Shaun White and backlash culture


One of the most well-known American Winter Olympic athletes, 31-year-old snowboarder Shaun White, accomplished an amazing feat on Wednesday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, producing an electrifying final run in the men’s halfpipe to leapfrog Japan’s 19-year-old phenom Ayumu Hirano to capture his third gold medal in four Olympics.

The feat itself was a story, but the media storm in the aftermath of White’s gold medal victory was just as intriguing, and indicative of the current level of backlash in our society. Nowadays, it’s only a matter of time before the backlash comes, regardless of how beloved a figure may seem at the time.

In this case, it came almost immediately via social media. Many athletes and celebrities took to Twitter to congratulate White on his accomplishment, but some questioned whether we should be celebrating a man who was accused of sexual assault in 2016 in a case that was eventually settled out of court.

In the ongoing #MeToo culture, many prominent faces have come into question, leading to trepidations among people who call themselves fans of the accused. It’s an interesting moral quandary. If your favorite celebrity has been accused of sexual misconduct of some kind, should your feelings toward them change?

Some might say that they won’t give their support to anybody who may have sexually harassed another person. Others might say that accusations aren’t proof, or if a person was convicted,  it’s totally separate from their exploits in their field, and those exploits can still be enjoyed. It’s certainly a point of contention, and one that will be brought up repeatedly as more prominent figures have dirt dug up about their pasts.

Curiously, NBC chose to cut to figure skating in lieu of interviewing possibly the greatest snowboarder ever after one of the greatest feats in his career, so the first comments we heard from White came in the press conference which followed the medal ceremony. The media members there began to question him about the 2016 lawsuit, and if it might tarnish his legacy. He said he preferred not to speak about what he called “gossip,” understandably wanting to focus on his tremendous win. That comment brought a whole new wave of backlash, and he issued an apology for his wording on an appearance on NBC’s Today later Wednesday.

That just illustrates how strong the backlash cycle can be: within a few hours, White won a gold medal, faced an initial onslaught of backlash (and a fair amount of praise, to be fair), responded to it, then faced another onslaught of backlash for his response to the backlash. On one hand, who can blame White for wanting to talk only about the Olympics in the afterglow of his win? On the other, it’s fair for people to call him into question in light of the scandal. It’s a huge gray area, and one that won’t be made black or white anytime soon.