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Sportsnet women felt they were expected to 'deal with' Zaun's offensive comments


TORONTO — Sportsnet's firing of baseball analyst Gregg Zaun came as no surprise to some of the network's female staffers. What they could not understand was why it took so long.

The day after the former Blue Jays catcher was fired for "inappropriate behaviour and comments," two Sportsnet employees painted a picture of an offensive workplace environment where sexist comments are tolerated, and they have feared speaking up.  

"Zaun's on-air brand and image was based around aggressive masculinity so when he wore (undershirts) around the office and made rude sexual comments directly to women, or in close proximity of women, with the clear intention of making us uncomfortable, it was sort of implied: that's who he was, deal with it," said one employee, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals at work.

"I think he was able to get away with this for so long because as a woman at Sportsnet, you certainly didn't feel empowered to report the inappropriate behaviour of a former professional athlete nicknamed 'The Manalyst,' especially to an all-male senior management team."

Zaun, 46, began a part-time broadcasting career with Sportsnet following the 2006 season. He initially signed a two-year deal as a MLB studio analyst with Sportsnet in 2011 and continued working with the network until his termination.

Zaun played 16 major league seasons, including five years in Toronto from 2004-2008, and captured a World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997.

"(Zaun's firing) happened because finally somebody felt comfortable enough to speak up," said another female Sportsnet employee, who never worked directly with Zaun. "But it's unfortunate that for so long, if you think of how long he's been with the network, there's a control room of so many people and there's not one person who feels comfortable to flag that this isn't right."

The 20-something employee, who also didn't want to be identified, spoke about offensive comments that stretched beyond Zaun.

"It is openly accepted that over intercom (between the studio and in-game staff) we can objectify women in the stands of hockey games, we can discuss girlfriends and wives of professional athletes and use language that should not be accepted under any circumstances," she said. "I have received text messages complimenting what dress I was wearing, and how an individual wanted to ride the elevator alone with me. It's unfortunate that it's been a situation where I now keep notes on things."

"I'm one of those people who don't feel comfortable enough bringing it to another level right now."

Neither of the women who spoke to The Canadian Press filed complaints against Zaun.

His dismissal comes amid widespread sexual harassment allegations in the film industry, politics and the newsroom with prominent figures such as producer Harvey Weinstein, news anchor Charlie Rose and "Today" host Matt Lauer among those accused.

Zaun did not immediately return multiple requests for comment made through his representatives, his website or LinkedIn account.

Asked about the allegations made by the two women, Rogers Media president Rick Brace said via a statement: "It's really important to us that our employees feel comfortable sharing their feedback openly and honestly. We are truly committed to an open and transparent workplace where everyone feels respected. We encourage anyone with concerns to raise them with us."

With the wave of sexual harassment allegations reaching the sports world, Zaun's firing had social media abuzz.  

"Many have been asking when the #MeToo movement would hit sports," ESPN's Sarah Spain tweeted. "The first domino has fallen. Can only imagine the fitful sleep of all the perpetrators out there who have, up until now, enjoyed the safety of an industry long overdo for a reckoning."

Leanne Nicolle, whose sexual harassment complaint against Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut led to his resignation in 2015, wasn't surprised by Zaun's dismissal. 

"Honestly, sport is 20 years behind where the rest of everyone else is," Nicolle said. "Sport, when it comes to dealing with harassment in this type of culture, is still so far behind even where we are in society, so I don't think this is the end of sport figures being called out.

"I don't think he's the first, I don't think he'll be the last. Sport is going to have a day of reckoning, in my opinion. I hope they're prepared for it."

Nicolle is a former executive director of the Canadian Olympic Foundation, and is a member of numerous boards of directors including Canada Soccer and the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS).

She applauded the Sportsnet employees who came forward to complain about Zaun, and said her inspiration for speaking up was her 18-year-old daughter, who's a university athlete.

"The fact that generation has to be able to be empowered to stand up and say 'We're not going to take any sort of gender-based discrimination, we're not going to stand for gender-based violence. Enough,'" Nicolle said.

CAAWS CEO Allison Sandmeyer-Graves hopes this is a watershed moment in sports. 

"There are some bigger questions that organizations in sport need to look at as they try to learn from this, which is: What is our culture? What if this happening here? How much have we been tolerating, and what do we need to do about it?" Sandmeyer-Graves said.

"There's some momentum right now, and I hope organizations and individuals are sitting up and taking notice, and using it as an opportunity to be really reflective about what their behaviour is, and not just doing a quick glance and going 'No, we're all good,' but really taking this very seriously and being proactive."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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