ESPN shows progress, faces challenges, regarding women in sports

The news about sexual harassment and assault of women has been pervasive in politics, entertainment and media in recent weeks, and ESPN has not been immune.

First, two current ESPN radio hosts -- former NFL players Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis -- were pulled from the air after they were accused of sexually inappropriate behavior during their time at the NFL Network. Both will remain off the air while ESPN conducts an investigation.

Then, last week, a Boston Globe story laid out what it called an “entrenched locker room culture” at ESPN and detailed allegations against two of its personalities -- SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross and Matthew Berry, host of ESPN’s “The Fantasy Show.”

These developments come in the wake of ESPN's controversial, one-episode partnership with Barstool Sports, which ended largely because of the strong comments made against it by female ESPN employees, most notably a Twitter post from Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder. The criticism centered on Barstool’s penchant for taking a misogynistic view on the role of women in sports.

Interestingly, all of this is happening at a time when ESPN has a lot of positives to point to when it comes to women at the company. The network has more female employees in high-profile roles than ever, both on the air and in the executive suites. Thanks to an ongoing commitment to espnW, the company’s coverage of women’s sports is more comprehensive than ever, and ESPN even holds a high-profile annual conference on women’s sports that always features A-list speakers.

One of the main drivers of those recent efforts was John Skipper, whose shocking resignation as ESPN president on Dec. 18 -- and its impact on the network’s future -- will be discussed as part of my final public editor column in the coming weeks.

But for all the progress ESPN made under Skipper, the Globe piece alleged another side, connecting the Barstool controversy with new sexual harassment claims:

ESPN’s willingness to partner with Barstool emboldened others to speak out about the entrenched locker room culture, where men have made unwanted sexual propositions to female colleagues, given unsolicited shoulder rubs, and openly rated women on their looks, and, in at least one case, sent shirtless selfies, according to interviews with roughly two dozen current and former employees.

The Globe story lays out much more detail, and on Thursday, ESPN pushed back on the paper’s specific allegations and the cultural points in general, saying “We work hard to maintain a respectful and inclusive culture at ESPN. It is always a work in progress, but we’re proud of the significant progress we’ve made in developing and placing women in key roles at the company in the board room, in leadership positions throughout ESPN and on air.”

The investigations into these matters are just beginning, but the past few months have clearly shown that, as a society, we’ve crossed over into an era in which tolerance for sexual harassment no longer exists. (It never should have, of course, but that’s a subject for another day.)

It didn’t take any of the past week’s reports or the Barstool controversy to know that it’s harder to be a woman in sports than a man. Just ask any woman who’s ever worked reported from a men’s locker room, tried to break into front-office management, or operated in any other part of an industry historically dominated by men.

The problem of accepting women’s role in sports, however, doesn’t stop at the professional level. A shocking number of e-mails I received in my two years as public editor have complained about women at ESPN. These e-mails make it clear that a portion of the population still contends that only men are capable of explaining sports to other men, and that when women appear on-air, it’s only to serve as eye candy.

Here’s a sample:

"No offense to [now-departed] Lindsay Czarniak, but who wants a female as a sports anchor? Or baseball color analyst? Or anything else? I like women as much as the next guy, just not rammed down my throat 24/7 at sporting events and as commentators."

And here’s another “supporter” of women in sports:

"I am all for all-female announcer teams for women's soccer. As for men's soccer, I find it incredible that there are not hundreds...if not thousands...of male ex-players or professional soccer male announcers who could have been chosen to announce [this] game. ESPN has evidently taken upon itself the heady role of social re-engineering by going gender-neutral every opportunity they have. Leave the social engineering to the politicians, ESPN. Give us announcers who represent the sport we are watching."

I reached out to the author of that e-mail to ask whether he had the same objection to men broadcasting women’s sporting events. I never heard back.

Such correspondence is just a sampling of the hundred or so similar mails I received during my tenure. And they don’t even begin to touch on what women have to deal with in social media. Although e-mail is a largely private one-to-one communication, social media allows one person to reach many in a public environment, which can encourage even more abusive messages. If you need a reminder of this, take a look at this video that featured men reading tweets written by other men to ESPN’s Sarah Spain and reporter and radio host Julie DiCaro. It’s brutal to watch.

“It’ll always be the case for women,” Spain said. “If you’re a male in the sports world, you’ll be given the benefit of the doubt until you prove otherwise. If you’re a woman, it’s the opposite.”

Spain, in an 2016 interview with New York Magazine’s The Cut, laid out exactly why this kind of complaining about women in sports makes no sense:

I had [ESPN baseball commentator] Jessica Mendoza on my podcast. She was the first woman to call an MLB playoff game. She was a hall of famer at Stanford, an Olympian; she also was premed. She graduated from Stanford in three years and got her masters in her fourth year, while playing for the softball team and training for the Olympics. But somebody who watches sports on TV has decided for himself that she’s just a pretty face who plays softball and she’s getting more attention than she deserves. Meanwhile, he’s just some schmuck who literally has no accomplishments other than watching sports all day and talking about stats. When you look at that discrepancy, you can understand why he might be intimidated by a nonstop, ever-moving life full of accomplishments.

“Social opened our eyes to the number of people out there who really are biased,” Spain said. “It made me more aware of the giant pockets who believed things were better off when things were harder for women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.”

As mentioned earlier, there’s no question ESPN has done an admirable job of hiring more and more women across the network, and providing high-profile opportunities for them, in recent years. In 2016, Mendoza became the first female Major League Baseball color commentator when she replaced Curt Schilling on Sunday Night Baseball. That same year, Alison Overholt became the first female editor of a U.S. sports magazine when she became editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine. This September, ESPN’s Beth Mowins became the first woman in 30 years to call an NFL game.

And a cursory viewing of ESPN at almost any time of day, or a scanning of bylines in ESPN’s print and digital properties, reveals more female names and faces than ever. Jemele Hill is a centerpiece of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter every weeknight. Sage Steele hosts SportsCenter AM each weekday morning. Among the centerpieces of the network’s NBA coverage are Doris Burke, Rachel Nichols and Michelle Beadle. Ponder hosts Sunday NFL Countdown. ESPN recently made news by hiring Katie Nolan away from Fox Sports. And longtime contributors Hannah Storm, Linda Cohn and Suzy Kolber continue to play key roles.

I could go on, but won’t because although these changes were absolutely the right thing to do, none of these accomplishments negates the fact that the problem of harassment in sports is real.

“I never lose sight of the progress we’re making,” said Spain, to whom I talked before the Boston Globe report. “Things have never been better for women in sports. ... By no means does that mean it’s time for women to stop speaking up.”

The canceled Barstool deal provided a bracing reminder of why ESPN needs to be more cautious when considering the impact its actions have on its female employees.

On Oct. 13, the network announced a partnership with Barstool, a satire and sports site launched in 2007 that has an extremely loyal following but also a reputation for objectifying women and using misogynistic language. (For example, Barstool has a Girls section, but good luck finding a score or any discussion of actual women’s sports there.)

The partnership revolved around the creation of Barstool Van Talk, a show that would have run on ESPN2 Tuesdays at 1 a.m. ET and would've featured Barstool personalities Dan “Big Cat” Katz and the anonymous PFT Commenter. On its face, I can see what ESPN thought it would get out of the partnership. Large, complicated organizations such as ESPN are not always good at getting up close to their consumers, and one of the areas where the network faces an uphill climb is in engagement. Barstool started as a small, loyal army, and as the site has gotten exponentially larger, it has managed to maintain that deep bond with its users, which is not an easy task.

But Barstool cannot walk away from its own history. And part of that history was a blog post written about Ponder in 2014 by Barstool founder Dave Portnoy, which was posted after Ponder tweeted this out:

Portnoy’s response:

Seriously you sound like a KO Barstool freak, not a chick that has a job where the #1 requirement is you make men hard. So give it a rest with your righteous indignation. Your entire career and livelihood is based on appealing to guys like me and blogs like ours. Bottomline is guys thinking chicks are hot is natural. It’s Darwinism. It’s never gonna change. But that doesn’t mean we don’t respect women and think it’s okay to hit a woman. I have no idea what’s so confusing about that. Go f**k yourself.

According to the Sports Business Journal,Ponder was among those who were given a heads-up about the impending Barstool-ESPN deal, and she wasn’t happy. And, after it was announced, she made that clear publicly, tweeting “Welcome to the ESPN family @BarstoolBigCat (& welcome to all ur minions who will respond to this so kindly)”

The blog post wasn’t the only time Barstool had gone after Ponder. On a 2014 podcast, Portnoy said of Ponder:

No person who watches GameDay wants to see a picture of her and her ugly kid. Nobody cares, Sam Ponder. We want to see you sex it up and be slutty and not be some prude f***ing jerk who everybody hates. Sam Ponder, you f***ing slut. I don’t want you at these games being super-prude and talking about God and religion and how your kid is so awesome and breastfeeding when I’m watching GameDay.

After Ponder’s tweet, Barstool noted that the two personalities who would be doing the ESPN2 show didn’t make any of these comments. And that’s true. But, in the end, that really doesn’t matter. The comments came from the company’s CEO, which makes any argument that the comments didn’t fairly represent the company ring pretty hollow.

Ponder’s post sparked others to speak up, as well, and six days after announcing the partnership -- and after airing one episode -- Skipper canceled the show:

Effective immediately I am cancelling Barstool Van Talk. While we had approval on the content of the show, I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content. Apart from the decision, we appreciate the efforts of Big Cat and PFT Commenter. They delivered the show they promised.

On Facebook, Portnoy responded:

John Skipper is saying he thought he could distance himself from Barstool. Don't know what that means. You hired Barstool. The deal was with Barstool. The reason you needed us is because we're Barstool. That's why this audience exists and it's not going anywhere.

Ironically, Portnoy’s response belied Barstool’s initial attempt to draw a line between its CEO and the personalities working in the ESPN partnership. But this statement was closer to the truth. There is no separation. Said one female ESPN personality who preferred to remain anonymous, “If you replaced what Barstool says about women, and made it about African-Americans, would anyone be having conversations with them? But, for so many, misogyny fits into the framework of sports.”

ESPN legitimately came under heavy fire for the Barstool mess. Depending on your point of view, it was either because it was approved in the first place or because it was canceled so quickly. But the cancellation at least showed that ESPN was listening to the women who work there, although had it listened earlier, it might have avoided the mess altogether.

But the Barstool controversy also begs the question: How are women treated by men in workplaces beyond the public’s view? Like all outsiders -- I don’t work full-time for ESPN and do not work at any of its offices -- I have no idea what the level of the problem is inside the network, and since my term ends at the end of the year, it’ll be incumbent on others to report that out. The good news is that, based on recent events, if there’s dirty laundry, it’s never more likely to see the light of day than it is right now.


The more complex that organizations such as ESPN get, the more likely it is that they might run into conflicts that create potential ethical issues, and readers should be in a position to know about them. I’m not talking here about the relationships the network has with major sports partners such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. Those are well-known and the journalistic complexities that come with them well-documented.

I’m talking about relationships that run more under the radar. One of those is ESPN’s relationship with the Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit charity organization founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King in 1974. The foundation, according to its web site, “is dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring all girls access to sports.”

Surely neither the existence nor the goal of the WSF is particularly controversial. It’s a laudable goal. The WSF was founded two years after the passing of Title IX legislation, which states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Although the application of Title IX is broad, one of the areas where it’s had the most impact is in sports, where it has led to an increase in the number of women’s sports teams and female athletes across the college and high school ranks.

But there are critics of how Title IX has affected sports, and some who feel its requirements on equality of access to sports have led to the loss of opportunity for many male athletes. That has led to organizations such as the American Sports Council that publicly call for reform of Title IX.

The WSF is a strong supporter of Title IX as it stands now, and its site has a page that addresses what it sees as Title IX myths. That’s where ESPN comes in. According to WSF’s site, espnW has been a financial supporter of the foundation for five years. In 2014, the network -- along with Fox Sports and NBC Sports -- contributed a collective $2 million to WSF to help close the participation gap in women’s sports for high school and collegiate women. Two ESPN employees -- Mendoza and Christine Driessen, who is chief financial officer and an executive vice president -- sit on WSF’s board of trustees.

I asked Laura Gentile, ESPN’s senior vice president for business and content strategy with oversight of espnW, about the financial arrangement with WSF and how it affects ESPN’s coverage of women’s sports, especially when it comes to debates about Title IX.

“There are no espnW editorial decision-makers on the Women’s Sports Foundation board,” she said.

Jim McCarthy, media director for the American Sports Council, doesn’t think that sufficiently addresses the issue.

“ESPN's excuse is both arrogant and intellectually dishonest.,” he said. “espnW has an explicit content-sharing agreement with WSF. espnW’s analysis of Title IX in print also exactly mirrors WSF’s policy agenda, routinely and in fine-grain detail. Meanwhile any voices that differ with that agenda, of which there are countless many sources, are entirely ignored on that platform. Those are editorial decisions, plain and simple, and they are obviously being made as part of what WSF openly touts as a partnership with ESPN.”

McCarthy points to the fact that the WSF lobbies on behalf of women’s sports, and says ESPN is compromised by the relationship partially for that reason.

It’s very hard to point to anything on espnW that would suggest the WSF relationship has a direct impact on coverage. First off, ESPN hasn’t written much about Title IX at all in the past few years. Where it has, it has mostly been supportive of it, but even critics of Title IX aren’t necessarily against its existence, but instead are seeking reform. The network did produce a film series called “Nine for IX” a few years back, but those films were less about Title IX than about celebrating women in sports.

Either way, however, I do think readers have a right to know about the relationship between ESPN and the WSF. Whether the relationship affects the journalism or not is obviously crucially important, and disclosing the existence of the relationship allows readers to make up their own minds.

Going forward, I think a note appended to the bottom of any story that discusses Title IX or is part of the ESPN-WSF partnership should carry that disclosure. It probably also wouldn’t be a bad idea for espnW’s 2018 Women and Sports Summit to feature a discussion about Title IX reform and ensure that a Title IX critic is there to balance things out.

Beyond this particular relationship, I’m guessing ESPN has other conflicts that fall beneath the scrutiny level of the ones it has with the major sports leagues and conferences. Readers have a right to know about those too. Creating a disclosures page would assure those relationships are revealed on articles when relevant subjects are covered, and would be a strong move toward transparency.