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A tennis commentator who was fired from his job at ESPN for controversial comments about Venus Williams is denying accusations of racism and says a misunderstanding has cost him his career.
Doug Adler spoke with Matt Lauer on TODAY Friday about the aftermath of his comment on Jan. 18 during Williams' match at the Australian Open that led to his dismissal, which prompted him to file a lawsuit against ESPN for wrongful termination.
"It just makes me absolutely sick,'' Adler told Lauer about being branded a racist. "It's not true. It couldn't be further from the truth, and I don't quite understand nor accept how something like that can happen to me."
During Williams' match against Switzerland's Stefanie Voegele, Adler was describing Williams' aggressive play when he said, "Venus is all over her. And you'll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on, charging."
Many viewers interpreted it as Adler referring to Williams, an African-American, as a "gorilla," not "guerrilla,'' which he strongly denies.
"Nothing to do with an animal,'' he told Lauer. "Everything to do with tactics, strategy, how to win the point."
Adler, 59, who is a former professional player himself, was pilloried on social media but had no idea until the next day when his boss told him he had been branded a racist.
"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. Are you kidding me?' And he said, 'It's unbelievable,''' Adler said. "He said, 'We all know what you meant. We all know what you said.'
"(I've) never been a racist. I've never looked at color. Have never even thought of that term until this whole situation came up."
Adler claims the "guerrilla effect" is a phrase that has been used in tennis for decades, including in a 1995 Nike ad with the name "Guerrilla Tennis" that featured Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
Williams issued a short response when she was asked about Adler's comment during a press conference at the Australian Open.
"I pay attention and address situations that are noteworthy,'' she said.
"That's exactly the way I read into it,'' Adler said. "It was nothing."
ESPN asked Adler to apologize on air and then fired him the next day. He is now suing the company for wrongful termination.
"If they have good cause to do it, they have the right,'' Adler said. "But they didn't have good cause, and I didn't do anything wrong. And they didn't get into it and explore. They didn't do due diligence."
Adler continued: "If they threw me out to the wolves and basically, essentially labeled me a racist, they killed me. They made me unemployable. They ended my career. They killed my reputation, my good name. What else was I supposed to do? To me it was the easiest decision to make. I'm not going away."
ESPN denies all the allegations in the lawsuit. A representative for Williams declined to comment to TODAY.
"Adler made an inappropriate reference to Venus Williams for which he felt no apology was necessary," ESPN said in a statement to TODAY. "We disagree and stand 100 percent behind our decision to remove him from the 2017 Australian Open."
In the wake of his firing, Adler became obsessed with Twitter, responding to all his critics on social media until he said it caused him to have a heart attack on Feb. 25. He had no previous history of heart issues, he told Lauer.
Adler also believes that if he were a more well-known commentator or former tennis superstar that he would not have been fired.
"It would not have happened to John McEnroe, it would not have happened to Martina Navratilova,'' he said. "(ESPN) would have put the time, the energy, and the resources into defending those people because they did nothing wrong. I was easily disposable. I was easy to get rid of."
Adler has found an ally in former New York mayor David Dinkins, an avid tennis fan. Dinkins, who is African-American, said Adler did nothing wrong and his comment was misinterpreted.
"It should not have been taken that way by anyone,'' Dinkins told TODAY.
Adler, who had also worked major tournaments like Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the French Open for various media companies before his termination, is admittedly having difficulty trying to move on.
"I agree there is a great degree of anger there, and I'm not happy about the anger, but it's what's happening,'' he said. "That's what's happening with me and until I'm proven, fairly, that I didn't do anything wrong, I think it's gonna sit with me."
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