Saturday Sports: Shaun White, The Olympics And Athletes Speak Out

Feb 17, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: It's about halfway through the Winter Olympics. Alpine skiing, figure skating, luge, skeleton, snowboarding - let's not forget curling. To your brooms. But besides the cheer, there's been controversy. Howard Bryant of ESPN joins us. Good morning, Howard.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. And do you know the difference between luge and skeleton, or are you just tossing out terms that are just way over your head?

SIMON: I'm just tossing out terms...

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...That are way over my head and hoping my friends won't call me on it. In any event, four U.S. gold medals came from snowboarding events. Shaun White was the story of the halfpipe event after a disappointing performance at the 2014 Olympics. It was a great story - redemption, revival, recovery. But did NBC, in its Olympic programming, ignore another story?

BRYANT: Of course, it did. It ignored the story that Shaun White had been accused of sexual harassment by a band member and that he had settled. And not only that - that's one part of the story. But the other part of the story was the fact that he was at his press conference and simply referred to the allegations as gossip and then tried to move on. And the zeitgeist would not let him, rightfully. And NBC is rightfully in some hot water for ignoring the entire story. This is one of the things that happens during the Olympics, where you spend four years in anonymity, and then you've got a network that is ramping up for the games. And they want feel-good stories. Not all stories are feel-good stories. And this was one where in trying to avoid it - made matters worse.

SIMON: Yeah. And let's be clear, if not explicit. This harassment included sending graphic photos and sex videos.

BRYANT: And a lot more than that.

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: It was not simply a sort of he said, she said thing where it was sort of ambiguous. Rather, there was not a lot of ambiguity there. It was a very bad story. And I think that one of the things that was really difficult about it was the fact that you have the athlete who's there, using their power and their fame to sort of dismiss it on a national, international stage. And it really did not go over very well.

SIMON: Pure Olympic sports question - I mean, a month from now, I'd have no interest in watching people ski down the hill. But for the next two weeks, my family and I are going to be passionately interested in watching a lot of people from Nordic countries do that.

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: What's the appeal of the Olympics that makes NBC pay almost a billion dollars just to put them on the air?

BRYANT: Well, I think it's also that tradition. I think one of the interesting things about the Shaun White story that flies in the face of the Olympics is the politics of it. The Olympics are sort of, by definition, controversial in some of their own ways. But also, if you're of a certain age, you remember the Olympics sort of being part of your routine every four years. Things stopped when the Olympics were going on. And you got involved in sports that you didn't know anything about. And you heard about people that were doing these things.

And especially with the spirit of amateurism, they were doing it for free, so it seemed, before the professionals got involved. And so there was certainly a spirit of amateurism there, a spirit of camaraderie of international competition. It was supposed to be before all the money got involved and all the billions and all the professionals got involved. It was supposed to be that pure moment of athletic competition that we all sort of gravitated around.

SIMON: And let's close with this note - the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Fla. - Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs went to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When he heard the news, he left spring training because he's important to that school.

BRYANT: Yeah, well, that's his high school. And this is one of those examples. And that's his community and his family in a lot of ways. And this is one of those examples where we tell athletes to stick to sports. Do we really want them to stick to sports? We pay attention to them because of their fame. And this is a great example of an athlete connecting to the community instead of being isolated by their millions.

SIMON: Howard Bryant of ESPN, thanks very much for being with us.

BRYANT: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.