ESPN and Gender Issues: Why We Shouldn’t Expect Anything to Improve

The so-called ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’ has been anything but a leader in its recent coverage of gender issues in sports. 

From its odd coverage of Michael Sam’s career journey to barely mentioning a thing about the first woman to become a fulltime NBA coach, the list of examples is seemingly exhausting – and they seem to keep on coming. All things considered, ESPN may as well just stop this week’s coverage of the Ray Rice scandal considering they ruined any shot at reasonable discussion on the topic months ago when Stephen A. Smith made offensive comments about women provoking domestic abuse. 

In hindsight, the network was already off to a poor start in the gender issues department. It has failed miserably in its efforts to ramp up its women’s coverage since the launch of ESPN W in July of 2010. ESPN W was made out to be a positive step in the right direction; instead it has served to be no more than a sad way for the network to stash its women’s coverage on a separate, hidden page while boasting that it increased coverage of women’s sports. Moreover, women’s coverage is rarely featured on the mainstream area of the network’s website. In fact, I tracked the online coverage of the hiring of coach Becky Hammon and ESPN only allocated a middle-of-the-pack headline on the site’s sidebar – and for a very short period of time. Hours after the news broke, her name was completely gone from the front page of the network’s website even though she was named the league’s first full-time female assistant coach.

On the topic of Michael Sam, viewers became increasingly annoyed at the way ESPN drilled the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year onto headlines on a daily basis for trivial reasons – an obvious reflection of modern day media practices to boost ratings and traffic – but this annoyance reached a climax when Josina Anderson talked about Sam’s showering habits on live television. Despite this, the NFL’s first openly gay draftee has handled the media attention with ease and continues to remain humble. He is patiently sitting on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad and we could hear his name called to an NFL roster anytime. 

Meanwhile, shifting gears back to the Ray Rice scandal that is continuing to unfold, Stephen A. Smith is continuing to use his national platform as a way to continue his relentless narrative by saying this week that Terry O’Neill, the President of the National Organization for Women, has “lost her mind” for saying NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should be fired over the incident and that the domestic violence issues in the NFL have been “dealt with.” Far from it. Although ESPN “suspended” Smith following his initial comments earlier this summer, the network most likely enjoys his controversial manner because it fuels engagement among its consumers. 

Over time, it has become clear that ESPN, aside from a few notable contributors and writers, is not equipped with the proper writers and on-air talent to navigate the realm of gender issues and diversity as a whole. The network does bring in expert voices and writers from the outside, which helps to some degree, but this is not consistent enough and ultimately the wrong people end up having the final say on the national stage.

As long as ratings run everything and until ESPN is actually challenged – and I mean seriously challenged with pressure – the network will continue to do what it wants without much resistance.

The irony of Nike’s LGBT Sports Summit

Oh, the irony.

When I had first learned of a new LGBT Sports Summit, I was thrilled because it meant we would be bringing about a much-needed discussion about LGBT and human rights issues in sport.

But then I learned that it was going to be sponsored by Nike.

Nike is using the issue of LGBT rights to cover up the fact that it has long neglected human rights.  Instead of being able to stamp a “made in the USA” sticker on its products, Nike has long had a tradition of taking advantage of other countries where minimum wage is shockingly lower than in the United States. A 2001 BBC documentary highlighted cases of child labor in Nike factories and showed six girls who worked seven days a week and worked two shifts per day. Furthermore, Nike has even pulled contracts with colleges after student protests exposed the company’s abusive conditions abroad. The supervisors in these factories abroad are so brutal that one worker even said he had his mouth taped shut.

Despite Nike’s claims that the company has since cleaned up it’s act in recent years, it is just yet another attempt by the company to mask it’s abuse and unfair conditions. Just a few months ago, there was a report that workers in an Indonesian Nike factory were intimidated by the military and forced to sign a petition exempting that factory from having to increase wages. According to ABC, there is footage of a supervisor telling the workers that they “have to” sign the petition.

“We got summoned by military personnel that the company hired to interrogate us and they intimidated us,” said one of the employees.

Nike made up some kind of story about how there would be an investigation, but released a statement which said that “Nike expects contract factory workers to be paid at least the minimum wage required by country law.” The problem with this is the whole reason Nike has factories abroad, which is to take advantage of lower minimum wages in that respective country.

So as we hear endless reports about how Nike completely disregards human rights, how can we take anything seriously from them about LGBT rights? The very reason an LGBT sports summit even exists is to bring about discussion and to obviously improve human rights for gay people. The company is only contradicting itself.

Until we start seeing Nike making sincere changes, I don’t see how we can take the company seriously with an LGBT Sports Summit.

The significance of Jason Collins’ opening line

I vividly remember a moment during my semester abroad in South Africa when I was sitting on the Jammie Steps at The University of Cape Town. I was discussing issues of race with a student who is black and South African and he asked a question I will never forget.

“Why do Americans always call black people ‘African-American’ when many are not African at all?” he asked.

I really didn’t have anything to say except, “Great question.”

From that point forward, I’ve paid special attention to the linguistic choices made by the American media when referring to race. Perhaps one of the most profound examples arrived last week with Jason Collins’ article for Sports Illustrated, which was co-authored by Franz Lidz.

Collins set a great example for the LGBT community with his coming out story last week, but what many people don’t realize is that he also helped correct the countless number of Americans who use the offensive term African-American.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center, I’m black, and I’m gay” was about as powerful of an opening line to an article as you’ll find.

And he did it right.

I learned many things while studying abroad in South Africa last year, but perhaps nothing was as important as realizing how wrong Americans can be with the linguistic choices about race. The term African-American is overused and offensive to many black people in America, yet nobody even thinks about it. This term assumes that black people are automatically from Africa when the reality is that many black Americans are not African at all. Calling a black person “African-American” without knowing whether he or she actually is from from Africa only serves to “other” black people even more by failing to recognize them as a regular Americans. It is almost like an asterisk except it replaces the asterisk with “African.”

And while we sit and realize that this term has evolved into one about race, it is difficult not to think about the Americans today who are African-American and how they feel when others call themselves African even when they are not. Or how about the African-Americans who are not black – how do they feel when this country tries to frame a term about nationality into a term about race?

Taking it one more step further, the other issue is that people cannot even argue that the term African-American can be used to classify a nationality because Africa is an entire continent making up over 50 countries. We often hear of people who are Italian-American or Canadian-American, but rarely do we ever hear of someone who is a white Zimbabwean-American. Who knew?

The impact of Jason Collins’ SI article was felt nationwide and worldwide, and his decision to describe himself as black in the opening line instead of African-American was wise and smart. The SI website had some of its highest traffic ever last week and that article helped plant some seeds in the minds of many Americans who need to rethink the words they use in describing people of other races.

Jason Collins’ coming out story shows reality of LGBT progress

I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

-Jason Collins

Think back to February of 2010 when Tim Tebow was featured in a Super Bowl commercial for Focus on the Family, a homophobic organization that campaigns and fundraises against same-sex marriage and even once opened an ex-gay ministry.

If it were discouraging enough to see bigotry distributed through millions of televisions and computer screens across America, Tebow’s unique rise to fame as a late-season replacement and later as a backup quarterback allowed conservative hate groups to raise him up on a pedestal to serve as an example of someone who practices “traditional family values,” the offensive term used to intentionally exclude LGBT people by saying that there is only one kind of family: One with a mother and a father.

But since that Sunday evening in the winter of 2010, there has been a remarkable shift in acceptance for LGBT people in sport. While we often speak of the 1969 Stonewall Protests as a major turning point in progress for equality, we can even look at the last few years as a major turning point for sports.

People around the playing field such as members of the media, team executives, and former players came forward with positive coming out stories. Straight allies spoke out in support of gay players and professional sport organizations began recognizing equality on more levels. Even the president voiced his support for marriage equality, saying, “It’s the right thing to do.”

As people around the playing field paved the road for someone on the playing field, it became inevitable. The country worked its way from the outside in and somehow arrived one of the most ironic conclusions ever. As I mentioned before, think back to that evening in February 2010 — the same evening that homophobic group was sending its homophobic message across the nation. Now, think about the headlines on April 29, 2013.

On the same day we saw Jason Collins become the first modern day openly gay male athlete in a major American professional sport, the New York Jets cut Tim Tebow.

Of course, the timing of this news was coincidental but serves as a powerful way to reflect on the atmosphere in this country. The people who worked hard to bring about equality are sleeping peacefully tonight; the people who used and exploited Tim Tebow to dump millions of dollars into the wrong hands are not. Now that we have an openly gay player, would that commercial even be able to run on a national level anymore? Would enough people accept it or would it be considered a slap in the face to Collins and the rest of the LGBT people and allies in the world?

The timing of Collins’ coming out story is also a reflection of the contemporary hegemonic structure permeating our male-dominated society and a reminder that we have a long way to go. Homophobia has always been a problem in sport because our society has placed such rigid, gendered expectations on men to be as masculine as possible. We have been falsely led to believe that all men should be masculine and therefore male athletes must produce a better show to watch than female athletes.

If our society wasn’t so male-dominated, we would actually respect women’s sports enough to give people such as Brittney Griner more than 15 minutes of fame when they come out. I also doubt many people knew about the Nigerian soccer team’s recent ban on lesbians because that was also swept under the rug shortly after being announced.

But for as long as female athletes have been coming out, it took us much longer to come around to accepting a gay male athlete. In the coming days, weeks, and months, it will be interesting to see the way Collins is framed by the media. By coming out, he already disproved many of the ideas and scenarios put forth by the mainstream media. At 34 years old, he has already helped dismiss the idea that a player, out of fear of getting cut or rejected because of his sexual orientation, has to have a stable career and superstar status in order to come out. That was the case in the past, but not anymore.

Collins finally succeeded in setting the example we were all waiting for, and he did so on his own. I had always said that we needed to allow an athlete to open his closet door himself rather than get pushed out. Now that he is out, we will have a chance to see for the first time that there is no need for an irrational fear of gay males on a professional sports team.

Here’s to hoping more players will follow behind him.

Osi Umenyiora’s legacy in New York

Osi Umenyiora’s time in the Big Apple will be remembered by times of success, disappointment, injuries, ups, downs, but most of all — two Super Bowls.

As the soon-to-be free agent defensive end prepares for what is likely his final game in a Giants uniform at the Meadowlands, it will be rather interesting to see how the fans react to his departure. Umenyiora is seeking more money next season and a starting job, which would be difficult to find with the Giants already set with defensive ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.

The Giants (8-7) still have an outside shot at making the playoffs if they can beat Philadelphia and find some help elsewhere this weekend, but missing the playoffs would almost certainly mean there will be changes. Last year’s Super Bowl win has been the lone bright spot in the team’s recent history — if the team misses the playoffs this season, it would be the third time in four years.

Umenyiora has been unhappy with his contract for a number of years, and his mediocre numbers this season (six sacks, two forced fumbles) will only help push him out the door. But through all of the controversy surrounding his contract and his relationship with the front office, Osi has been a fan favorite in New York since he arrived as a young defensive end.

His emergence onto the scene as a fan favorite stems from his exciting style of play. Perhaps his most memorable game in a Giants uniform was in 2007 against the Philadelphia Eagles when he broke the franchise record with six sacks in a game. His two Pro Bowl appearances, coupled with his performance as a member of the fierce defensive line in Super Bowl XLII will forever solidify his resume and legacy in a Big Blue uniform.

At age 31, Umenyiora still has some gas left in the tank, but the question is how much? His days as a dominant force in this league have seemed to pass us by. A change in scenery could very well make a difference as he could find some more playing time, but I am skeptical about his chances of returning to his glory days as he continues to get older.

Umenyiora admits that things did not have to end this way. Last week he told members of the media that he does, in fact, have regrets about the way he handled his recent years in New York. He wanted to remain a Giant forever, but he believes he burned that bridge when he refused to shut up about his contract.

Fan favorite or not, those days are in the past. As he continued to talk, he digressed on the field and ended up losing the edge he thought he had in the contract talks. We all enjoyed watching Osi in New York and we will always remember his role in helping this team win two Super Bowls. But in this situation, I don’t blame Big Blue. Osi Umenyiora’s ship in New York has sailed.

A pair of genuine smiles

I spent a semester studying abroad at The University of Cape Town, and while I was there I wanted to explore the existence of baseball in South Africa. With a quick Google search, I found that there was a youth baseball club nearby. By coincidence, my local friend Asanda Mankayi, a student at The University of Cape Town, happened to grow up in that town and I asked him to bring me there so I could look into it. I would like to give a very special thank you to Asanda for taking the time to bring me there in May and for making this story possible.

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It had been two years since Cape Town had hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but it was impossible to turn in any direction without seeing the stickers, the signs, the clothing . . . the merchandising. 

Stadiums had been built, and existing structures had been renovated and otherwise spruced up in anticipation of the international spotlight to be glaring down on South Africa.

Just over a decade removed from hosting the Rugby World Cup, it was the second time in recent history that one of the country’s most popular sports was bringing the world’s attention to South Africa. First it was rugby, then soccer – two of the three main sports in South Africa along with cricket. American sports are rarely featured in South Africa, and basketball stands as the only American sport that has a significant presence.

But on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Cape Town is a township called Philippi located in the Cape Flats region. The kids in Philippi, surprisingly, love baseball.

Who would have thought that baseball would ever make its way to South Africa? Of course, when we think of Americans in South Africa we think of the obnoxious exploitation of the country in the form of McDonald’s, KFC, and especially Coca-Cola. Baseball may be the one of the last American things that we would expect to arrive in South Africa.

But in 1895, the gold rush in South Africa attracted a group of Americans who decided to bring with them some baseball equipment and ultimately became “missionaries for the sport”.[1] The first official South African baseball league was formed in 1899 and the sport continued to grow and spread around the country. However, the sport followed the path of apartheid and was not played by black South Africans, leading to isolation from other countries that refused to associate with the racist policies.

Today, much has changed in South Africa politically but baseball is still a sport that is played mostly by the upper class elite. Part of the reason why I wanted to look at baseball in South Africa is to see how race and class may have been a factor in who plays which sports.

The residents of Philippi live in cramped shacks held together by pieces of tin and wood, and the ground is made up of polluted dirt and layers of trash. The Township is just miles from the city of Cape Town, and a cloud of smog over the Cape Flats is often visible from the steps on upper campus at The University of Cape Town. The residents in the many townships surrounding Cape Town have lived in destitute conditions for decades after they were forced out of their homes during apartheid by the white-dominated government.

The word apartheid is derived from the word “apart,” as the government had a dream of creating a system in which all races were completely separate from one another. Officials from the South African government traveled to the United States after World War II to study the history of American segregation policies, some of which were folded into their own plans for an apartheid government.

As the government’s dream came true, everyone was classified by law into four broad categories: Black, Coloured, Indian, or White. The government had ridiculous ways of classifying people, such as placing a pencil in a person’s hair and using that to tell them which race they were. If an interracial couple was married before apartheid, they were no longer married when it went into effect. The government would even raid homes in the middle of the night and check bedrooms to make sure nobody was breaking the law.

Townships were designated as areas for black and coloured people, off-limits to white people like myself. And black people were not allowed into white areas, which included the city of Cape Town. Beaches were segregated, as were schools, benches, and most public facilities. The racist Bantu Education Act of 1953 limited education for black students and only taught them material that would prepare them for a career in cheap labor.

When apartheid ended in 1994, it was difficult for communities to form a melting pot after so many years of segregation. Apartheid left such a deep gap between rich and poor that the structures of communities remain relatively the same and townships are still fairly inaccessible to anyone who does not live there. As such, my journey to explore baseball in Philippi didn’t start and end with one simple cab ride as might have had I traveled to somewhere in the city, but rather a series of transfers and different modes of transportation spanning over a period of almost two hours.

The trip started at my home in Rosebank, a suburb of Cape Town. Accompanied by my friend Asanda, who grew up in Philippi, we took the train to the Cape Town station located in the city center. Once there, we walked to a minibus taxi station. Amid a loud and crowded atmosphere, we navigated our way through the crowd and found the outbound van heading for Philippi. These vans, which are often packed with more than 15 people and, as such, serve as a cheap way to transport people around Cape Town and the surrounding area. We squeezed ourselves in one of these crowded vans, passed up the cheap R13 (less than two dollars per person) cab fare, and rode to Philippi. Upon our arrival in Philippi, I stepped out of the van and into another world — a world reeking of apartheid’s suffocating aftermath but shockingly still within viewing distance of Table Mountain, a chilling reflection of the deep gap between upper and lower class within such close proximity.

Next, we had to get out of the van and transfer to a special unmarked car, which transfers people around Philippi. Confused, I asked Asanda whose car it was.

“These cars are the ones which bring you around the township, don’t worry,” he assured me.

This was our final ride of the trip, but all the transfers and the total time it took us to arrive to a place only miles from Cape Town gave me a glimpse of how detached these areas are from the city itself.

The isolation of these townships during apartheid meant that residents were largely shut out from the outside world. Throughout the darkest years of oppression, South Africans looked for an escape route from the harsh reality of life that existed in their hometowns. Many turned to drugs and alcohol, and gang violence escalated as South African youths realized then and even now that gangs were simply a way of life in townships. However, some found other ways to cope – and one of these ways was through sports.

Like everything else in South Africa, sports were also segregated: rugby emerged as a sport for white people while soccer became the sport for black people. In townships throughout South Africa, a game of soccer can be seen on any day of the week. I stood in awe as I watched teenagers casually kick up a ball and start doing incredible tricks, reminiscent of what American basketball fans might see from the Harlem Globetrotters. Soccer has been a significant part of South African culture for years.

But baseball, of all sports, was introduced to Philippi in 2007, and has grown in popularity.

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Standing with members of the Philippi team

Nyameko Gabada, the coach of the Philippi Angels baseball club, grew up in South Africa with some baseball in his background. He says he decided to bring the sport to the township as a way for kids to work together and stay out of trouble. Introducing baseball to an area as poor and isolated as Philippi was no simple task, especially when the teams they would be facing had all of the necessary equipment and facilities for their players. South Africa does not have a Little League baseball system, and many sport facilities are catered around the more popular sports of rugby, cricket, and soccer.

“Other baseball teams have diamond fields and we do not have nice fields,” Gabada explained to me during an interview at his home in Philippi. “With supplies it is a problem as well, and sometimes we get checks from other teams to support us.”

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Philippi’s home baseball field

Their field — mostly mud, and without any grass — is in such poor condition that opposing teams refuse to play games there. I found piles of trash scattered around the field, polluting the ground so badly that the puddles from the early afternoon rain had nowhere to drain. Unable to afford the costs of improving the field, the Angels have had to play all their recent games on the road. The coach has had to use his own car and pay for the “petrol” out of his own pocket.

“We have had some donations from the lottery and from overseas, but it is still not enough,” said Gabada.

Despite their financial situation, the Angels have continued to build their program while having success on the field, which has translated into international exposure. A trophy shelf perched on the wall in Gabada’s home displays the awards that have been racking up in recent years.

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National and intl. trophies awarded to the Angels

Among the people who helped in the founding of the Angels was Ian Edelstein, an American from New Hampshire who now works for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pretoria. Before he moved away from Cape Town, he decided to become more involved with youth baseball after his son, a South African-American, was playing for a white team. When Edelstein saw the need for help in Philippi, he dedicated 15 hours or more hours a week to the development of the team. Despite the poor condition of their home playing field, he would try and help maintain it so they could at least try to host some games back then.

“It helped show the kids that they could take pride in where they were from and play host to teams from white communities,” he said.

He took the younger kids to watch games played by the older kids so that they could learn from them, and since many of the kids did not have access to television, he also showed them video of professional baseball games from America.

“We would show Yankees/Red Sox games and I would tell them the story of Jackie Robinson because they were blazing a similar trail as the first black baseball club in South Africa,” he said.

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In addition to interviewing Edelstein and Gabada, I also spoke with some members of the Philippi Angels. The moment I arrived at Gabada’s home, I saw two players named Masizole Jack and Sihle Mkhele dressed in baseball jackets and wearing baseball caps. They are former players for the Angels but remain involved as volunteers. I knew I was going to cover a baseball team but it was not until I saw the baseball attire that I realized, as a baseball fan, how intriguing it was to see baseball from the South African perspective.

Sihle is a 20-year-old woman from Philippi who first heard about baseball a few years ago but was not interested in it because she wasn’t familiar with the sport. She was with her friends one day when they invited her to watch the team. Why just watch, she thought, when she could go out there and play ball. Before she knew it, she was a ballplayer.

“Now my favorite sport is baseball,” she said. “Before it was soccer, but now I really like baseball. I played outfield and third base”IMG_1435

Masizole Jack, or “Jack” as he prefers, is 19 years old and he played a variety of positions – a utility player of sorts — and he was originally looking to find a cricket team. Clearly, he wound up playing baseball instead and now he loves it.

“I realized there wasn’t a cricket team here and I heard people were playing [baseball], so I came and joined. From there, I liked it because I got to do something different. You throw and hit the ball, which is what I originally wanted to do,” he said.

After the interviews, the players and coach brought me to the side of the house and showed me their baseball shed. Once the door opened, Jack and Sihle dug into the bat IMG_1436bags and pulled out baseball equipment to show me. I glanced around the room and saw helmets, gloves, bats, and even uniforms. Imagine the emotional impact these uniforms must have on these kids. While they are short on equipment and funds, they still have that priceless sense of identity when they slide on that uniform. And as they showed me their equipment, even as it was barely enough to keep the team going, the players displayed a special sense of optimism for the game of baseball.

During my conversations with Jack and Sihle, I noticed their faces were lighting up with distinctive smiles as soon as the topic of baseball entered the discussion. Their smiles and the way they talked about baseball reflected a special passion for the sport. These were genuine smiles that might not be seen from some South African soccer, rugby, or cricket players who spend their lives going through the motions of trying to live up to their family’s or society’s expectations. These smiles reflected their individual decision to play baseball.

As I wrapped up my conversations with them, I thought about the differences in the process of becoming a baseball player in America compared to South Africa. As Americans growing up in a society that pushes us into mainstream sports such as baseball, we not only take things for granted but we don’t always take the time to consciously realize whether we really make the individual decision to play.

When Asanda and I walked out of the house to leave on that rainy day in May, I thanked everybody and looked back at the two ballplayers as they smiled at me and said goodbye.

Thinking back, I can only hope that my smile back was as genuine as theirs.

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Edited by Boston Herald Senior Columnist Steve Buckley

[1] Josh Chetwynd. “A History of South African Baseball.” Nine: A Journal Of Baseball History & Culture. 16. no. 2 (2008): 73-79. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 10, 2012).

 

 

 

Link: Published on new LGBT Issues in Sport blog

Earlier this year, a group of professors and researchers were talking at a conference about how there was a need for an online port for researchers and people alike to increase awareness and coverage of LGBT Issues in Sports. Somebody brought up the idea of creating a blog, and the idea became a reality. After careful planning, a new site called The LGBT Issues in Sport: Theory to Practice blog was launched to the world. The blog is now updated almost every day and sometimes twice a day, featuring research and other related articles published by a number of experts from different universities and institutions around the country.

My former professor at Ithaca College, Dr. Staurowsky, is one of the founders and had contacted me during the summer to ask if I would be interested in contributing to the blog. When I was asked, I immediately accepted and quickly started thinking about what I should write about. I soon had learned about a new fiction novel about a gay Mets player who is outed by a reporter during the season, and I decided to complete a book review. Feel free to read my review here.