Sexual harassment allegations swirl around ESPN

ESPN is denying allegations of sexual harassment against one of its anchors, John Buccigross.In addition to de...

Posted: Dec 17, 2017 1:36 PM
Updated: Dec 17, 2017 1:36 PM

ESPN is denying allegations of sexual harassment against one of its anchors, John Buccigross.

In addition to denying the allegations, ESPN also on Thursday released text messages between the alleged victim and Buccigross to show that they had, in ESPN's words, a "consensual, personal friendship that spanned months."

The Boston Globe had reported Thursday evening that Adrienne Lawrence, a former on-air personality, lodged a complaint in which she claimed she was sexually harassed by Buccigross and then faced retaliation from ESPN for having brought his alleged actions to the attention of superiors and HR.

ESPN said in a statement that it "conducted a thorough investigation and found these claims to be entirely without merit." It also said it didn't renew Lawrence's contract at around the same time that it cut 100 other on-air personalities in April.

The decision to release the text messages was unusual but an ESPN spokesperson said it was made to show ESPN's confidence in its investigation and position.

But Lawrence provided CNNMoney with what she says is the full archive of messages between herself and Buccigross, as opposed to what ESPN released, which it acknowledged were "portions" of the message history between the two. The archive that Lawrence claims is the full exchange between the two provides important details lacking in the messages released by ESPN, like shirtless photos Buccigross took of himself and sent to her.

ESPN addressed the discrepancies in a statement to CNNMoney.

"While we didn't include every message submitted in the legal proceeding, we felt the released portions capture the nature of the friendship over a period of months. We purposefully excluded the pictures each party shared in the course of the text conversation."

Related: NFL Network, ESPN suspend Marshall Faulk, other stars

The archive of messages released by ESPN begins with a message from Lawrence, who appears to initiate the conversation.

But screenshots of direct messages from Twitter that Lawrence provided to CNNMoney show Buccigross reaching out to Lawrence first.

Lawrence also shared with CNNMoney screenshots of two shirtless photos that Buccigross sent her.

Though the text messages Lawrence provided to CNNMoney, and which were released by ESPN, do suggest a friendly relationship, they also show that Buccigross had started referring to Lawrence as "dollface" within a month of their beginning to text each other. In the stream of messages, Buccigross also said he missed Lawrence's "pretty face," called her "doll" and texted her "#dreamgirl."

Buccigross is also shown, in the message cache released by Lawrence, responding to one of her social media posts with smiley-face emojis with heart eyes.

The text messages are dated from June 2016 through September of that year. Lawrence is shown repeatedly discussing her career and seeking advice on how to navigate ESPN. The two also discussed more personal matters, including dinner plans with each other and teams for which they were rooting.

Within three months of the start of the text messages, Buccigross sent Lawrence shirtless photos of himself on two separate occasions. To the first, Lawrence replied, "Lol!!!!!!" and then "You need to wear clothes, sir." After further conversation, including talk of making plans to see each other that weekend, on August 9th Buccigross sent the second shirtless picture of himself, and Lawrence responded, "You're too funny! Have a good show tonight."

According to the screenshots Lawrence provided to CNNMoney, she did not send him any further texts until the next day, when -- in an exchange not released by ESPN -- she texted him to offer condolences on the death of ESPN's John Saunders. Buccigross replied, "Thanks, doll. I need a hug."

There are no texts shown for the next three days, until Buccigross texted Lawrence to say, "Forget about me? Better options?" followed by two smiling emojis. Several hours later, Lawrence replied, "Sorry about that... got tied up with family. Hope your weekend's good." Buccigross then responded, "Hope all is ok. I cancelled everything just in case you hollered. Bourbon and Oreos tonight." Several hours later, when Lawrence had not written back, Buccigross followed up: "Next time, just drop a note."

The next morning, Lawrence texted Buccigross, "Sorry if you were disappointed. I would've sent a note but we didn't have a date or time set. I have a lot going on with my family right now and my focus needs to be there. Hope you understand and can have a fulfilling next few days off."

Lawrence then went silent again, starting a pattern: There would be no texts for a period of days, and then Buccigross would reach out, and Lawrence would respond. Finally, at the end of August, Buccigross sent her a text in which he said, "Really bummed I did/said something to turn you off. I'm sorry if I did. I won't bug you anymore. But I'm here if you ever need any support. You're interesting, smart, delightful and pretty. Now decide what to be and go be it. I'm confident you will."

To that, Lawrence responded, "What makes you say that?"

Buccigross wrote back, "Instincts. Perceptiveness is a strength. I don't want to over dramatize your day. You got things to focus on. I'm probably overprotective of women. You have it tough in many ways. I don't EVER want to be a negative."

Lawrence responded, "I appreciate that. This stuff is very complicated and it is overwhelming even just battling these seasonal allergies. Anyways, I do appreciate your support. I'm hoping to draw on it more in the future once I have better footing where I stand now. :)"

ESPN included none of these exchanges in the excerpts it released, which omits everything of their conversations between August 9th and September 7th, when Lawrence reached out to Buccigross seeking professional advice. ESPN also omitted everything showing the professional reason Lawrence was contacting Buccigross on that date, including only her initial text to him, "Afternoon! Around campus today?"

ESPN does not dispute the authenticity of the text messages Lawrence provided to CNNMoney.

In the complaint, which she filed with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in August, Lawrence claimed that she only wanted professional mentorship but said Buccigross spread rumors that they were in a relationship.

She claims that when she complained about the harassment to management she faced retaliation and missed out on career opportunities.

Lawrence tweeted a statement on Friday in which she said ESPN is attempting to silence her. The statement also claimed that the allegations are "far broader than text messages and photos."

According to a commission spokesperson, Lawrence's case was reviewed and determined to be worth investigating. However, the case was released so that Lawrence could pursue it in court.

Workplace complaints in Connecticut must first be filed with the commission. But once that mandatory step has been taken, it's not uncommon for people to release their cases and take them to court, according to a spokesperson for the commission. Lawrence has yet to file a formal lawsuit.

Related: 'Super Size Me' filmmaker admits to sexual misconduct

Buccigross didn't respond to a request for comment from CNNMoney. ESPN referred CNNMoney to statements he provided to the Globe.

In his statement, Buccigross acknowledged sending the two photos, but denied starting rumors of a relationship. "I considered Adrienne to be a friend," he said. "I'm sorry if anything I did or said offended Adrienne. It certainly wasn't my intent."

Buccigross isn't the only male ESPN personality accused of sexual harassment.

On Tuesday, before the Globe's article was published, ESPN was forced to respond to allegations against former NFL players and current employees Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis. The two were alleged to have sexually harassed a woman who was an NFL Network employee while they were working for the NFL Network, before either man moved to ESPN.

The sports network said neither McNabb nor Davis would appear on air while it conducts an investigation. Neither man has responded to the allegations.

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