The Pain You Can’t See
From the trial to the diagnosis, how Erin Andrews endured the most difficult year of her life and came out stronger than ever
The MMQB staff writer Emily Kaplan discusses how Erin Andrews was able to keep working while fighting cervical cancer.
Her safety belt clicked shut. As her highly public and emotionally draining civil trial entered a weekend break, Erin Andrews sunk into her seat, wishful that her flight—Nashville to Minneapolis to visit her boyfriend—would allow for two hours of solitude. Not so. Her seat neighbor kept glancing over.
“It’s horrible,” Andrews says. “Anytime I’m in a situation where I feel like I’m being stared at, I’m paranoid, I get defensive, I’m on edge. I’ve created this situation where I always wonder, Has that person seen me naked?” Andrews noticed her neighbor Googling her name. Her stomach dropped. Is he going to search for the video? Instead he sent a text:
“OMG I’m sitting next to Erin Andrews.”
A few seconds later, the reply: “Hahaha wow. I can’t believe she’s actually on a public plane. I thought she was scared of big crowds.”
Andrews snapped out of her gaze. “Hey,” she said, sternly. “I’m a real person, you know.”
The man fumbled with his phone as he stashed it into his pocket.
“I’m so sorry,” he told her. “I really didn’t mean that.”
“That’s O.K.,” she replied. “It’s just, things like that bring me pain.”
Andrews first shared this story in June. Earlier this month, as she sipped coffee in a hotel lobby the day before covering a playoff game in Green Bay, she was reminded of the incident. She fiddled with her cup through the retelling, at one point wincing. “I know it’s not healthy,” she says, her voice low and apologetic. “It’s something I’m working on. I feel like I have to win every battle. I feel like I have to prove to people that this has hurt me in ways that you probably can’t see.”
* * *
In 2008 a stalker followed Andrews to a hotel in Nashville. Michael David Barrett filmed her by altering the peephole in the door to her room. At her civil trial last winter, she relived the incident in horrific detail. Jurors screened the footage. A computer scientist, summoned by Andrews’s lawyers, estimated that 16.8 million people had seen images from the video. Andrews’s father testified that once the footage hit the Internet, he feared for his daughter’s safety. “After I saw what was happening,” Steve Andrews testified, “I thought, There’s a stalker out there that could easily kill her.”
The images of Andrews at her civil trial—she brought a $75 million lawsuit against Barrett and West End Hotel Partners and Windsor Capital Group (the two companies that manage the Nashville Marriott) for negligence—were occasionally jarring. Her eyes were puffy from crying; at one point she broke out in hives. But if you look at photos of Andrews entering the courtroom, you see a woman with a game face. She’s pissed—pissed that people treated her case as a joke, pissed that her family had to be dragged into it. On the day she had to testify, Andrews walked onto the stand stoic but angry. “I thought of people in sports I admire,” she says. “I was channeling Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. I said, ‘How would the Packers’ offensive line walk up to the stand right now?’ ”
Her lawyers purposely used football as a psychological tactic. During direct examination, Andrews’s lead attorney asked her questions about her job. As she talked about working on College GameDay for ESPN, or with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in her current job with Fox, she lit up. When lawyers switched to discussing the tape, Andrews withdrew. Her face became blotchy.
During the closing arguments Andrews’s lawyer methodically laid out every mistake the hotel made, every action that enabled Barrett’s crime. Andrews sat on the bench, sandwiched between one of her lawyers and a paralegal. “I was on the verge of tears,” she says. “But I was scared that if I started to breathe, the jury would hear me sobbing.” And so Andrews counted to 10, in the most calming way she could imagine. Who is a player who wears number 1? Cam Newton. Two? Matt Ryan. Three? Russell Wilson. . . . Soon, it was over.
* * *
A few days after the images of Andrews hit the Internet in 2009, the case came across the desk of Wesley Hsu, chief of the Cyber and Intellectual Property Crimes unit at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles. “We knew a crime was committed,” Hsu says. “We just didn’t know what the crime was. We needed to analyze where it fit in our criminal justice system.”
Once the FBI confirmed that Barrett filmed video at two different hotels, meaning it was a pattern, Hsu identified the case as a potential violation of the Violence Against Women Act, specifically of its stalking statute.
“Although there were a lot of state stalking laws, this particular portion of the Violence Against Women Act had not been used, as far as I can tell, in this manner,” Hsu says. “The stalking statute talks about crossing interstate lines to do certain things, usually if you actually physically harm people.” In Andrews’s case, Barrett didn’t have any intention of approaching her, and yet Hsu prosecuted anyway—and won. In March 2010 Barrett was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
In the seven years since, Hsu has become a leader in cyber crime prosecution, specifically pertaining to what he calls emotional hacking. In 2012 he prosecuted Christopher Chaney, who hacked the emails of dozens of celebrities including Mila Kunis and Scarlett Johansson, then leaked nude photos. Chaney was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
“At the time of Erin’s case, there were certain segments that were of the opinion, Well, what was the harm really?” Hsu says. “[Some] even said it was good for her career. But I believe her case, plus the Chaney case, has helped sway public perception because of their magnitude. Our office has done many cases involving the involuntary posting of images, famous or not, and I can say, uniformly, judges are now taking them very seriously.”
There is room for growth. Technology is changing faster than public policy. Laws vary from state to state. There are loopholes that allow many video voyeurism and cyberstalking cases to slip through.
Some solace for Andrews came in the form of the civil-trial verdict, delivered last March. The jury determined that both Barrett and the management companies were liable for Andrews’s distress; she was awarded $55 million in damages. (The management companies appealed, and then settled the case in April for an undisclosed amount.) She felt empowered, she says, by “fighting for victims who don’t have the resources I have.
“There’s somewhere I can fit in here, I just need to figure out where. I want to get in front of Congress; I want to get in front of lawmakers in D.C.; I want to try to strengthen laws. I just need to find the right group to align myself with. I’m making that my project once the Super Bowl is over.”
Throughout the trial, Andrews was comforted by support from her broadcasting team’s otherwise all-male crew (Aikman sent an inspirational text each morning) and by how many men in professional sports extended encouragement. Andrews received dozens of messages from the likes of Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. (Meyer’s text on the day of the verdict: “[My wife] Shelley and I have been thinking about you. Justice served.”)
“Football is such a huge part of my life,” Andrews says. “It helped me get through the trial. On the witness stand, I said being on the field is ‘my happiness, my escape,’ and I truly believe that. I couldn’t wait to return to the sideline.”
* * *
We just need to run a few tests, doctors told her.
The checkup, last June, was otherwise routine.
“After the trial,” Andrews says, “I felt the need to simplify my life.” So, in negotiating her new contract with Fox, Andrews requested to be taken off MLB coverage so she could focus solely on the NFL.
Four months later, Andrews was in a meeting at the Giants’ team facility on the Saturday morning before the Week 3 game between New York and Washington. Her doctor’s number popped up on her phone. Andrews excused herself. She was calling with the results of the follow-up tests, which were now conclusive: cervical cancer.
Andrews would need surgery, and soon. “When you hear the word cancer, you fear the worst,” her father says. “When it’s your child, you think to yourself, you think to God: Take me, not her. She has been through enough. She is just getting her life back.”
Andrews did not tell colleagues of her diagnosis. She worked that Sunday’s game, then flew home to L.A. She missed the Monday and Tuesday tapings of Dancing with the Stars; ABC said she took time off to support boyfriend (now fiancé) Jarret Stoll and his grieving family. (Stoll’s 17-year-old nephew had been killed in a car accident that weekend.) That, in part, was true. But Andrews was mostly dealing with her diagnosis.
Surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 11. Before she was wheeled into the operating room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Andrews gave strict orders to her oncologist: “I’m not watching any football games at home. This is [Fox’s] Super Bowl year, and I’m not missing the Super Bowl.”
“Let’s not worry about that right now,” said Stoll, who was by her side. “Let’s just get you better.”
Andrews wouldn’t back down. “You wouldn’t miss a game,” she told Stoll, who played 13 seasons in the NHL. “You’d play through any injury, do whatever it takes to get back out there. That’s going to be me.”
“Should I have been standing for a full game five days after surgery? Let’s just say the doctor didn’t recommend that,” Andrews says. “But just as I felt during my trial, sports were my escape. I needed to be with my crew.”
Steve Andrews had joined his daughter in Green Bay, and he remembers her lying down a lot that weekend. She normally spends free time watching tape with Aikman or squeezing in workouts, but instead she retreated to her hotel room. “It must have been a week later, but I noticed she wasn’t really herself,” says Rich Russo, who directs Fox’s telecast.
“Are you O.K.?” Russo asked. “Yeah, I’m fine,” was the response. Soon after, she revealed to her colleagues that she was not.
“After the trial everyone kept telling me, ‘You’re so strong, for going through all of this, for holding down a job in football, for being the only woman on the crew,’ ” Andrews says. “Finally I got to the point where I believed it too. ‘Hey, I have cancer, but dammit, I am strong, and I can do this.’ ”
* * *
An NFL broadcast enters living rooms and sports bars with such polished curation, it’s easy for viewers to take its orchestration for granted. Aikman and Buck, celebrating their 15th season as partners, can communicate with each other entirely nonverbally while narrating a 3 1⁄2-hour broadcast. Andrews joined the team full-time in 2014. “Throughout my career, all I’ve ever wanted is to just fit in,” Andrews says. “That I had this extra baggage with the scandal, I didn’t want to be any different. I felt that way about being sick too. I don’t want players or coaches to look at me differently.”
“I’ve always seen Erin as a role model for my daughters,” says Shelley Meyer, who became close with Andrews when the reporter covered Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators. “Because when you watch her on TV, you aren’t distracted by the fact she’s female. She’s just a reporter.”
Adds Buck, “There are parts of our broadcast that would be s--- if she weren’t so good at feeding us information.”
Andrews worked for the two weeks after undergoing her surgery. She didn’t think about cancer, just football, Dancing with the Stars and more football. On Nov. 1, a Tuesday, she returned to Cedars-Sinai for another procedure. “This is it,” she told the oncologist. “Fourth-and-two, fourth quarter. Let’s do this.” On Nov. 17 the doctor called her: The margins were clear. There would be no need for radiation or chemotherapy.
In Florida, where Andrews grew up and learned to love sports by watching with her father, a television journalist himself, Steve Andrews closed the door to his office. “I gazed out the window and quietly wept,” he says. “Such an incredible weight had been lifted off her shoulders. I try not to think about what happened to her too much. But when I do, and I consider the enormity of what Erin has endured, I’ll often just sit down and cry.”
In Week 1, as she was covering Cowboys-Giants in Dallas, she introduced herself to Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants’ defensive end is suing ESPN for publishing a picture of his medical records last summer. “I know we don’t know each other well, and I don’t know where you are with your lawsuit,” Andrews said. “But for someone who just fought a huge battle with privacy, all I have to say is, Whatever you need, I’m right there.”
On Oct. 30, Andrews was in Atlanta to cover Falcons-Packers, in what would be a foreshadowing of the NFC championship game. She approached Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb during pregame warmups. The sixth-year veteran would not play that day because of a hamstring injury. “How are you?” Andrews asked. “Sorry you’re not doing so well.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get there,” Cobb answered. “But how are you?” There was a pause. “You know, I never told you this,” he continued, “but I never really understood what you went through. I knew bits and pieces, but after following the trial, I just wanted to tell you I have a new respect for you.”
Andrews’s eyes welled up as she heard those words, standing on the 30-yard line of the Georgia Dome, exactly where she wanted to be.
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