Making Sense of Olympian Shaun White's Victory-Apology Tour

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Shaun White celebrates after winning the final of the men's snowboard halfpipe during the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
Shaun White celebrates after winning the final of the men's snowboard halfpipe during the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

So what's this all about?

Snowboarder Shaun White just did something historic at the 2018 Winter Olympics, but some of his personal history is complicating things—for him and for the media.

The tension between present and past is emerging in the increasingly schizophrenic coverage of White over the past 12 hours or so. On the one hand, there's plenty of coverage that focuses primarily on his current triumph. For instance, "Shaun White Makes History With Gold Medal Win In Halfpipe" (subhead: "He became the first person to win three gold medals in Olympic snowboarding competitions"), per HuffPost. Or for something even more sympathetic and human-interest-y, here's Us Weekly's take: "Shaun White Cries as He Makes History With Third Olympic Gold Medal."

But increasingly, there are headlines like this one, from The Independent (U.K.): "Shaun White makes history with third gold medal but sexual miscondcut claim tarnishes win."

The Independent sums up the controversy:

In 2016, White was accused of sexual misconduct by the female former drummer in his rock band Bad Things, Lena Zawaideh, who claimed the extreme sports star had "repeatedly sexually harassed her and forced his authoritarian management style on her for over seven years." ... In a lawsuit that Ms. Zawaideh filed in August 2016, White was accused of sending "sexually explicit and graphic images to Ms Zawaideh of engorged and erect penises, forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos, including videos sexualising human faecal matter, and made vulgar sexual remarks to her."

White and Zawaideh reached an out-of-court settlement in May 2017.

What is White saying about this now?

Unfortunately, he said something at a press conference in PyeongChang—"Honestly, I'm here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip"—that he almost immediately had to walk back, which is why we're now seeing headlines like this: "Shaun White apologises for calling harassment claim gossip" (BBC).

Oh, and he's also sorry about something else too: "Shaun White Apologizes for Dragging American Flag" (NBC New York).

Do you think he'll lose endorsement deals now?

It's too early to say. It doesn't help, though, that there seems to be rising criticism of White on social media—which the New York Post notes in a story headlined "#MeToo movement not impressed with Shaun White's history-making gold."

He's enough of a cross-over celebrity that he's been on the cover of Rolling Stone twice (both times shirtless, and one time in stars-and-stripes pants). And as Money magazine notes,

Shaun White may be best known for his snowboarding and skateboarding skills, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist has also managed to parlay his athletic career into an impressive financial portfolio—becoming a millionaire before he turned 20 thanks to plentiful endorsement deals. ... He now has dozens of endorsement deals worth millions of dollars each, ranging from contracts with global corporations like AT&T to more niche companies like GoPro.

So far, brands seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach; none of White's known sponsors have publicly distanced themselves from him as of this writing.

Also, keep in mind that White has weathered earlier controversy. See "After Arrest, Olympic Snowboarder Shaun White Apologizes For 'Unwise Choices'," a Forbes story from September 2012.

"I want to apologize for the unwise choices I made over the weekend and for any inconvenience it caused my family, friends, business partners, the hotel and their guests," White posted on Facebook back then. His "unwise choices" manifested themselves at a Nashville, Tennessee hotel and resulted in charges of vandalism and public intoxication.

So what happens now?

Presumably, White continues his current victory-apology tour and hopes against hope that everyone keeps focusing on what he just did on the snow, as seen in this NBC Sports recap:

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