Is Sports Media Finally Having Its #MeToo Moment?
Since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, where women have identified themselves as victims of sexual harassment in the workplace by using the hashtag on social media, some of the biggest names in entertainment have fallen. Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Garrison Keillor. Matt Lauer. Louis C.K. In journalism, we’ve seen ABC News’ Mark Halperin, PBS’ Michael Oreskes, VOX Media’s Lockhart Steele, and Charlie Rose fired for sexual misconduct. In politics, George H.W. Bush, Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore, Senator Al Franken, and Representative John Conyers have all faced accusations of non-consensual sexual contact with women. Yet one unlikely industry has remained unscathed in the age of #MeToo: Sports media.
Lest you think sexual harassment doesn’t exist in sports media, let me assure you it does. I’ve had a boss who insisted I kiss him hello every morning. I’ve walked in on co-workers discussing porn in graphic detail. I’ve had co-workers brush up against me a little too hard, a few too many times. And I’m far from alone. The stories I’ve heard from other women in the industry make my blood run cold.
Women are underrepresented in media across the board, but nowhere more so than in sports. A 2017 Women’s Media Center report found that only 11 percent of women in working media report on sports, and a 2014 report found 90 percent of sports editors are white males. Outside of ESPN, who employees by far the largest number of women in sports media, the ratio of women to men is much worse. Add to the mix a bunch of former pro athletes and a large number of very young men with no experience in a traditional workplace, and it’s dumbfounding that #MeToo hasn’t gotten more of a foothold in the world of sports.
I reached out to 10 women currently working in sports media for their thoughts on why we haven’t seen #MeToo in our industry, and nearly all of them declined to speak on the record. It’s not that they didn’t have stories upon stories of sexual harassment, they told me, but they were afraid of backlash from their employers and coworkers if they talked about their experiences publicly. That doesn’t bode well for the feelings of courage and strength #MeToo has engendered in other areas of media.
You see, in the world of sports, behavior that has gotten men fired in other industries is too often accepted as par for the course . Baseball analyst Harold Reynolds, reportedly fired by ESPN for sexually harassing a production assistant, was quickly scooped up by MLB Network. Mike Tirico, whose history of stalking and sexual harassment was detailed in the book Those Guys Have All The Fun, has one of the highest-profile jobs at NBC Sports. NBA great Isaiah Thomas was found by a jury to have sexually harassed a Knicks team executive, and was promptly put in charge of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Yes, that’s a team of women.
Worse, no industry ignores allegations of violence against women like sports media. Day in and day out, women see their colleagues praise and lionize men like Kobe Bryant (who was arrested, charged, and settled a rape case in 2003 and later admitted his victim did not consent to sex ), Ben Roethlisberger (suspended under the NFL’s personal conduct policy after rape allegations), Derrick Rose (who couldn’t describe “consent’ during a civil sexual assault case deposition), and Floyd Mayweather (arrested multiple times for domestic violence and sentenced to 90 days in jail in 2010).
So who does a women working in sports media go to with her complaints of sexual harassment when her boss’s favorite Yankee is Aroldis Champman? How is a woman to feel she works in an environment where her feelings are respected when her coworkers debate whether Mike Tyson or OJ Simpson, one convicted of rape, one charged with killing his wife, would be a better guest? What does it say to women when athletes who have been accused of sexual assault or domestic battery become regular guests on sports talk shows?
“We don’t have enough allies behind the scenes to feel protected,” says CJ Silas, Host of The CJ Silas Show oN ESPN Radio 1280am . “Women might be afraid of losing their jobs and all we worked so hard to accomplish. We tolerated it all to get ahead and to follow our dreams Speaking up was always dangerous. I know for me, I could get my stories from a 30 year career, but what would it do? Would I get the jobs back? Would I get all of the money I have lost because of the black balling? If I wanted the individuals to go down, then that would be the main objective. The worst are still big names in this business. If I tell my stories, do I get dragged through the mud, sued for slander, etc.”
Rhiannnon Walker, of ESPN’s The UnDefeated, says the gender imbalance in sports media works to discourage women from coming forward. The fact that sports media is heavily male dominate definitely plays a part,” Walker says. “To that same end. I feel like that’s a lot of the reason we haven’t heard about much misconduct in the tech/Silicon Valley industry. There is no balance it’s clearly run by men for the most part.”
There remains a strange kind of compartmentalization in sports media where men promote men who have done terrible things to women and women are expected to go along with it and not make waves. Of course, no one expects sport journalists to use the phrase “accused rapist Kobe Bryant” in perpetuity, but painting athletes with violent allegations in their past in nothing but glowing terms is far too common. The message “We don’t care about women” couldn’t be more evident if the industry hired a skywriter.
Still, women in sports aren’t the first to feel powerless in the face of their male coworkers and superiors. So why haven’t we seen women band together to bring allegations? First, there are so few women working in some sports media outlets that it’s impossible to find a number with a shared set of experiences. If there are two women working in a sports department, one having been harassed and one having not, there’s not enough of a number to provide any kind of safety.
More depressing, though, is that the low number of women in sports media fosters an innate feeling of competition. Women sports journalists know that major outlets aren’t going to put together a show with three women hosts or have an MLB beat made up of nothing but women reporters. Because women have come to expect that only one of them will get a shot at a coveted role, too many women in the industry have come to view each other as rivals rather than allies. Because women feel so easily replaced, no one is willing to risk giving up her spot. Because we’re so few, we don’t always support each other as we should.
There’s still hope that, while sports has experience significant lag time in the #MeToo reckoning, it will eventually make its way to the industry. Women in sports media are a small community, and speak often about which men to avoid, which men are overly and uncomfortably “affectionate,” which men go out of their way to make women’s lives hell. Recently, Blue Jays analyst Greg Zaun was fired for “inappropriate behavior” following complaints from several women. Recently, word came from NFL Network and ESPN that multiple men, including analysts Marshall Faulk, Heath Evans, Donovan McNabb, have been suspended pending allegations of sexual harassment. Just last week, the Boston Globe’s Spotlightpublished an account of sexual discrimination and harassment at ESPN, in which both Adrienne Lawrence and Jenn Sterger talked about being harassed and propositioned by co-workers.
Only time will tell if more women in sports are willing to rock the #MeToo boat or if they feel their career is better served keeping their heads down and noses to the grindstone. A few women have told me they believe sports media will have its #MeToo moment, and soon. Some think the hostile work environment is so endemic to the industry there is no way to dislodge it. Others believe women can’t come forward about harassment until more women are in positions of power in media.
So while #MeToo continues to topple powerful men in a multitude of industries, the women of sports media watch, bide their time, and wait.