Shaun White's complex legacy hangs in the balance
Pyeongchang, South Korea — It was expected to be a coronation: snowboarder Shaun White, shredding the halfpipe in an epic performance that won him Olympic gold at Pyeongchang four years after a devastating loss in Sochi and just four months after a nasty fall during practice sent him to a hospital.
But as he basked in the comeback story of the Winter Games, allegations of sexual misconduct resurfaced, first on social media, then at White’s victory press conference. Eager to focus on his win, White waved away the accusations with a choice of words that made things worse, not better.
“I’m here to talk about the Olympics,” he said, “not gossip and stuff.”
Like other high-profile men, White’s triumphal moment was usurped by an abruptly resurfacing past. And a story that had received scant attention between Olympic cycles was, suddenly, one of the biggest in the world.
Hours later, he was on NBC’s “Today” show apologizing for his comment. But in the era of #metoo, what should have been a triumphal and defining moment in White’s life collided with one of his lowest.
The one-two punch of victory, then condemnation, raised a number of questions that have been playing out on social media in the days since his victory.
Is it legitimate to bring up old charges simply because someone has won something new? Does White have a special responsibility as a role model who has grown rich trading off his name? With his achievements and the accusations, can he be both hero and villain at the same time?
And as his legacy is written and rewritten, will he be remembered more for his athletic successes or as one in a list of men whose achievements have been stained by accusations of sexual misconduct?
“I think he handled it better than we’ve seen other people handle it,” said University of Oregon senior Lily Jones, 21, who said White’s apology helped but didn’t erase what had happened.
“Instead of flat-out denying it, or going after his accuser like we’ve seen other people do, he took a little bit of responsibility, which I definitely appreciated,” Jones said.
White and his more diehard fans were eager to move on — an understandable instinct.
“That’s just the go-to reaction, for men or women,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Florida. “I don’t think there would be any good timing for somebody that successful. And it doesn’t dismiss the fact that this went on.”
Twitter is barely a decade old, and the notion of the accused having to reckon with a critical public in real time, at the pinnacle of a storied career, is a relatively new notion. But it’s happening more and more.
White’s takedown on social media brings to mind James Franco’s Golden Globe win last month for best actor in a comedy or musical – an honor that produced immediate condemnation on social media decrying his past treatment of women.
But Franco is young, with a potentially lengthy career still ahead. Others, like entertainer Bill Cosby or Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, have been exiled later in life after they achieved much of what they hoped to be remembered for.
Some weather the storm. Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice after Anita Hill testified that he sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor in the federal government. Nearly three decades later, Thomas remains on the bench.
NBC analyst Mike Tirico’s past didn’t follow him to Pyeongchang. The ESPN alum reportedly made lewd and unwanted advances on women in the early 1990s and was suspended. There have been no further public complaints against him, and he is contributing to the network’s 2018 Olympic coverage.
In a very different case, fellow NBC personality Matt Lauer left the network late last year after multiple reports of misconduct, including one at the last Winter Games in Sochi.
Whatever the outcome, people are listening more than ever. And the rise of the #metoo era means there are now many mechanisms of accountability, says Lesley Wexler, a law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
Those can range from civil and criminal action to public condemnation and social-media whisper campaigns. Someone accused of misconduct faces a choice of paths as well, she says, from acknowledging harm and taking responsibility to actually repairing the harm.
“What that entails will scale based on the severity of what was done and what the victim wants and needs,” Wexler says. “Some victims may need more repair than others. Some victims may want more repair than others. We should be asking what do they want, what does the community want, and not what does Shaun White want.”
White reached an out-of-court settlement with his accuser, Lena Zawaideh, who had been the drummer in his band, Bad Things. If he wants to move on, Wexler says, he needs to address Zawaideh’s allegations more directly.
“The more clarity the better, because it reaffirms her status, as opposed to these vague, ‘I’m sorry if anything I ever did wasn’t good, but I’m better now,’” she says. “He engaged in wrongdoing. If he wants to move on, in the sense of community forgiveness, victim forgiveness, then he needs to do that.”
White’s status as pioneer — and now as legend — seemed certain to bring him future riches. His latest halfpipe triumph could have served only to further burnish his brand. After last week, though, it’s unclear what the personal or financial fallout could be.
“A lot of my friends grew up supporting Shaun White as the only snowboarder with any real name recognition,” says Jones, the college senior. “But in light of these allegations, they’re starting to change their views and examine the man as a whole, including his actions.”