Changing the Game
Published on December 10, 2017
Story by: Erin Fish
Photos by: Kristin O’Grady
He grabbed her face, shoved his hands down her pants and man-handled her.
A scar of his thumbnail on her stomach remains. It is the constant reminder of the worst night of her life.
That scar is visible, but there is another one that is more complicated, one that has emotionally scarred her. A scar that scar lingers, ever painful, and she is constantly reminded of it every day of her life.
She lives an incredible, humble life of service and compassion. That life is what defines Keri Potts now. Not a thumbnail left on her stomach by a drunken wretch of a man.
You see, when that predatory monster decided one night that his sexual wants were more important than the safety and dignity of Keri Potts, well, he picked on the wrong woman. She has since made it her mission to help others. She has, and she will continue to do so. This incredibly smart, tenacious and passionate woman is completely changing the game.
Landing the Job
Keri Potts, a former academic All-American standout volleyball player at Syracuse University, was on her way home from an interview with the NCAA for a writing and publications editing job. The woman sitting next to her on the flight asked why she was wearing a suit, so Keri explained that she had just come from a very important job interview and the woman smiled, intrigued by Keri’s sincerity. For the remainder of the flight, they discussed Title IX, the need for more women in sports, how the world belonged to them and the importance of strong women taking action and making decisions within traditional structures. The woman’s name was Barb Schroeder, who Keri later found out was the President of the Division II Management Council for the NCAA. When Schroeder got off the plane she made a phone call: “You have to hire her. She’s the kind of woman we need.”
Keri worked for the NCAA for three years and seven months. The longer she worked there and the more championship events she experienced, she realized how much she loved the intersection of sports, communications, and media relations. After three years of valuable experience, Keri began to explore other opportunities and she reached out to her Syracuse connections.
When Keri attended Syracuse, she worked for the athletics department. Being a student athlete and working there, the faculty was a second family to her. She had worked for Coach Jim Boeheim one summer, so when she called him and asked him if he knew of anyone in the industry that she could bounce some ideas off of, Coach was happy to help. He told her about a Syracuse alumni, John Wildhack, who was working at ESPN. Coach Boeheim said Wildhack would be great for her to talk to and that he would give him a call.
Boeheim called Wildhack and told him ESPN should hire Keri. Although Wildhack was in production, he told Boeheim that he was more than willing to connect with Keri and help her in any way he could. The two built a strong mentor-mentee relationship through their networking connection. Wildhack grew to believe that Keri was smart, personable and passionate. When a job opened up in the communications department at ESPN, all he could do was crack open a door; after that it was up to her.
Sue Edson who, at the time, was the Director of Athletic Communications at Syracuse, called ESPN as soon as she found out Keri had applied for the job. She only made calls when she felt comfortable and after working with Keri, there weren’t many, if any, positions that she wouldn’t recommend Keri for. She believed that her skillset, personality and passion was exactly what every company should be looking for. Sue called her friend, Josh Krulewitz, who worked in public relations for ESPN to recommend Keri.
Whatever it was that ultimately convinced the hiring committee that Keri Potts was the right person for the job, ESPN and the rest of the world would soon be better off because of it.
Dream Date Turned Nightmare
Keri Potts was on vacation in Italy with her friend, Lynn. On her last night, she decided to go out for drinks with a charming Italian artist named Marco, who she had met earlier that day. It had been a couple of years since her last relationship and Keri had been talking with Lynn about how hard it was to meet nice guys. She figured she would give Marco a chance.
When they met for drinks, Marco drank rum. The two looked through a book of his paintings and they talked about art and Italy. Marco talked about how a lot of artists are into sex and drugs but all he needed was art. Keri laughed and said that was good because he wasn’t getting any sex from her. He laughed and said that he would rather talk with her and then he kissed her. He suggested they go back to his apartment to see the view from his patio. They were on the same page; she was comfortable.
Six floors up; it was a beautiful view. They talked and walked to a bar down the street. He drank more rum as she sipped her wine. He talked louder and louder; he bought a bottle to go. “Lighten up and enjoy your last night,” Keri thought as she and Marco walked back to his apartment.
She heard glass break in the other room. When Marco came around the corner and thrust the bottle of rum toward her, Keri knew it was time to leave. He handed her a glass of rum and Keri walked inside from the patio, set the glass down and told Marco she was going to head back to her hotel. He then tried to hand her marijuana and she refused.
He grabbed her face.
Marco grasped the back of her neck with a strong grip, kissed her and drew blood biting her lip as she tried to push him away.
He shoved his hands down her pants.
Marco forced his right hand into Keri’s jeans, trying to undo the button.
He man handled her.
Marco put both of his hands on Keri, pulling her body into him while shoving his hands into her underwear; she felt his fingernails scrape her.
When Marco said in nearly perfect English, “You’re not going anywhere”, Keri knew that she was in danger. The hair stood up on her neck and her stomach dropped. She tried to collect herself before she turned to face him. The charming man who she had met earlier in the day had become absolutely predatory.
Keri was smart. She had been out on the patio earlier and knew that was her way out. After a physical fight for her life with Marco, she finally pushed him hard enough that he fell backward and she was able to escape his grasp. She jumped over the wall to clear the patio and her sweater got stuck on the railing, which gave Marco enough time to catch up to her. He reached over, grabbed her neck and tried to pull her back up while she kicked and pulled in the opposite direction. Her sweater finally ripped and she fell to the balcony below.
Keri put her 5’10” athletic build and intelligent mind to use and hurdled herself rooftop-to-rooftop down five stories to escape this monster. She eventually wound up on a balcony with nowhere else to go, so she knocked on the back door. The resident let her cross through his apartment and told her how to get back to her hotel.
She pressed her ear against the door to hear if he was on the other side but she could only hear her heart beating out of her chest. What if he had been watching her climb down the whole time?
She took a deep breath, burst through the door and ran for her life. She sprinted all the way back to her hotel.
Keri was scheduled for a 9:00am flight but after deliberating over the personal, professional, legal and financial ramifications, she decided to go to the police station. She was afraid, but she knew in order to fight her fear she had to get as much information as possible.
Keri’s knowledge of the Italian legal system came to rival that of lawyers. Utilizing her PR background, she strategically broadcast her story, hoping it would bring people forward to help her. She wanted women to be aware that when an assault occurs overseas, prosecution and justice is possible. This was extremely important to her.
She focused on places that women and travelers would look to. She got together with an old teammate, Erin Zammett Ruddy, who worked for Marie Claire and the two wrote a four-page article about her story. The Travel Channel also did a piece on her and Discovery ID did an entire episode in their series, Dates From Hell. Keri also created her own blog to include any more information that she felt had been left out.
Her first time ever publicly speaking out about her assault was at the Clinton School in February of 2011. Afterward, eight women and one man lined up to speak with Keri. With tears in their eyes, they greeted her with hugs and shared their stories of their experience with assault and rape. In that moment, Keri had never felt more inadequate in her life. She knew then, that she needed to do more to help others.
Keri went on to receive training and her certification in rape and crisis counseling. More and more places reached out, asking her to speak and each time, she would refine her message. Over the course of those years she would take the questions that people had and shape them to fit her presentations. Keri, being the selfless human being that she is, never wanted her speech to be about her; she wanted it to help every other person in the room.
Through the Discovery ID episode, Keri was connected with a man named Roger Canaff who is a former special victim’s prosecutor out of the Bronx and a JAG attorney in the military dealing with sexual assault. Canaff had been used in the episode as an expert on prosecution of sexual assault. He was part of an organization called, Ending Violence Against Women International. When introduced to him, Keri was overwhelmed with gratitude that this man was able to speak to her. She explained to him that she wanted to talk to people who have been assaulted overseas and he connected her with people that he knew, which is how Keri ended up on a list serve called Counter Quo.
Watch Your Language
She didn’t it know yet, but what she was about to hear would shape the forthcoming of her career. Keri was in Boston attending a conference at Northeastern University with Counter Quo. There was a woman at the conference by the name of Claudia Bayliff. At the time, Bayliff was working for Legal Momentum on the prosecutorial team of Kobe Bryant’s trial. Keri listened to Bayliff talk that day about the use of language. She explained how the word “accuser” shapes everyone’s thoughts about that particular victim with a negative connotation and how engrained in the vernacular it was, especially through its heavy coverage by the media. Working for ESPN, Keri left knowing the heavy coverage was partially her fault.
She went back to the news room and asked everyone to take a look at the word accuser and how negative it could make the victim seem. Keri was instantly shot down. She was told that the word existed beforehand and there was nothing they could do to change it. Another moment of feeling inadequate for Keri Potts where she realized, in order to affect real change, she needed knowledge too, not just passion. The next time someone tried to shoot her down, she would have done the work and she would come back swinging harder.
For years, Keri became particularly keen to language. Every time she would read a story she would pay attention and write letters and emails to the editors asking them to change their wording and explaining why the use of the language was important to the story. People would write Keri emails from all over the world asking for help or telling their stories and she became used to helping people through their pain. She was doing more and more work as a victim’s advocate so she started to have a more thorough understanding of the crime. For five years Keri learned the scope and scale. She did the research and went to the conferences and seminars. She was finally in a place where she knew how to articulate this, she knew how to make arguments for anyone coming at her, and she knew how to be persuasive.
Preaching to the Choir
“Well, she shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.”
This is a classic phrase that is used in discussions of sexual violence that blames the victim and forgives the perpetrator. When Keri Potts heard that phrase used by an on-air personality at ESPN after Ray Rice physically assaulted his fiancée, she knew that something needed to be done about their use of language.
Continuously Keri would reach out, but she never could get the right person in the extremely large company. Finally, Keri approached Stephanie Druley, SVP of Production. She explained the inappropriate and hurtful phrasing used by ESPN and convinced Druley to let her speak to the company about their responsibility in choosing their words wisely.
August 2nd, 2017.
It was the first time she ever did the presentation with a media organization. She had 30 minutes to present to 300 of her coworkers who were a part of the college networks.
Her nerves and vulnerability led to an authentic presentation that left many people in tears. Keri used every moment of the 30 minutes to grasp the attention of her colleagues and help them to fully understand the importance of the language of violence. She received a standing ovation, the response overwhelmingly positive. The emails flooded her inbox, her coworkers who hadn’t realized they were part of the problem, wanting to open their minds and educate themselves. Keri was extremely grateful for the powerful woman who trusted her, lifted her up, and ultimately gave her the opportunity she had only ever dreamed of.
After the presentation to the college team, Keri found out that in September, her presentation would become required training to all on-air talent and production at ESPN.
For two days Keri couldn’t eat. Trying to take in food, but her stomach would instantly reject it. Nerves had completely taken over. These were people that Keri respected. They may or may not have even known who she was, but she was going to stand up in front of them and in a way, show them all they had been doing wrong. She was afraid she would be rejected and mocked like she had been years ago but then she remembered, this time she had the work to back it up.
The first presentation she gave was at 10am. Keri left feeling like she could’ve done better. The next presentation wasn’t until 4pm, so Keri sat for four hours listening to calming music and practicing her speech. Everything she had was left out on that stage during that 4 o’clock presentation. She doesn’t know that she will ever do that presentation better.
From Then, To Now
ESPN has now created a guide that will no longer use the word, “accuser.” The news division has decided to abandon the word because it has a negative meaning that dehumanizes the victim. Instead, they will use “woman” or “man” as a replacement. The company will be the first company to completely remove the word from its vernacular.
Keri believes there will always be sexual predators in the news, but if we can change the way we talk about the victim and the perpetrator, we can become more aware of how deliberate these predators are.
Nine years since the nightmare in Italy and Keri reflects on the positives in her life today. She is now on the board for an organization called Pathways to Safety International, a resource for overseas victims of sexual assault, a dream opportunity. Dealing with the criticism of victims is infuriating and taxing but she truly feels invigorated by her work and feels it’s something she’ll continue to do for the rest of her life.
I am a student at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University. On October 23rd, Keri Potts gave a presentation to the Newhouse Sports Media Center and what I learned that day completely changed my outlook on life. This woman traveled back to her alma mater, not to talk about herself or all of the amazing things she is doing at ESPN, but instead she came to share her personal victim story with about 25 students whom she didn’t know. She presented to us on the use of language and I will forever be aware how important the use of language can be. I showed up thinking I would learn about what it meant to be the senior director of public relations for ESPN.
Instead I learned courage. Keri Potts is extremely brave to stand up and share her story in order to teach a group of students about the importance of sexual assault and violence. It can’t be easy to share a personal victim story, but Keri understands the importance of education on the topic.
Instead I learned honesty. Keri Potts does not hide from her true self. Sexual violence is an uncomfortable topic that Keri is extremely passionate about. She makes everyone around her feel more comfortable when discussing the subject.
Instead I learned strength. Keri Potts has endured great tragedy and has overcome hardship. She stood tall clenching her fists, tears in her eyes, telling a room of engaged students how she faced her fears head on.
I walked away from that presentation having learned what it means to be a powerful human being. Keri Potts is an incredible person that has done so much good for this world already.
Keri Potts has completely changed the game.