A former ESPN tennis analyst who sued after being fired in 2017 due to his description of Venus Williams’ style of play can move forward to a trial of his case, a judge ruled Thursday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Feffer said there are triable issues of wrongful termination and negligent infliction of emotional distress in Doug Adler’s lawsuit and she denied ESPN’s motion to dismiss the case.
Adler, now represented by the law firm founded by the late Johnnie Cochran, maintains his use of the word “guerrilla” was misinterpreted by some critics, many on social media, who thought he was using the racially offensive term “gorilla” regarding the black tennis star and her performance in the Australian Open.
The term “guerrilla tennis” was meant to describe aggressive tactics, but ESPN “bowed to the Twitter universe of haters and those ignorant of tennis who thought (Adler) used the word gorilla to describe Venus Williams that day,” Adler alleges. In her ruling, the judge said a jury should decide if Adler was using a term of art or offensive language.
Feffer noted that “Guerrilla Tennis” was the name of a Nike TV commercial in the 1990s featuring Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
The judge said a jury should also be left to decide if ESPN was negligent in its alleged representations to Adler that he could keep his job if he issued an apology crafted by the network rather than one he dictated himself.
Adler attended the hearing and raised his right fist in triumph after hearing Feffer’s ruling. Outside the courtoom, Adler’s lawyer, James Bryant, said the judge’s decision was sound.
“All we wanted to do was get the chance to get our case before a jury and now they’re going to decide the issues,” Bryant said.
Trial is scheduled Oct. 15. The suit, filed in February 2017, alleges that other employers shunned Adler following ESPN’s firing of him shortly after the Jan. 18, 2017, Williams match. Filed in February 2017. ESPN Senior Vice President Mark Gross remains a co-defendant with ESPN because he allegedly made the decision to fire Adler on behalf of his employer.
Feffer granted a plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the network’s vice president, Jamie Reynolds, as a defendant.
ESPN attorneys stated in their court papers that Adler “issued an apology on Jan. 19 saying he was speaking about Ms. Williams’ tactics and strategy and that he chose the wrong word to describe her play.”
The network “concluded that he should have been more careful in his word selection and (ESPN) exercised the right remove him from providing announcer services for the remaining three days of ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Open,” according to ESPN’s court papers.
ESPN attorney Raymond Bertrand told Feffer that there was worldwide reaction to Adler’s remarks and that the plaintiff was an at-will employee who was not guaranteed before his dismissal that he would be chosen to work during the network’s ensuing Wimbledon coverage.
But according to the plaintiff’s court papers, Adler agreed to apologize on air in reliance upon ESPN Senior Director Don Colantino’s promise he would remain employed by the network. Colantino wrote the apology Adler read to viewers, the complaint states.
After giving the apology, Adler says he was removed from the broadcast booth and prevented from calling the match he was scheduled to work. The next day, Adler was asked to leave the premises and Colantino told him ” that his services had been permanently terminated,” Adler’s court papers state.
“Plaintiff ultimately fell into deep depression and suffered from a massive heart attack,” according to Adler’s court papers.
Adler lives in Los Angeles and was an All-American player at USC. He was hired by ESPN in 2008 and covered the U.S. Open, French Open and Wimbledon. He alleges the network ruined his sterling reputation cultivated over 40 years, during which he announced some 3,000 matches.