Doug Adler during better times
A decade as VP for a national apparel company and then a stint announcing at pro tennis tournaments in California, led Doug to the ESPN gig and a dozen years covering Wimbledon, the French, Australian and U.S. Open. Then a misconstrued comment sent his world into a tailspin, got him fired from ESPN, gave him a stress-induced heart attack, and caused him to endure years of litigation—all because a tweet from a B-level freelance journalist covering for the New York Times accused Doug of racially slurring Venus Williams during her 2nd-round match at the 2017 Australian Open. Williams was dominating the match and closing in on victory when Doug anticipated her using “guerilla effect” as tactics to win her match. His reference was a take-off of the famous Sampras-Agassi TV commercial filmed on the streets of San Francisco and dubbed “Guerilla Tennis” in a Nike spot. Doug’s crime? Substituting the word ‘effect’ for ‘tactics’. Everyone in tennis and sports knew the reference and, more importantly, knew the character of this man.
But this is a tale of redemption, toughness, and determination—qualities developed on the tennis courts in those tough battles in that hotbed of SoCal tennis. I recently talked with Doug about this experience, how he survived it, the recently settled lawsuit in which he was exonerated—and where he goes from here. What follows are excerpts from our conversation and also from a recent podcast with Doug and Grant Napear who, ironically, was just fired in a Black Lives Matter controversy with his employer, the Sacramento Kings.
Question: What got you through this difficult time?
Doug Adler: Number one, I know who I am. I knew I wasn’t that person they were making me out to be. Two, I never lost faith or the comfort of knowing who I am. Three, I have a lot—a lot—of African-American friends, Hispanic friends, Asian friends; it was my friends from junior tennis and from college tennis, friends that I didn’t even know were that friendly to me. And, when there were downtimes and all the pressure, I had these friends to support me. It was getting that type of reinforcement and feedback. Finally, when I prevailed in the courtroom, I was on my way back.
Question: Was it like ‘cancel culture’ for you?
Doug Adler: Everyone thought it was going to be like that for me when that assault was made on me. Everyone thought I was going to be dust in the wind, history. But no one knew who I was, the perseverance that was instilled in me as a young kid growing up on the public courts of L.A. No one knew the background of a kid with two parents as educators, about all the people in my life, and what they meant to me. If I had done nothing, like my employers wanted me to do, like be quiet and go away, I would have been absolutely miserable … forever. I did something unthinkable. Why would someone like me who was not a John McEnroe or a Martina Navratilova take on the big boys, the biggest corporation in the world? Because they took everything away from me, and I had nothing left to lose. They said if I keep my mouth shut, at least I have a chance of coming back and working again. WRONG! I needed, for myself, to show that what happened to me was not only unjust but couldn’t have been further from the truth. That was motivation for me to fight through a heart attack, open-heart surgery, being fired, and called names that I should never have been accused of. It was just another 5-set tennis match that I wasn’t going to give in to. It wasn’t about other things, like work or money. What mattered was who I am, my voice. By doing that, people started to feel my pain and wanted to be a part of resurrecting my life and my voice.
Question: You prevailed in a lawsuit. Who supported you?
Doug Adler: There were people with a conscience who felt so badly about what happened that they essentially resurrected me. A few of my friends disappointed me, and no big name in tennis supported me; they were all silent. But I was on the Today Show with Matt Lauer with millions of viewers. On Tucker Carlson’s show, Rush Limbaugh, even though I’m not a conservative. But it was someone I didn’t even know [who helped]. Mayor David Dinkins, the late mayor of New York City, who is an advocate and lover of tennis, came out and said the term I used should not be offensive to anyone.
Question: Have you been vindicated?
Doug Adler: Yes, I have, but not 100%. The settlement doesn’t give me vindication. I’ll tell you what gives me vindication: when I got a one-year employment contract from the company that fired me. Those companies never say they’re sorry, they never apologize. They use money to shut people up. When I got that employment contract, that said they were wrong and they let me back on the air.
This is a story about Doug Adler’s redemption. It’s a tale of one of our own from Southern California. It’s also a narrative that shows that words matter. Context matters. And one where internet trolls can cause irrefutable harm—and even death. Like a flash mob that can be judge, jury, and executioner. One day you’re a respected broadcaster, the next a pariah.
It’s also a story of confluence: Where race relations meet social media. Where perceived hate speech meets management philosophy. Where incitement for personal gain meets false accusations. Where decision-making meets jurisprudence. A place where sports and everyday life intersect. Where a government’s administration can fuel hatred and racism. Where the left and the right become even more polarized. A place where you can be buried or be resurrected. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. A good man’s reputation has been restored. A huge company has been held to pay. Social media is finally starting to hold itself accountable—or at least there are some instances of that.
So, welcome back to the broadcast booth, my friend. Welcome back to health. And if there is a moral to the story of Dougie Adler, it might be, learn your lessons from the tennis court. Get tough and determined, fight, and when your back is against the wall, don’t give up. My friend, it looks like you’ve learned those lessons well.
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