It was a year ago this week, during the 2017 Australian Open, that Doug Adler’s world turned upside down.
On Tuesday of that week, Adler drove from his San Fernando Valley home to a Direct TV production facility in Marina del Rey.
This was Adler’s third day commenting on the Australian Open tennis championship. Viewers were led to believe he and his commenting partner, Elise Burgin, were in Australia, but that was the least of ESPN’s deceptions during the week.
The match Adler was calling that Tuesday evening – Wednesday afternoon in Australia – pitted Swiss player Stephanie Voegele against American Venus Williams.
Thirty-six at the time of the Open and ranked fifth in the world, Williams had won seven Grand Slam titles in singles play as well as four Olympic gold medals.
Trimmer and taller than her sister Serena, Venus was also more reserved, less volatile. Adler had interviewed Venus in person some years earlier and held her in high regard.
In addition to being a great athlete, Venus is a serious tactician. This made the match all the more rewarding for Adler as he was able to explain her tactics to the audience.
In many sports, announcers employ military metaphors to describe the action in front of them. Football announcers in particular would be all but speechless if they could not use words like “bomb” or “blitz” or “aerial attack.”
Adler used military terms as well – “blast,” “explode” and “charge” among others. Like most serious announcers, he worked to avoid clichés and to fashion a distinctive vocabulary.
At the critical moment, Voegele was serving. “If she misses the first serve,” said Adler, “Venus will be all over her.”
When Voegele missed that serve, Adler anticipated Venus’ next move. “And you’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on,” he said, “charging.” By the third volley, Venus was at the net, exactly as Adler said she would be.
The comment slipped into the ether unnoticed. The producers heard nothing to bother them. Neither did the people from Direct TV.
Adler and Burgin finished the match and went on to call another one. The next day, he reported in to work unaware of the sinister forces that were at play on the internet.
Apparently, Adler’s remarks about Williams’ tactics upset “Shanna,” a “food blogger” and “tennis mom” from Las Vegas.
Shanna had likely DVRed the match and posted on Twitter the salient section with the comment, “‘She puts the Gorilla effect on. Charging’. Just wtf. This is not cool @ESPNTennis @espn.”
Venus Williams, for those who may not know, is African-American. In Shanna’s warped mind, the apolitical Adler must have thought Williams looked like a “gorilla” and called her one, fully indifferent to the effect of a racial slur on his career.
Shanna may not have understood the havoc she was about to wreak. Ben Rothenberg had no such excuse. A freelance writer for the New York Times and a tennis podcaster, Rothenberg had a history of ruining people’s lives.
A year earlier he played a key role in forcing the resignation of Raymond Moore from his position as CEO of Indian Wells, a well-known California country club that hosts an annual masters event.
Moore’s sin was sharing his strong opinions on the woman’s tour. Rothenberg thought those opinions – and Moore himself – sexist.
Rothenberg thought Adler’s comments – and Adler himself – racist. “This is some appalling stuff. Horrifying that the Williams sisters remain subjected to it still in 2017,” Rothenberg tweeted.
Without bothering to question Adler, Rothenberg threw the weight of the New York Times at the historically cowardly ESPN. Adler never had a chance.
Just before he to begin calling the match at 7 p.m. California time, his boss showed him the video clip on a cellphone.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?” asked Adler.
“It’s gone viral on social media,” said his boss. “Do you see anything unusual?” Only on the fourth viewing did Adler catch on to the problem at hand.
ESPN wanted an apology. “This is crazy,” Adler said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. What am I going to apologize for?”
Feeling he had no choice if he wanted to keep his job, Adler incorporated a line that ESPN demanded about how he “inadvertently chose the wrong words” and made his amends.
“I guess we’ll just see you tomorrow,” said Adler’s boss as Adler was leaving that evening. There was no tomorrow. ESPN fired Adler despite his apology.
Venus Williams could have saved him with a tweet. She did not bother. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova had the clout within the tennis world to make ESPN rethink its decision.
She piled on. “There is no such thing in tennis lingo as a guerrilla effect, charging, etc. And as far as I know, gorillas charge, not guerrillas.”
Under enormous stress, Adler had a major heart attack weeks later. Now recovering from the attack and subsequent surgery, he is suing ESPN.
Lord knows, ESPN deserves it. Then again, so do Rothenberg and the New York Times.