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How Olympic snowboarder Shaun White became a part of the #MeToo conversation

Shaun White's death-defying, near-perfect jumps in the halfpipe snowboard competition secured him a place in history as the first American male to win gold at three Winter Olympic Games. But the celebration was short-lived, as a reporter asked the athlete about a 2016 lawsuit alleging he committed sexual misconduct. William Brangham talks to Christine Brennan of USA Today.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was nothing short of an amazing and historic night for Shaun White at the Winter Games last night.

    But as William Brangham explains, soon after White won his gold medal, many fans began learning of disturbing allegations about his past behavior off the snow.

  • William Brangham:

    It was an epic final run.

    Shaun White knew he had to go big to win a gold medal, and he did, executing death-defying, back-to-back, near-perfect jumps in the halfpipe snowboard competition.

    These were tricks that White, the man who revolutionized this sport, said he'd never before landed in succession. The risk was worth the reward: securing White's place in history as the first American male to win gold at three Winter Olympic Games.

    It was also redemption for finishing in fourth place at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

    But the celebration was short-lived, because at a news conference afterwards, a reporter asked White about a 2016 lawsuit alleging he committed sexual misconduct. The suit was filed by a former drummer in his rock band, who claimed White repeatedly harassed and verbally abused her for years, and then didn't pay her money she was owed.

    Among other allegations, she said White texted her sexually explicit and graphic images, forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos, made vulgar sexual remarks to her, and demanded she wear sexually revealing clothes.

    It also said White became increasingly hostile and threatening to her after losing in Sochi. White has admitted sending the explicit images, but denied the other allegations.

    And, at yesterday's news conference, he played down the charges.

  • Shaun White:

    I'm honestly here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip. And I am proud of who I am. And my friends love me and vouch for me. And I think that stands on its own.

  • William Brangham:

    That response incited a backlash on social media, prompting White to apologize this morning on NBC's "Today Show."

  • Shaun White:

    I'm truly sorry that I chose the word gossip. It was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today. Every experience in my life, I feel like it's taught me a lesson. And I definitely feel like I'm a much more changed person than I was when I was younger.

    And, yes, I'm just — I'm proud of who I am today.

  • William Brangham:

    White settled the lawsuit in may for an undisclosed amount.

    Earlier today, I spoke with Christine Brennan. She's a sports columnist for USA Today. She was at that Shaun White press conference yesterday in South Korea.

    And I began by asking about her reaction to these accusations, which, before now, had not been widely reported.

  • Christine Brennan:

    They're awful. I mean, it's jarring.

    It's — they are lewd. They are, of course, harassing, again, allegation, although he did admit to sending the text messages, the pictures that are very troubling.

    You know, I think, for me — and the reason I wrote about this was, one, I didn't know this. And I know that might sound strange. I really never have covered Shaun White and, even though I have covered all these Olympic Games, never been around him.

    You could be the biggest Shaun White fan on the planet, and still, I believe, think that it's important to find out what this is all about.

  • William Brangham:

    Christine, I gather that there are enormous commercial interests that want Shaun White to remain solely a heroic athlete, but given this MeToo moment that the country is having, how is it that this lawsuit got no attention before this point?

  • Christine Brennan:

    I don't know.

    Certainly, in sports, we know that there is adulation, and we know there are fans. So are our people to interested in protecting the reputation of an athlete? Do we maybe not want to know? I think that's something that happens in steroids in sports, performance-enhancing drugs.

    When you go to a baseball game, do you really want to know all that stuff, or do you just want to enjoy the game with your family for a few hours? And I think that's what sports is dealing with.

    I'm going to try to talk to some of the sponsors. I'm sure others will as well. And this is the last thing they wanted, is to have this conversation. But, again, Shaun White in the press conference could have dealt with it in a much more mature manner and spent time answering the questions, as opposed to being shielded and guarded from them.

    So I think it was a missed opportunity for Shaun White in terms of getting the story out there and telling the story.

  • William Brangham:

    It's striking in the sense that yesterday Shaun White is facing these questions publicly on a day that was really the pinnacle of an amazing, successful career.

  • Christine Brennan:

    I marvel at Shaun White and what he's been able to do and the longevity in a sport where one mistake, and you're done. It can be so harrowing, and the accidents can be awful, when something goes wrong.

    You know, he's really a pioneer. I mean, he brought that whole X Games, kind of new age look to the Olympic Games. When you think about the disappointment he had in Sochi, and to come back four years later, and to win that gold medal, that is majestic. That's what the Olympic Games are really about.

    You can marvel at Shaun White and be thrilled at what you saw, and also be intrigued and interested and wondering about him and about the MeToo movement. I think you can have those two potentially conflicting thoughts, and I think that's where we are in our society.

  • William Brangham:

    So, how do we reconcile these conflicting thoughts, people whose accomplishments are so striking, yet they also stand accused of doing awful things? How do we reconcile that?

  • Christine Brennan:

    It can be troubling. And it's tough to watch your heroes fall from grace.

    We have certainly seen a lot of that over the years, whether it's Lance Armstrong, or Marion Jones. Barry Bonds, I guess, was kind of in a perpetual freefall in terms of the allegations of steroid use.

    As a journalist, I would say, we cover it. It's news. And I can still love the Olympic Games. You know, that moment when they bring in the Olympic flag and Olympic hymn plays, I just think, wow, what would 14-year-old me have thought of this, being here at my 18th Olympics?

    But I can also pursue these stories. And whether it's Mike Pence and Adam Rippon last week, or the story this week, I'm a journalist, and this is news. And I'm here to cover it.

    And I do believe sports takes us to important national conversations. So, here we are again. As I said, I think it's a very important conversation to have. And Shaun White is a part of it, and now we're talking about him.

    And I think that, to me, is the end result, to have the conversation. Others will decide where the story lands and where the chips fall.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Christine Brennan, as always, thank you.

  • Christine Brennan:

    William, thank you very much.

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