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Now, onto this week’s newsletter. When I reached out to congratulate Adrienne Lawrence on her new book, Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Workplace Sexual Harassment, she told me that I was mentioned in the acknowledgments section and that our interactions for a story that was ultimately killed had helped shaped the book’s chapter on working with the media. This was surprising to me because I always felt really awful about what happened. That experience was the genesis for this interview.
how adrienne lawrence is staying in the game
Adrienne Lawrence recently published her first book, Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Workplace Sexual Harassment. Lawrence knows a thing or two about the topic — not only is she a lawyer, but she was also the plaintiff in a high profile workplace harassment suit against ESPN. The two reached a settlement and Lawrence agreed to dismiss the suit in December 2019, the terms of which were not disclosed.
I first connected with Lawrence in April 2018, shortly after she filed her lawsuit. She was looking for a reporter to help tell her story in a women’s publication. We spoke for an hour and I began pitching the story around. It was a surprisingly hard story to place, but a large women’s magazine eventually commissioned the piece and I spent the next five months reporting it. After multiple rounds of edits, it was killed by the publication; I have a nearly 3,500-word story that has never seen the light of day. I never was able to place it anywhere else.
It was a story that I believe complicated a lot of things about how we think about these stories. Lawrence filed a lawsuit that ruffled a lot of feathers — of powerful people inside ESPN, yes, but also of other co-workers whose stories she shared in her suit (more on that later). She was diagnosed with autism in the aftermath of the suit (which was, in her words, “pretty awesome”), which she says illuminated so many things about her interactions with former colleagues and highlighted the ways in which autistic women are highly vulnerable to sexual violence.
I thought it would be really interesting to talk to Lawrence, not just about her book, but for us to be in conversation about what the experience of working so closely on a story like that was like, one that was ultimately killed — from both sides of the equation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congrats on your book!
Adrienne Lawrence: Oh, thank you so much. It's funny. Just the whole congrats thing because I actually have very little recollection of writing it.
Why is that?
AL: The PTSD. Because it heightened everything that I now know is autism. It heightened everything that that's always been me in terms of intensity and the ability to dive into things so that you're siloed. I could go for hours on end and not physically get up from where I'm seated other than occasional bathroom breaks. And as a result of that, you're just left with no consciousness of what you did, if that makes sense. But I know [the book] is cited and sourced, so I don't have those problems, but it is still one of those things where I have little to no recollection of writing the vast majority of it.
When did you start working on the book?
AL: I started writing in the summer of 2018.
So, soon after your lawsuit was filed in April. Was something that you already were thinking about before you filed the lawsuit?
AL: Oh, absolutely. I wanted people to be in a position where they could be of help to others. And they could say, ‘Hey, here's this book,’ as opposed to having to stick their neck out, because the reality is the system is set up to silence and to punish anybody who tries to help other people. So until that day changes, I wanted people to say, ‘hey, you'll read this book that will tell you everything you need to know.’ And also to have it be informed and research-backed and all those other things.
It needed to happen, for someone to step out into that space because everything written on the topic was legal reference manuals or memoirs. That helps people, don't get me wrong. But for someone to directly tell you what to do and also have the research-backed in full so that you know it's reliable. It's something you could keep with you like a Bible because it's a business book for a significant issue that keeps the vast majority of women out of workplaces.
I think the structure of the book itself is really brilliant, the way that you've written it as a playbook. Both for the sports reference, but also for the really effective way it allows you to divide the chapters up. How did you come up with that structure? Is that something that came to you right away?
AL: Oh, yeah, dude, I'm Princess Organization. Like, I am just a little walking computer with dimples who loves to share information and pieces weird things together. And so I really just contain a considerable amount of information that I love, love to give. But for me, I wanted to understand, why do these companies keep harass-holes around? So I explain those things. And unfortunately, explain also why, why these companies just continue to entertain this nonsense.
I was trying to meet everyone's questions, but also equip and arm them for workplaces. It's an important, yet very difficult dance to do, because what excites me in terms of knowledge probably does not excite the vast majority of people. So it was very difficult even though I was able to do it in terms of condensing it down. I still think that the book is rather lengthy but in terms of condensing it down and making sure that individuals had all of the information that they needed so that they felt truly equipped and empowered. And that was fun.
One of the things mentioned in the book (on pages 198-199) is what to take into consideration when sharing a co-worker’s experience in a lawsuit. You speak from personal experience on that and I know you took a hit in the press for doing that when your suit dropped. At the time, you told me: “When it comes to hostile work environment, an injustice to one woman is an injustice to all women in the workplace. Thus, there is no ‘my story’ and ‘your story’ — they’re ‘our stories.’ Breaking confidences is never easy, but sometimes it's necessary to protect others. If breaking a culture of silence reduces the chance of another woman suffering the same fate at the hands of the same man, I’ll do it — even if the cost is great.” I’m wondering how you feel about that now.
AL: As I indicate throughout the book, these companies follow a playbook—and retaliation is their “go-to.” I never used their stories to help myself but to protect them. I cared about my colleagues too much to let what happened to Ann Curry and Gabrielle Union happen to them. Witness tampering statutes apply to impending lawsuits. And when going against a shady employer with considerable means, it’s best to avoid any appearances of impropriety that can be waged against you in court. It would have come out in discovery, regardless, given text messages, emails and personal knowledge. By putting it upfront, [you’re protecting your co-worker because it limits your former employer’s ability to retaliate against them]. It’s arguably a form of non-cooperative game theory. I’ve incorporated game theory throughout the book when it comes to strategy.
You and I started talking in April of 2018, and we talked for several months while I was working on that big story for [redacted women’s magazine] that was ultimately killed. So when you told me that I was in the acknowledgments for the book, I was really surprised because I've always felt really terrible about that profile getting killed.
AL: Oh, you shouldn't feel bad about it at all. Not at all. No, not at all. I do not want to see [that profile]. I would not be ashamed if the world saw it. It's just it's one of those where I have very little recollection from those times. It's you know, it's really difficult when you are having you're essentially living an out of body experience.
What kind of space were you in during that time period?
AL: You really just think, ‘Oh, they just took my job away from me. Not a big deal.’ I learned a long time ago not to associate your job with your worth. So I had that handled.
But I did not really realize what was going on in the background of my mind, and I don't necessarily know to what extent the combination of things, how they contributed to [the PTSD], whether it's the attacks on social media and those manufactured text messages ESPN put out and just feeling extremely isolated and alone. I don't know how they worked, in terms of contributing to the situation.
But I can tell you that I was in what I now know to be that whole fight or flight or freeze mode of PTSD. I used to work out six days a week, minimum. It was a passion of mine for the last 17 years, and I just stopped working out entirely. It became daunting, even just going to the grocery store to buy food. I was up at all hours and could not sleep, my mind was always running. My throat felt like it was closing. I tried to eat and I could not eat anything. I felt sick at all times. I ended up developing an obsession with applesauce, I’d buy those kiddie packets of applesauce because they were easy for me to consume and because my throat felt like it was closing, they would just it would go down a lot easier. And that was all I was consuming and I wasn't even consuming that on a consistent basis. I started wasting away.
My biggest concern was that they would commit me because I couldn't eat. It wasn't that I didn't want to, but it was that I couldn't. And then also on top of that, my speech started to slow and I couldn't understand why. I was unable to formulate sentences. And that was something very much that told me, okay, you need to get help. They gave me Zoloft and that changed the game. I also have a girlfriend who is battling cancer and she was like, ‘Cannabis.’ I don't smoke because my lungs are no good. But I can do edibles. And so being able to get edibles changed my world.
I remember talking to you on the phone at the time and your voice often sounded hoarse. I wrote in the profile of you in 2018, “As the #MeToo movement shows no sign of slowing down, more and more women are going public with their stories of workplace sexual harassment. But once the initial news stories fade, much less is known about what happens to these women next. How does someone’s life change after they go public with their story? ‘It’s very difficult to recover from something like this,’ Valerie Johnson, a Durham, North Carolina-based lawyer and co-host of the Sex at Work podcast about sexual harassment in the workplace, told me at the time. ‘It is hard for women to be traumatized in this way and then… a lawsuit is almost additional trauma, where you’re recounting all of this for the courts and you have the added trauma of recounting it in the media.’”
It's wild how the body works when it is coming from trauma. And people don't realize that because, as the vast majority of so as my book explains, this isn't about being touched. You know, it's like yes, if you are sexually assaulted, that is a level of trauma that will definitely mess you up. But you can still endure trauma through various aspects of life and through various types of mistreatment. And the fact that I really try to implore upon people in my book is that sexual harassment is no joke. It can mess you up and legal battles, even as a seasoned lawyer who is very skilled, that can mess you up. Your body will respond, even though your mind thinks that you're fine. It's not. That's just not how it works.
And in your case, it was the harassment itself. And then it was compounded by the response of the company and then you were going through a lawsuit and then there was a public response and continued online harassment. So the trauma, of course, was compounding on itself. It wasn't just one isolated thing.
AL: Exactly. And then working at Madden and having that mass shooting. Those boys saved me because ESPN made clear, ‘you'll never work in media again.’ And then finding myself not only working in media but in sports, but then also ending up back on ESPN [doing Madden broadcasts]. Those boys were a safe space for me and my co-workers there are the most amazing people on earth. So feeling like I was in a safe space and then having that mass shooting, like everything just compounded.
I want to pivot a little bit to talk about your book and specifically the chapter that you'd mentioned to me that you learned from our interactions, the chapter on the media. I think it's a section in the book that not a lot of people even think about: what is going to happen when you do go public? And then how do you even prepare yourself to deal with media since there's so much you just don't know if you've never done it?
AL: To me, the media section was really important because our lives are all in the media nowadays with social media, in particular. And also, as we saw with the #MeToo movement, sometimes your story will come out in the media whether you have control over it or not. And to know how it works, and how to talk to people about it is so incredibly important. Because some people don't fully understand the media and the fact that not everybody's here to tell the truth. And some people will skew your story in a way that gets clicks. And that can be really unhealthy and bad for you to entertain those kind of things because it just compounds your trauma.
And then also, one of the reasons I wrote the media chapter was to highlight the fact that you want to find the right person to talk to and to work with, and how you do that because it's so important when you're telling your story. As Lisa Guerrero notes, it might be your only chance for justice, or only chance to get the word out. And so making sure that you are partnering with the right person is imperative.
What are some things you think people should be looking for when deciding who to trust with their story? You reached out to me and we worked together for months on that story. Obviously, there was some reason that you trusted me. What are things that you look for?
AL: Well, specifically for you, I looked at your social media, the things you've said, and things you've done. People really enjoy — journalists included — talking about what's popular. But if you're willing to put out there and have full conversations on that which is unpopular, that speaks volumes about who you are, and those hard conversations and I think that sexual harassment and standing up to it is still extremely unpopular, #MeToo movement included. So finding people who are truly invested in telling the story and telling it right, and also have invested in the time to get to know the proper language, and the way in which it's presented and how that can re-traumatize people, even or skew a story in a very unfortunately patriarchal way. So having someone who has invested the time in knowing that and disabusing themselves of the patriarchal nonsense that's been put on us by way of our culture and societal norm. It's so important when it comes to telling stories.
I want individuals to be able to maximize the reporters’ time because you guys don't have a bunch of time and also to you're so incredibly underpaid for what to do, and to have someone who's also been through a traumatic experience, try to communicate things to you all. I wanted to be able to guide them to narrow their story down to highlight the things that are most important because even though they've been through a situation that's traumatic, they may not have a full understanding of what is newsworthy because generally, most people think everything about their lives is newsworthy. Oh, and don't annoy people. That little tab at the bottom says, “Don't be a nuisance.” You taught me that.
AL: It's because I was a nuisance! I'm out here sending you long-ass emails and diatribes and stuff. I was actually just looking for someone to talk to because I was isolated, but still, it's like I realized when you started not responding as much it’s because I was a nuisance. But also, I was in a very special place. So I don't know, but I included that because don't be a nuisance.
Well, for what it's worth, I never interpreted it as you being a nuisance. I interpreted it as you wanting to make sure that I had the information that I needed. And I was very cognizant of the fact that you had told your story publicly and that there was a lot of other stuff going on: you were worried about whether ESPN was trying to stop me from being able to tell my story, you were being harassed and wondering whether there were social media campaigns against you that were being orchestrated by ESPN [note: ESPN denied these allegations when I asked about them in 2018]. So I understood that you had a reason to… I don't want to say want to control the narrative, because I think that everyone should have agency over their narrative. I wanted to make sure that was clear. But I think to me, it just felt more like there were so many people working against you that you wanted to make sure that I had what I needed and that your perspective and where you were coming from was clear.
AL: Yeah, it also it really sucks when you have to worry about honeypots and you're at a very heightened point. So not only is your body and your mind already battling its own stuff with PTSD, but then on top of that, to be bothering the people around you and the things that are happening to you. It's a hell of a thing. Which is probably why I've blocked out the vast majority of it.
But something else I learned while writing this book: a lot of the times when I was engaging with you, I was using terms I didn't fully understand the meaning of, like “off the record” and stuff like that, I remember using those things. And when I wrote out my book, and I did my research on them, and I'm like, these terms often mean different things to different people. So I felt bad about that, because I was always telling you “off the record” stuff. And then realizing later on what that actually means. When I just meant, “Hey, yo, don't print this from me.” I think that's really important, which is why I also included it in my book so people have a better understanding of it.
I think a lot of people say “off the record” when they mean “on background.”
AL: Yeah, girl. That's exactly right.
Often what I'll do if I think that may have been the case is I will circle back, especially if it's something that I wasn't able to get confirmed by another source, which is what off the record would do. Like, if you told me something off the record, and then I get somebody else to tell me what you told me then it doesn't matter that you told me anyway because I confirmed it in another way. But if that's not the case, often I'll go back and say, “Would you be okay with me using this information, but not attributing it to you?” And usually, people are fine with it. Usually, they told me because they wanted me to have it.
AL: Yes, that's right.
But I think it's a good point, and particularly when dealing with stories of a sensitive nature. I think the other thing, too, about working on the story with you, as I said earlier, we talked for several months, I was connected with a lot of your friends, your colleagues. I did a lot of reporting on my own through ESPN and trying to get them to talk to me while there was active litigation. And then at the end of it, the story was killed. And I think that people outside of journalism, or who may have not worked with the media before, don't even know that a story being killed like that, especially without a good reason, is even a thing that could happen. What was that like for you? After you've invested a lot of time in me and helping me tell the story and then for it not have been able to run?
AL: It felt very par for the course. In terms of, I'm taking on very powerful people and who have a lot of friends and so the reality that they will do everything they can to silence me was very real. But at the same time, too, I think that's where you also have to realize that people don't go after things that they're not threatened by. So when you change that mentality and you realize, damn, these people are really afraid of me. That can be used to bolster your mentality and realize, like, Hey, I'm really on the right track. I'm doing right thing. I am standing up and I am fighting in the fact that these people are coming after this physically little girl. It speaks volumes.
[Note: the story was killed by the publication and I was given no reason, and I have no evidence that anyone featured in the story or outside of the publication had a hand in having the story killed.]
I will say that the editor I was working with directly felt really strongly about running this story and fought like hell above her head for it.
AL: I believe you. I always believed you. But honestly, I was full-on shoulder shrugs. This is where we are. But I actually felt really bad for you. Like that's how you survive and take care of your kids and the thought that you would spend time thinking, ‘Hey, I'm going to get paid for this’ and then just for them to screw you over, like I felt terrible.
I got a 25% kill fee for a story they already were not paying me enough for, so I got a couple of hundred dollars for my months of labor. *laughs* I felt I felt bad for you because you entrusted me with your story and I felt like I had failed to tell it and get it out there.
AL: You were perfect. And I know you tried your best and I just felt so bad. And I was also so weird at the time because I was trying to be cryptic about things because of being in the lawsuit and it was just, it really was a very special encounter.
Well, you also around this during the time that we were in conversation with each other — and I don't think we ever really got to talk about this because it was after the story was written and kind of in limbo — you also were diagnosed with autism.
AL: Oh, yeah.
Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like and how that's changed things for you?
AL: Oh, I can tell you that was pretty awesome. It explained so much. Like, not necessarily understanding people's behavior. For example, when people would say, ‘Oh, I don't know, I'll let you know.’ I actually think they're actually thinking about it when what they're really doing is a brush off. And I'm not able to pick up on that there are so many communicative elements that are difficult, like me directly telling [John] Buccigross, ‘I am not interested in you. I do not want anything romantic with you. I am looking solely for a mentor, are we going to have a problem?’ And this person saying no. And then it proceeding the way it did, the fact that I would trust someone. And also the fact that people would say to me, ‘how did you not see that as someone coming on to you?’ It’s because I trust people's words.
And so just getting that confirmation of, ‘Oh, this is what's going on.’ It was, god it made me feel so good, in part because it felt like I finally had the answer to why? I am following the rules, and I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. But I'm somehow getting it wrong. And, and one of the most beautiful things about it as well is that now I'm able to harness these things. I embrace them. It's a big part of me.
I think it's so important to stand up for other women like me, to help them understand that they're not wrong. And that what they're doing is right, and they're perfect just as they are. Something that is also very passionate to me is in the arena of sexual violence, because we are uniquely targeted for sexual violence. We [women on the spectrum] have a very, very high rate of victimization in large part because we take things at face value. So because I believe you when you say you're not romantically interested in me, I believe you when you say, ‘Oh, no, I'm asking you to go to this wedding with me as a friend.’
Having the intellectual acumen to be able to sit down and write a book in like a month or less that people really enjoy, like it's a great thing, but not being able to determine when someone is actually preying upon you is a hell of a thing. Women on the spectrum tend to be far better socialized than men, which is why we end up learning later in life that this is why this is happening. And this is why we process it this way. I want people to recognize us, and that we deserve a place, especially in the #MeToo movement, because we are vulnerable.
You can purchase Lawrence’s book, Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Workplace Sexual Harassment, at Bookshop.org.