Not when it comes to something so ingrained in our society that it takes a mass uprising for anyone to take action.

Lawrence wanted outsiders to look at ESPN’s culture. The company wanted to highlight a specific claim by Lawrence and draw attention there.

The bigger picture is more important. It always has been. It’s the only way things begin to change for the better. ESPN can continue assuming this is a story about one relationship in the office, continue throwing Lawrence under the bus — and making Buccigross look rather sleazy in the process — by releasing text messages and continue to view harassment on a spectrum.

But that’s not the issue here. It never has been. And it certainly won’t stop the reckoning from reaching The Worldwide Leader.

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Blake Schuster is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at blakeschuster@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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