Last week, ESPN Radio host and espnW columnist Sarah Spain released a podcast in which she asked a group of prominent women in sports media about their experiences in a male-dominated field, including instances of sexual harassment they’d endured. It was just the latest instance of Spain speaking up about women’s issues, no matter how many people on Twitter tell her to “go find a job and leave sports to the boys.”
Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
On what motivated her to put together a podcast about sexual harassment in sports media:
I was trying to remember exactly what the impetus was when I first thought of it. You know, I had Jamele Hill as the first guest on my podcast, and I don’t remember if it was something she said during that interview or whether I just remember in talking to her, thinking about some of the experiences she said she had when she was starting up and remembering my own. I realized that there were probably a lot of women who had shared experiences similar to ours. She was my very first guest, and I decided right there that I would ask her, after the podcast was done, to stick around and record an answer for this.
And then I did that with a couple other people. There were some guests I had that I wish I could’ve asked this, but they were running out of time and they had to run out. But I might end up doing another one, if there’s desire for more.
I had never told the story about the interview that I went on before publicly, and I didn’t want it to be in a flippant way. I wanted it to be part of a larger message about how up-and-comers, knowing that other people have gone through it, might be better able to deal with it, knowing they’re not alone. So I just realized that putting together a bunch of stories would have a much bigger impact than telling mine on its own.
On the public response to the podcast:
I had a lot of people sharing their own stories, I had a lot of young women that were coming up and saying it was really beneficial to them, either because they’d already gone through it or because they felt like somehow it was their fault and that it was going to be an impediment to their careers. Or younger people who hadn’t dealt with it but felt much more capable of getting past it knowing that many successful women had had to deal with it.
And then I think a lot of people just hear this vague term of “sexual harassment,” and they know it goes on, but to hear the specifics of it is much more impactful. It made them sort of understand. And because a lot of people on that podcast are really well-liked and popular, people that are very strong-willed and have strong voices, for people to associate a specific person and personality with that, I think they really understand, in that person’s voice, just how difficult it is to deal with.
On nasty comments from men online:
I think so much of it stems from just a basic misogyny. Some of the responses that I got to me that were negative were people sending me a photo where I have cleavage, from like 12 years ago. Like, “oh, you’re such a victim.” And that’s that whole mindset of, “She was asking for it. Did you see what she was wearing?” The whole concept of, if a woman acts or dresses a certain way then she’s deserving of being mistreated.
And I think in a lot of ways, women are in this impossible catch-22, where they see what’s successful in the industry, they see who’s being given jobs, who’s being given chances, who’s moving up the ranks. And they then have to decide, am I going to stand to my principles and not fall into the trap of knowing that I need to look as beautiful as possible at all times? Or am I going to be this tomboy who just hangs out and doesn’t care about that stuff, and not get any on-camera jobs?
I wish I could describe it more, but there are men who believe that women don’t belong in certain spaces, and those are the very same men that also want to see hot chicks working in sports. As long as they are limited to certain roles and occupations, then it’s OK. And they’re going to feel the same way about harassment, that it’s not that big of a deal or that if you’re in that job you should just be willing to accept it, and if you’re in a male-dominated field then that just comes with it, instead of realizing that having real conversations about why it’s wrong or why it shouldn’t be the norm might actually improve things.
On ESPN baseball commentator Jessica Mendoza:
I’ll have these podcasts, and the women that are on are just blowing me away. Jessica Mendoza is a perfect example. People think she doesn’t have the bona fides to be on an MLB broadcast or that she just got hired because she’s pretty or whatever, but she’s an Olympian, she graduated Stanford in three years and then got her Masters in the fourth, while she was playing softball as an All-American and on the Olympic team. She was president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She has two kids. She was pre-med and then switched into political science. She’s like, the best at everything. And she’s still one of the ones who gets it, which tells you it’s not people who are sitting at home really analyzing the work, it’s people who have already created a narrative in their head and now they’re going to validate that belief.
On ESPN basketball commentator Doris Burke:
There are just people in the industry who everyone knows are amazing, and it’s the people on the outside that aren’t even really paying attention that are critics. If everyone in the industry says that Doris Burke is mind-blowing because she covers college, professional, women’s, men, she has to know all the teams… then maybe you should listen to those people.
On diversity initiatives in hiring:
What stinks is that there’s this idea of affirmative action, quote unquote, being the reason for hiring women and people of color, instead of realizing that the world is made up of all these people, and the fact that it was 95 percent white males was the problem, not the fact that they’re hiring people that aren’t white males. I think if you decide that hiring a diversity of voices isn’t important, then you’re deeply flawed to begin with.
On speaking out about women’s issues instead of trying to blend in to a male-dominated industry:
When I started out I definitely tried to blend in. I was working at FOX Sportsnet on a nightly highlight show, and there were usually about 50 or so people in the room every day, putting the show together, watching games, writing down highlights. It would usually be about three women and 45, 46 guys. That was my first real job in sports, so of course I tried to blend in and be one of the guys. And back then I used to think I was one of the guys. I was like, oh I have so many guy friends, and I think like a guy. And when I started at espnW and I met all these other women who were super passionate about sports and were athletes, I realized that’s not being a guy, that’s being a woman who’s super into sports, and it doesn’t have to fall into this idea of just blending in as one of the guys. You can still be very much yourself and just be into the things that you like.
And some point I had to make a decision: Do I want to just be as likable as possible? And trust me, I know how to drink beer and talk sports and crack jokes and do movie quotes with the best of them if I just want you to like me and think I’m a cool chick. But at some point I realized it is much more meaningful to me to have an impact, and so I try to balance that. I am who I am 100 percent of the time, but instead of not bringing up issues that bother me or not speaking up for women in the industry, not speaking up about domestic violence and sexual assault, instead of downplaying those in favor of things that are more easily digestible, I decided I’m going to do that and be myself and talk about beer and movie quotes and dick jokes and everything else.
On espnW and the perception that it’s not fairly integrated into the main ESPN brand:
That was a criticism when it started because people didn’t get why it needed its own space, which is funny because nobody worried about ESPNFC and soccer having its own space or Grantland. There was this idea that because it was women it must be being sort of “ghettoized,” is the word people used. What I found instead was that it allowed people to have a space they could go to where they knew they could get what they wanted, and then when those stories were interesting and big and well-done, they would make it to the front page, and they would make it to other sections. And now I feel like it’s very integrated. espnW personalities are all over the company. espnW has several radio shows, several podcasts, espnW columns and articles and stories are in the magazine and on the front page of the website. I don’t necessarily think of us as that different from any other aspect.
On innocuous-seeming comments that bug her:
There are people who are well-meaning, and they’ll say something like, “Oh, Erin Andrews quit her job, you should take it, you’re pretty enough to do that.” Or even someone in person the other day was like, “So they let you actually talk on the radio?” And I’m like, “Let me? I have my own show.” And he said “Oh I guess you’re pretty enough for that.” And I said, “It’s a radio show! What the fuck?”
So even if they’re trying to be complimentary sometimes, everything becomes reduced down to the only possible way that you’ve achieved anything is as a result of that, even if they’re trying to tell you it’s a good thing. So I think that bothers me the most, because so often women’s appearances eclipse their accomplishments, and if you continue to validate that aspect of it over everything else, that will keep happening.
I really hate when there are male allies and supporters of whatever it is we’re talking about, and the easy thing to say is, “Oh she’s not going to have sex with you just because you’re on her side.” Again, it’s like this ignorant reduction of every single act in life to whether or not you’re gonna get laid or not or whether someone is attractive or not. It’s such a simplistic way to go through life, to view everything through the prism of appearance or sex.
On whether harassment drives young women away from sports media:
I was just speaking at Penn State last week, and one of the teachers told me she had a general journalism class and one of the girls did an internship on the sports side to see if she might be interested in the sports aspect of it, and she said “Never again.” She said it was so awful, she hated the experience and she had no interest in going into the sports aspect of it anymore.
There’s this girl that I sort of mentor who just graduated from Mizzou, and she told me she follows my career and is so worried she won’t be able to handle the stuff that I handle, that she doesn’t have the thick skin for it. And that sucks.
On what men can do to make sports media more hospitable to women:
I think what’s key is to embrace perspectives other than yours, to be willing to listen to other people’s experiences, not to discount them. Like when they do panels of the best sportswriting, and then it ends up being 48 white males and then one black guy and one woman or when they do “up-and-coming voices” and then it’s all dudes. To have this perspective that there’s other people out there that have things to say and that have other perspectives to offer.
If you’re in a position to hire, trying to understand that having a diversity of voices will be beneficial to your company and to you and the way that you view things is the biggest. And then if you’re not in a position to hire, then offering to mentor up-and-comers, offering to introduce them to people in the industry. Finding ways to just sort of reach out.