Inside Olympian Shaun White’s Disturbing Sexual-Harassment Case
Explicit texts, groping, and threats of violence. The gold-medal-winning snowboarding legend settled a graphic lawsuit last year. Why is no one talking about it?
Every two years, the Olympics manage to make our scary, disconnected world a little bit better, uniting audiences through awe and a shared desire to ogle IOC-approved hotties. Unlike most trending topics in 2018, the Olympics is feel-good through and through. Even the most jaded Americans will find themselves cheering on Chloe Kim, looking up clips of Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel, and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the men’s figure skating scoring system so as to best complain about the snubbing of Adam Rippon.
Amidst all of this patriotism and good cheer, it’s easy to elevate every Team USA member to god-like status. After all, these athletes can do things on ice, snow, and skates that the rest of us could only dream of doing on the ground. For a textbook example of an American Olympic athlete assuming mythic proportions, look no further than snowboarder Shaun White.
NBC promoted its Winter Olympics coverage with a Super Bowl ad devoted entirely to the two-time Olympic gold medalist. The ad highlights White’s single-minded purpose as he prepares for Pyeongchang. The Super Bowl spot concludes, “Shaun White is the best of U.S.” It makes sense that NBC would invest heavily in the Shaun White story; the only thing that makes a proven winner more compelling is a comeback, and White certainly has something to prove in the wake of scoring in fourth place at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. According to Slate, “White is the star of NBC’s Olympics show, and his victory, according to the network, would be one of the great triumphs of the Winter Games.”
But just as a re-centering of women’s voices and experiences has called various powerful men into question, an honest assessment of Team USA would tack an asterisk on to all of Shaun White’s promotional material. White, like many successful and celebrated men, has reached a settlement in a sexual harassment case. Disappointingly, NBC has entirely failed to mention these allegations in its Shaun White coverage. While it is clearly within NBC’s interests to slalom around this potential scandal, it’s rather shocking that, according to Slate, “No major news outlet mentioned the harassment suit between May 2017 and last week, when New York magazine’s the Cut released a video titled, ‘Snowboarding Superstar Shaun White Was Accused of Sexual Harassment.’”
In 2016, Lena Zawaideh sued Shaun White, alleging sexual harassment, wrongful termination and nonpayment of wages, among other complaints. Zawaideh was the drummer and only female member of Shaun White’s rock band, Bad Things, for seven years. According to USA Today, Zawaideh initially sued for breach of contract in May, but by August her lawyers had filed an extensive new complaint seeking both punitive and compensatory damages. That complaint alleged that White “repeatedly sexually harassed [Zawaideh] and forced his authoritarian management style on her for over seven years.”
According to the suit, “White sent sexually explicit and graphic images to Zawaideh of engorged and erect penises, forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos, including videos sexualizing human fecal matter, and made vulgar sexual remarks to her such as, ‘Don’t forget to suck his balls!’ when commenting on her boyfriend. At one point, White stuck his hands down his pants, approached Zawaideh, and stuck his hands in her face trying to make her smell them.” The offending texts sent by White also included arguably racist, explicit images of black men. The complaint further alleged that an intoxicated White attempted to kiss Zawaideh at a Halloween party in October 2010; “Another time, White put his buttocks directly in Zawaideh’s face. Still another time, White grabbed Zawaideh’s buttocks shortly after leaving practice for the day.”
The filing additionally stated that, “As the financier of Bad Things, White used his role to imposed a strict regime over Zawaideh, going so far as to demand that she cut her hair, wear sexually revealing clothes and underwear, and refrain from wearing red lipstick—her own personal signature.”
Images of the texts that White allegedly sent Zawaideh were included as exhibits in her new complaint. One of the explicit texts is a pornographic image paired with an exhortation to “be a team player.” Another text from “Shaun” reads, “I need u to go out in the morning and have your hair cut in a new style at shoulder or above but keep your bangs. This is really important to me.” When Zawaideh responds that she’s “confident and happy with” her long hair and not willing to cut it, he replies, “That’s disappointing…are u sure this is the decision u want to make…” later clarifying, “your decision to not do what I’m asking.”
According to the complaint, this exchange occurred the night before Bad Things’ last show of their 2014 tour. At the end of the tour, “Zawaideh went home with the assumption that she was still a member of the band. After not hearing from White for some time, Zawaideh was informed by another Bad Things member that the band continued to rehearse and perform without her,” according to the suit. Zawaideh was later informed by the band’s new manager that “White decided to part ways with her.” In the complaint, she alleged that she never received any of her contractual payments for 2014.
Zawaideh also claimed that, during their regular band practices, White “consistently acted inappropriately.”
The complaint continued, “White would constantly refer to Zawaideh as ‘bitch’ and show her sexually explicit images and videos. For example, at one point, White yelled out to Zawaideh, ‘Hey, have you seen this video?!’ White then proceeded to show Zawaideh the ‘Shake That Bear’ video on his computer. ‘Shake That Bear’ is a disturbing video of a couple killing a bear and then having sex on top of it. Another time, White called Zawaideh over and forced her to watch ‘Church of Fudge.’ ‘Church of Fudge’ is a video where the viewer is subjected to hardcore porn involving a priest, a nun and fecal matter. This behavior made Zawaideh feel extremely uncomfortable. However, Zawaideh would acquiesce because she did not want to cause problems in the band or be terminated. Zawaideh was only seventeen or eighteen years old at the time. White was twenty-two or twenty-three years old.”
Other anecdotes from the complaint alleged threatening behavior. Around March 2014, after failing to win a medal at the Olympics, the suit claimed that White became “increasingly hostile”: “For example, on a few occasions when the band was practicing, White gestured that he was going to backhand Zawaideh. He yelled out uncalled for remarks such as, ‘I’ll fucking slap you.’ Zawaideh was fearful that White would hit her.”
In response to Zawaideh’s allegations, White confessed to sending the texts and issued the following statement through his attorney: “Many years ago, I exchanged texts with a friend who is now using them to craft a bogus lawsuit. There is absolutely no coincidence to the timing of her claims, and we will defend them vigorously in court."
Zawaideh issued her own statement, insisting, “I am pursuing this case because women should not have to tolerate harassment at work. Shaun White should not be allowed to do whatever he wants just because he is famous. Although I am embarrassed to have been treated this way, I cannot sit by and watch him do this to other women.”
According to USA Today, the snowboarder “vigorously contested the suit” and requested that Zawaideh undergo a mental health examination in response to her claims of emotional and mental distress. White later withdrew that request, and in May 2017 it was reported that White and Zawaideh had reached an undisclosed settlement.
Less than a year later, is Shaun White really the “best of the U.S.?”