ESPN sex scandal: When you play the field, beware of fame's double standard


Just weeks after he confessed on his show to having had two sexual affairs with female staffers, talk-show host David Letterman is still on CBS's airwaves, late-night after late-night. CBS officials have said there haven't been any sexual harassment complaints about the gap-toothed comic -- and anyway, it's a matter for Worldwide Pants, Letterman's production company, to sort out, because it's WP that produces the show.

So why was Steve Phillips (pictured) unceremoniously tossed from the booth as ESPN's baseball analyst after revelations of a workplace dalliance? In short, because he's not David Letterman.

For the famously private Letterman, this was the first time the public had caught him with his worldwide pants down. But Phillips, 46, has been in trouble before. The former general manager of the New York Mets, Phillips was placed on "extended leave" in 1998 following allegations of sexual harrassment. More recently, Phillips's ESPN colleague Brooke Hundley, 22, revealed their affair to Phillips's wife, who filed for divorce in September. ESPN fired Phillips last weekend. Phillips is entering a treatment facility "to address his personal issues," a representative said Monday.

"The lesson here is that it really depends on who you are," says Linda Henman, author of The Magnetic Boss and a veteran executive coach for Fortune 500 companies. "The question I always ask my clients is, which is more important: the person or the rule?" Henman, who has consulted for Boeing, Coors, Kraft, and Merrill Lynch, says, "If David Letterman gets fired, there's no show. He's pivotal. He's a rainmaker for CBS."

But the silver-haired Phillips evidently wasn't important enough for ESPN to defend him, Henman says. "He was a prime player at ESPN, but he wasn't pivotal to its success, or at least somebody doesn't think he was," says Henman. "I'm actually shocked they fired him. It makes me think they didn't think he was that valuable to the organization to begin with."

Considering how blasé the public has become about sex scandals, Henman wonders whether other factors were at play in Philips's firing. And she feels that ESPN risks backlash from its predominantly male audience, who may sympathize with Phillips for his setbacks by a former lover and then by his employer. "I think the guy who's sitting back, drinking a beer, eating Cheetos, and watching sports may kind of feel bad for him," she says, though she adds that many men will surely condemn his behavior.

Companies need consistent sexual harassment policies to set the right example for employees, Henman says: "Don't have a rule if you aren't willing to fire your most valuable employee for violating it."