Maddy Niebauer and her 10-year-old transgender son, Julian, take part in a rally for transgender rights that drew about 75 people Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at the Capitol in Madison, Wis. May 26, 2021; Madison, WI, USA; Maddy Niebauer and her 10-year-old transgender son, Julian, take part in a rally for transgender rights that drew about 75 people Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at the Capitol in Madison, Wis. They are from Middleton, Wis. Republicans who control the state Legislature are holding hearings Wednesday on legislation that would ban transgender athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s school sports — a proposal opposed by nearly 20 groups, including the statewide body that oversees high school sports. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY NETWORK

The rhetoric around transgender athletes has reached a fever pitch in recent months and it’s become politicized. And it’s been interesting to see how willing many in the sports media world, including those at ESPN, have been to jump into the fray.

You might expect Jimmy Pitaro to ask ESPN employees to stay out of the discussion, or at the very least, tread carefully so as not to rile up people on either side of the issue. However, a select group of ESPN employees has not only jumped into the discussion around transgender athletes but become thought leaders with strong opinions on one side of the issue.

While First Take host Stephen A. Smith has shared his thoughts on the matter, as he seems required by law to do, SportsCenter host Sage Steele and Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder have not been shy about using their platforms to defend anti-transgender activist Riley Gaines and also amplify similar messages about the dangers of transgender athletes competing against women.

There are arguments for and against transgender athletes competing against others of the same gender, and there are certainly opportunities for level-headed discussions. But those often get lost in the politics and misguided ideas that have driven the conversation. Regardless, it remains surprising to see ESPN employees like Ponder speaking out against transgender athlete participation even as ESPN included Lia Thomas in a “Celebrating Women’s History Month” segment, which was heavily criticized by Gaines and others.

Most recently, Ponder piggybacked on a tweet from Gaines regarding the “fight for the integrity of Title IX” and offered up some kudos for herself over her messaging.

“I barely said anything publicly abt this issue & I’ve had so many ppl msg me, stop me in the street to say thank you+ tell me stories abt girls who are afraid to speak up for fear of lost employment/being called hateful. It is not hateful to demand fairness in sports for girls,” Ponder tweeted Thursday.

That caught the attention of USA Today’s Nancy Armour, who penned a scathing column about Ponder’s positioning and how it feels as though her care for the state of women’s sports seems to be about one issue in particular and not as a whole.

“There has been no shortage of stories in the last year about the actual ways in which women athletes are being treated unfairly and robbed of opportunities to participate,” wrote Armour. “USA TODAY Sports, for one, did an entire series on the subject, detailing how most schools aren’t providing equitable funding for their men’s and women’s programs, are short-changing women athletes on scholarship money and are manipulating numbers to make it look as if they’re complying with Title IX, and how the federal government is doing little to stop it.

Did Ponder use her platform to express outrage at any of this? Urge her nearly half-million followers on Twitter to write or call their representatives and ask that women be given the funding and opportunities they rightfully deserve? Did she publicly participate in any of the many excellent documentaries, videos and commentary ESPN did to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX last year? Or even Tweet about them?

No, she did not. Her public concern about “fairness” for female athletes starts and stops with the miniscule number of transgender women who are participating in sports.”

Armour noted that she reached out to ESPN about Ponder’s tweets and how they are okay given the company’s policies but they declined to comment.

Ponder has yet to respond to Armour’s column, but her Twitter Likes imply she’s not going to change her stances anytime soon.

The USA Today writer added that while so many anti-trans voices are making transgender athletes sound like schemers who are transitioning in order to win sporting events, the truth is that much more nuanced, complicated, and life-saving than that. And ultimately, that doesn’t appear to be the point anyway.

“If Ponder truly wanted to champion women’s sports, she’s had ample opportunity,” said Armour. “But she hasn’t. Because this has nothing to do with ‘fairness.'”

[USA Today]

About Sean Keeley

Along with writing for Awful Announcing and The Comeback, Sean is the Editorial Strategy Director for Comeback Media. Previously, he created the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and wrote 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle where he is complaining about bagels. Send tips/comments/complaints to