The suspension of ESPN 980 (Washington, D.C.) radio hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin over their comments about transgender athlete Gabrielle Ludwig illustrates how important it can be for media members to think before they speak. A situation like Ludwig's isn't something that's been seen a lot over the years; the 6'8'' 50-year-old is suiting up for Santa Clara's Contra Costa College women's basketball team this year after a sex-change operation in July, and may be the first athlete to take part in college sports in both genders. (Ludwig briefly played at an East Coast community college as a young man decades earlier.)
Rather than have a serious discussion about what that means, though, Czaban and Pollin opted for the basest possible commentary, calling Ludwig an "it", mocking her appearance and saying transgender people shouldn't be allowed to play sports. Here's audio of their segment on Ludwig:
That segment understandably led to plenty of outrage from LGBT advocates, and as mentioned above, the station opted Tuesday to suspend the two hosts involved. (It's worth noting that ESPN itself decided to issue a statement distancing itself from their comments, despite Czaban and Pollin not being ESPN employees; the station involved licenses the ESPN brand and some programming, but this show was part of their local, non-ESPN content.)
It's pretty clear this kind of commentary isn't constructive and doesn't represent anything most stations or brands would want to be associated with. Both ESPN and the local station are smart to back away from it, and suspending Czaban and Pollin seems like a good idea.
A potential peril here is that this suspension could deter media members from daring to discuss transgender athletes, though. That shouldn't be how to interpret this. The problem definitely isn't that Czaban and Pollin chose to talk about Ludwig, and it isn't really even that they don't like the idea of a transgendered player in college sports; while that's not a case many of us would support, there are ways to make it without being horribly offensive. As Sports Illustrated's Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein explored in an excellent article earlier this year, there are still plenty of debates over how sport governing bodies should handle transgender athletes (including distinctions between anatomy and how people identify themselves), and there aren't necessarily a lot of clear answers.
The important thing is that the sports world starts having these discussions. As Outsports' Cyd Ziegler said at Blogs With Balls this fall, many issues of sexual orientation in sports have gone from ignored to widely covered. Talking about transgendered athletes would seem to be a logical next discussion to have. The takeaway from the Czaban and Pollin situation shouldn't be "Don't dare to discuss transgendered athletes, or the lobby groups will be down on you." It should be "Think before you speak." There are conversations and discussions to be had around transgendered athletes, but regardless of which stance you take, those discussions should be held in a respectful and rational manner. Baseless, offensive rants played for cheap laughs aren't the way to go, and the case of Czaban and Pollin proves that.