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.