ESPN has settled a lawsuit with a top producer who sued the company for painting her as a racist so it could fire her, the Daily News has learned.
Melissa “Missy” Motha, a former coordinating producer of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship original show, was seeking more than $5 million in back pay and damages after being publicly accused of telling a Black colleague “Your job is so easy a monkey could do it,” according to a lawsuit filed in Connecticut Superior Court.
Motha was fired in July of last year, not long after Celia Bouza, the director of an ESPN development and diversity initiative, referenced the alleged “monkey” comment among other accusations of Motha’s inappropriate conduct during an ESPN virtual meeting attended by 1,000 people last June, according to the court documents. Bouza, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, also said in the meeting that Motha “verbally harassed” several underlings, according to the suit.
The settlement money was significantly lower than what Motha was seeking, according to a source familiar with the situation. Bouza and Motha both declined to comment when reached by The News.
“The matter was swiftly resolved to our satisfaction,” ESPN said in a statement.
In her lawsuit, Motha claimed the attacks were manufactured to justify her firing because ESPN was cutting costs. It also claimed that Norby Williamson, the ESPN executive in charge of SportsCenter, told her the dismissal was unfair and that she should sue the company.
Williamson, through an ESPN spokesman, denied saying that to Motha.
Disney slashed 500 jobs from ESPN last year, laying off 300 people and permanently leaving 200 other jobs unfilled. It amounted to a roughly 10% reduction in ESPN’s workforce. The network has seen declining revenue between cord-cutting and the pandemic, opting recently for pared-down productions.
Motha had been at ESPN for 24 years and had 22 months remaining on a contract paying her a base salary of $220,000 per year, according to the court papers. The lawsuit sought the remaining pay, plus damages.
Motha alleged her reputation was destroyed because of ESPN’s smear campaign, and that she ultimately suffered “severe depression and hopelessness and, on one short occasion, her hospitalization.”
In June 2016, she was promoted to a key producing role in the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, a show that became a flashpoint for the struggles with racism at ESPN.
Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, who are both Black, took over the show in early 2017. But the pair’s run barely lasted a year amid a series of political skirmishes, including Hill calling Donald Trump a white supremacist. Then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders directly called for Hill’s firing.
Just after Motha’s dismissal in July of last year, the New York Times published a story citing dozens of ESPN employees who felt the network’s leadership was too white and failed to retain Black talent.
Motha’s lawsuit cited decades of glowing performance reviews, backing up her 20-year rise from a temp job to a lead producer earning multiple six-figures annually. The suit claimed the only HR complaint against Motha came in February of 2020 for being “too familiar” on the SportsCenter set.
According to the suit, Bouza told the crowd in the meeting that Motha drove off a producer with her 2014 “monkey” comment. Motha denies making the comment at all in the suit, but also claimed ESPN was aware of the allegation before agreeing to her new three-year contract in 2019.
The suit isn’t clear whether Bouza referred to Motha by name.
“As I fast forward three years later, my talented friend is gone, right? The retention piece is gone and she is no longer working here,” Bouza said in the town hall, according to the lawsuit. “And now I am in a new role as Director of ESPN Next and I am told that this same leader that used that disgusting language with my friend is now using very similar acts of harassment with the entry level employees of the program that I am in charge of.”
The suit accused ESPN of breach of contract, and both ESPN and Bouza of defamation, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Bouza was separately accused of tortious interference.
It was filed shortly before Christmas and settled last week.
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