UPDATED with ESPN response: Adrienne Lawrence, who worked for ESPN for two years in a fellowship program, has sued the Disney-owned sports network for sexual discrimination and harassment.
Veteran ESPN anchor John Buccigross is the subject of many of the allegations in the complaint, which alleges that female employees were subjected to a demeaning workplace culture that systematically denied them opportunities to advance. The complaint also includes an allegation lodged on behalf of a different ESPN staffer, Jemele Hill. According to the suit, Hill received a racially charged and threatening voicemail from longtime ESPN personality Chris Berman.
The suit follows reports in December of a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. That complaint was made public at Lawrence’s request so that she could pursue a federal lawsuit. When those materials surfaced, text messages, including shirtless photos of Buccigross and texts in which he called Lawrence “doll” and “dollface” were also published in the Boston Globe. ESPN at the time responded by saying it had investigated Lawrence’s complaint and found it to be without merit.
In a statement provided to Deadline, ESPN said, “We conducted a thorough investigation of the claims Adrienne Lawrence surfaced to ESPN and they are entirely without merit. Ms. Lawrence was hired into a two-year talent development program and was told that her contract would not be renewed at the conclusion of the training program. At that same time, ESPN also told 100 other talent with substantially more experience, that their contracts would not be renewed. The company will vigorously defend its position and we are confident we will prevail in court.”
In response to the allegation of the Berman voicemail, ESPN also furnished a statement from Hill. “A few years ago, I had a personal conflict with Chris Berman,” the statement says, “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. Frankly, I’m more disappointed that someone I considered to be a friend at one point would misrepresent and relay a private conversation without my knowledge — in which I simply attempted to be a sounding board — for personal gain.”
Lawrence, who has a law background, had moved from the West Coast to join the Bristol, Conn.-based network through the fellowship program with the goal of becoming a full-time on-air legal affairs analyst. Consistent with the nature of the fellowship, she did a mix of stories for ESPN’s linear TV, radio and online platforms.
The lawsuit claims that when she began raising concerns about events in the workplace in 2016, Buccigross and HR exec Donna Hricisko sought to create evidence that would blunt any of Lawrence’s claims. “It became evident that Buccigross’ email was an effort he and Hricisko orchestrated to cover up his sexual harassment of Ms. Lawrence by bolstering his claim that he was just ‘mentoring’ Lawrence, not trying to advance any sexual relationship with her,” the suit claims.
The legal action came on the same day ESPN promoted James Pitaro to president of the network, replacing John Skipper, who departed late last year, citing substance abuse issues.