Asst. Sports Director
September 7th marked 42 years since the launch of the first 24/7 sports platform the Entertainment and Sports Network (ESPN). It has become the household name for sports worldwide with over 18 channels sporting the ESPN name. Racism within ESPN has been an ongoing issue ever since its inception in 1979. It has been described as being a “cultural norm” for the network. It happens on camera and behind the scenes. The ESPN company itself has found itself in the media a copious amount of times for its talent believing they have a right to make remarks about athlete’s race due to their status quo.
Sports reporter Jason Whitlock joined ESPN back in 2002 as a writer for their magazine and website. He currently hosts “Around the Horn” during weekday afternoons and has hosted several other shows for the network. During his almost 20 year career there, Whitlock has become known more for his racial views than his journalistic integrity. After asian basketball star Jeremy Lin led the New York Knicks to a victory against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012, he would go on twitter and tweet “ Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight.” Playing to the stereotype that Asian men have small genitalia, Whitlock came under a lot of scrutiny for this remark. A few years later, he would return to the hot seat with remarks about the use of a racial slur towards NBA Superstar LeBron James. James’ house was vandalized in 2017 by an intruder who spray painted the n-word on his walls. Whitlock responded to the incident on his show by saying “When I was young people called me a bad name — the n-word, whatever — it hurt my feelings. LeBron’s comment about ‘no matter how rich you are, no matter how famous you are, it’s tough being black in America.’ That is a lie. It’s not tough... It’s not tough being LeBron James..” Making the point that the use of the word is lessened due to the athlete’s fame and power was absolutely appalling and untrue. Disney came down on ESPN after the incident and wanted him gone. They decided to keep him on air.
The most recognizable personality for ESPN at the moment is First Take host Stephen A. Smith. Smith is known for his constant criticism on racial inequalities within the sport’s world. He is mostly critical of the NBA and how they handle coaching hirings throughout the league based on race. Smith would however make some remarks towards Major League Baseball (MLB) player Shohei Ohtani in July. Ohtani was a Japanese baseball all-star breaking almost every record in his native country for the sport. The Los Angeles Angels would sign him in 2018 and he has been nothing short of amazing. As of now, he leads the MLB in pitching stats and homeruns making him the first player in history to do it bringing many new eyes to the sport and making it relevant again. Stephen A. Smith disagreed with the league leader’s success stating "But the fact that you've got a foreign player that doesn't speak English, that needs an interpreter - believe it or not, I think contributes to harming the game to some degree, when that's your box office appeal.” All because a foreign player does not speak English and needs a translator does not mean they harm the sport. In fact, there are currently over 10 players within the league who rely on interpreters. The longtime reporter came under fire for these remarks and was deemed a hypocrite for his usual rants on racial inequality in sports. Just like Whitlock, nothing was done to Smith even though there was a strong outcry from the public.
In July of 2020, a conversation between an ESPN anchor and an athlete’s supervisor would take place that would once again shed light on the matter at hand. A recording was released in July of 2021 of a conversation between longtime “NBA on ESPN and The Jump” reporter Rachel Nichols and LeBron James’ advisor Adam Mendelsohn about a fellow work colleague, Maria Taylor. The discussion was about how ESPN was going to choose Taylor to host the NBA Finals replacing Nichols. In the audio, the longtime host of “The Jump'' said '' If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity..like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or take my thing away,” She would also say, while laughing that she is “...exhausted…” between “...Me Too and Black Lives Matter..”. Kayla Johnson, a black digital video producer who discovered the video and sent it to Taylor was suspended two weeks with no pay and given less opportunities. Taylor left the company after she heard the audio and Nichols was initially sent home with pay. On August 25th, Nichols was released from ESPN after pressure from the Walt Disney Corporation and network workers in a rare move.
The problem of racial inequality is just as relevant today as it was in 1979. After years and years of ongoing examples of people promoting racial inequality on and off air, ESPN still has not admitted publicly there are problems within the network. Nichols’ firing is hopefully a sign of a change in culture. The move seemed to only occur because of bad publicity and pressure. If things do not change soon, the changing social climate within America will force it upon them.