Late Thursday night, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann—as is his wont—went off-script. He took a break from his usual pugnacious pontificating to show the 45-second viral video of Ray Rice, the star running back of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, hauling his unconscious then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator at a casino in Atlantic City. According to Deadspin, one eyewitness claimed that Palmer “had spit on Rice and that in retaliation, he uppercut her, knocking her completely unconscious,” while another said he struck her “like he punched a guy.”
Atlantic City Police, meanwhile, reported that after reviewing the surveillance footage, “both parties were involved in a physical altercation,” and that “both Rice and Palmer struck each other with their hands.” No explanation was provided for the content of the video, however. And the police ended up filing a simple assault complaint against both Rice and Palmer. One month later, the combative couple tied the knot.
Despite the NFL handing down regular four-game suspensions for marijuana use, and two games for on-field helmet-to-helmet hits, Rice received a meager two-game suspension and fine for knocking his fiancée unconscious.
“The message for the women who the league claims constitute 50 percent of its fan base is simple: the NFL wants your money,” Olbermann exclaimed. “It will do nothing else for you. It will tolerate those who abuse you verbally, and those who abuse you physically.”
Not all at “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” share Olbermann’s beliefs. Last Friday, ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith appeared on First Take to mansplain domestic violence, blabbering that, although it is wrong to beat the ever-living shit out of a woman, women should do everything in their power to keep from “provoking” men.
“We also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation,” said Smith. “Not that there’s real provocation, but the elements of provocation, you got to make sure that you address them, because we’ve got to do is do what we can to try and prevent the situation from happening in any way.”
After Smith’s bizarre rambling, he was called out by his ESPN colleague Michelle Beadle, co-host of the program SportsNation, for blaming the victim:
In response, Smith essentially doubled-down on his previous comments on Twitter, saying over a series of tweets, “If a man is pathetic and stupid enough to put his hands on a woman—which I have NEVER DONE, btw—of course he needs to pay the price. Who on earth is denying that? But what about addressing women on how they can help prevent the obvious wrong being done upon them?” Smith, who’s since deleted the tweets, once again took it upon himself to point out that a women who was reportedly uppercut to the point of losing consciousness, who then had her limp body dragged out of an elevator, should do some soul-searching to find out just how she could “prevent the obvious wrong” from being done.
So, was Smith suspended—or even fined—for his misogynistic comments? No. After issuing a lame apology on Monday for, he said, the “most egregious error of my career,” ESPN issued the following statement:
“We will continue to have constructive dialogue on this important topic. Stephen’s comments last Friday do not reflect our company’s point of view. As his apology demonstrates, he recognizes his mistakes and has a deeper appreciation of our company values.”
When reached for comment, ESPN’s vice president of communications, Josh Krulewitz, said, “We don’t normally comment on matters of employee discipline as a regular course of business.”
If you’re left scratching your head wondering why Smith hasn’t been penalized at all, you’re probably unfamiliar with both the culture of ESPN—a boy’s club where reports of egregious incidents/remarks by its commentators vis-à-vis the treatment of women have plagued the network for years—and the strange corporate apparatus itself: a hyperbolic spin machine masquerading as a “news network.” It is, simply put, the Fox News of Sports.
Let’s start with the history of some of its commentators toward women. In Those Guys Have All the Fun, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ fascinating oral history of ESPN, the authors wrote how it got so bad for women at the network that, “No fewer than fifty cases of sexual harassment were reported by women on the staff to ESPN management in the first half of the 1990s.” And the most notorious alleged sexual harasser, believe it or not, was the network’s current golden boy, Mike Tirico. These days, Tirico announces everything from the World Cup to the NBA Finals to the crown jewel, Monday Night Football. But in the halcyon ’90s, the book claims that six women came forward with complaints about Tirico’s alleged stalking, and Tirico “was suspended for three months and ordered to seek counseling.”
“I think part of the sexual harassment stuff was location,” former ESPN chairman Steve Bornstein says in the book. “It’s one hundred miles from real civilization, and you got the kind of testosterone, jock mentality, frat house approach that’s pretty much a recipe for stupid decisions being made.”
But the problems carried over into the aughts. In 2002, NBA reporter Jason Jackson was fired by ESPN for what he “admitted were inappropriate comments, sexual in nature, that he made in e-mails,” according to reports. Then, in 2006, Harold Reynolds, a regular fixture on ESPN’s program Baseball Tonight, was reportedly fired from the network. Initially, ESPN didn’t give a reason for Reynolds’ departure, but it was later reported that he was allegedly fired for “sexually harassing an intern” (Reynolds, for his part, claims it was “a brief and innocuous hug.”) That same year, according to USA Today, star football analyst Sean Salisbury was suspended “for a week for then-unspecified reasons.” After repeated denials, Salisbury later admitted that the suspension was because he took, according to USA Today, “cellphone photos of his private parts and showed them” to a woman at a Connecticut bar. Despite this, Salisbury was allowed to stay at ESPN until 2008 when, according to the article, his contract wasn’t renewed and “he says ESPN never specifically cited the incident in letting him go.”
But wait, there’s more. The next year, in 2007, a makeup artist for the ESPN show Cold Pizza reportedly sued the network, claiming “she was pinched and fondled by sports commentator Woody Paige and subjected to crude sexual comments by ESPN host Jay Crawford at the show's studio in Manhattan.” The case was tossed out the following year on a technicality. In 2009, ESPN’s baseball analyst Steve Phillips was fired by the network after he confessed to having an affair with a production assistant there. And 2011 saw veteran sportscaster Ron Franklin, 68, be fired by the network for referring to a female sideline reporter on-air as “sweet baby” and then, when she replied that she didn’t like being addressed in that fashion, he said, “OK, then, asshole.” Back in 2005, Franklin had referred to sideline reporter Holly Rowe as “sweetheart.”
As for ESPN’s overall treatment of women, the network issued the following statement to The Daily Beast: “ESPN is the leader in the sports industry in employing women on air, online, in print and in leadership positions in a variety of disciplines. We provide the most coverage of women's sports and women's issues related to sports. We are proud of our commitment to women behind the scenes and in our content, and are always striving to improve.”
The incident with Tony Kornheiser, a Pardon the Interruption talking head, serves to highlight the problem with ESPN. In 2010, Kornheiser was suspended for just two weeks for making some pretty horrific statements about reporter Hannah Storm’s appearance on his radio show. He reportedly said she was wearing “a horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She’s got on red go-go boots and a Catholic school plaid skirt… way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now.” He continued: “She’s got on her typically very, very tight shirt. She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body… I know she’s very good, and I’m not supposed to be critical of ESPN people, so I won’t… but Hannah Storm… come on now! Stop! What are you doing?” That still wasn’t it. He later said of Storm, “She’s what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point.”
Two weeks. But it’s Kornheiser’s apology that gets to the heart of the problem with ESPN. “I was wrong,” said Kornheiser, according to The NY Post. “This is sort of what I do, and I’m sorry for it… Not the first time and won’t be the last time, but I apologize for it this time.”
This is sort of what I do. ESPN’s primary objective, it seems, is provocation and its currency hyperbole. This is the network, after all, that hired Rush Limbaugh as an NFL color commentator (he later resigned for making racist statements concerning Eagles QB Donovan McNabb). They ran headlines—not once, but twice—referring to NBA stud Jeremy Lin as a “chink.” And one of their commentators accidentally called Martin Luther King Jr. “Martin Luther King Coon Jr.” on the air.
In the wake of NBA player Jason Collins’ poignant Sports Illustrated piece announcing he’s gay, ESPN not only failed to cover the news for several hours, but also saw one of its on-air talking heads, NBA reporter Chris Broussard, call homosexuality “an open rebellion to God.” This is, by the way, the rough equivalent of having a Bible-thumping redneck on-air in the ’50s speaking out against the integration of Major League Baseball. Was Broussard fined, or suspended? Nope.
And then this February, NFL analyst Herman Edwards spoke out against drafting Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, because of the “baggage” he would bring to a locker room—in reference to the “media attention” his presence would bring. These sentiments were echoed more recently by former NFL head coach (and ex-ESPN analyst) Tony Dungy, who said he “wouldn’t have taken [Sam]” in the draft because he “wouldn't want to deal with all of it. It's not going to be totally smooth...things will happen.” And you know who came to Dungy’s defense? Stephen A. Smith.
This isn’t reportage; it’s trolling. And as far as trolls go, ESPN is like Jotnar, the gargantuan mountain troll wreaking havoc in the Trollhunter films. Their job is to fire you up, whether via jaw-dropping sports highlight or off-color pronouncement.
And you know what? They’re damn good at it.
Update: Late this afternoon, ESPN announced that they will suspend Stephen A. Smith for one week from First Take and ESPN Radio.