LOS ANGELES â€” A tennis commentator dropped by ESPN for a remark about Venus Williams during the Australian Open sued the sports network Tuesday for wrongful termination.
Former tennis pro Doug Adler maintains he was describing Williams’ aggressive style last month as “guerrilla” tactics and not comparing her with a “gorilla.”
He apologized for his poor word choice but was let go from ESPN mid-tournament.
Adler claims “emotional distress” in the filing in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging he was wrongly branded a racist and has lost other TV opportunities because of the controversy.
The lawsuit calls for punitive financial damages, but doesn’t name an amount.
ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said Tuesday the network hadn’t seen the lawsuit and had no comment.
The suit points out that “Guerrilla Tennis” was the name of a Nike TV ad from the 1990s featuring Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
“Obviously, (Adler) saw that commercial many times and the phrase became widely used by those who actually understood tennis vernacular and followed the sport closely,” the lawsuit said.
Peter Bodo, senior editor of Tennis magazine, used the term in a 2012 profile of Agnieszka Radwanska, according to court papers.
Adler was doing play-by-play commentary on ESPN for Williams’ Jan. 18 match against Stefanie Voegele, saying Williams was playing more aggressively after Voegele missed serves. When Voegele faulted on a serve, Adler described Williams as moving in and charging with a “gorilla effect” or “guerrilla effect.” Because the words gorilla and guerrilla are pronounced similarly, it’s impossible to say for certain which word Adler spoke.
Offended viewers called for Adler to be fired for comparing Williams, who is African-American, with a gorilla.
At the time Adler said he was speaking about Williams’ tactics and strategy and “simply and inadvertently chose the wrong word to describe her play.”
In a statement emailed in January to The Associated Press, ESPN said it had pulled Adler from broadcasts.
“During an Australian Open stream on ESPN3, Doug Adler should have been more careful in his word selection. He apologized and we have removed him from his remaining assignments,” the statement read.
Adler was an All-American player at the University of Southern California who went on to play on the pro circuit. He was hired by ESPN in 2008 and covered tournaments including the U.S. Open, French Open and Wimbledon
Williams declined to comment on the remark or the ensuing controversy.
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Christopher Weber, The Associated Press