ESPN leads the field in sports media diversity

Conclusion of a two-part story

Jemele Hill Jemele Hill / Facebook

America’s newspapers have been shrinking for several years, and not unlike most U.S. industries, diversity becomes a causality when cuts occur.

The latest Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Racial and Gender Report Card, whose key findings were featured here last week, showed that the percentages of Whites among the five analyzed positions — sports editors, assistant sports editors, columnists, reporters and copy editors/designers — remain in the 70s and above; all White at nearly all the major U.S. newspapers and websites, except one.

“ESPN has been a leader in the hiring of women and people of color in key positions,” The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) Director Richard Lapchick noted: Two of 12 people of color who are sports editors, 11 women of color columnists, 18 of 24 Black male columnists, six of eight Latinos, all three Asian columnists and five of six people categorized as “other” all work for ESPN.

Former ESPN president John Skipper’s diversity leadership during his tenure should be more widely recognized, Lapchick suggested, especially The Undefeated that was finally launched in 2016. On a daily basis, The Undefeated discusses how race, sports, and culture intersect. “The Undefeated changed the quality of ESPN [by publishing] stories that wouldn’t have been told by [mainstream sports outlets], the TIDES director told the MSR.

Originally announced in 2014 with Jason Whitlock as editor in chief, The Undefeated never got off the ground, as the oft-controversial sports columnist reportedly was a terrible manager unable to attract and retain talent, and he kept up a negative workplace environment. ESPN fired him in 2015 and hired Kevin Merida, an award-winning journalist and author from the Washington Post, where he was managing editor.

Under Merida, the website took off and attracted top talent such as William C. Rhoden, who left the New York Times, and Jemele Hill, who last week NABJ named its Journalist of the Year, and who will be honored in August at their convention in her hometown Detroit. The Undefeated’s long-form stories and commentaries take on and expertly give context to subjects that rarely find a place in mainstream media.

Maya Jones Photo courtesy of ESPN

“I started at ESPN about five years ago,” said Associate Editor Maya Jones, a former ESPN The Magazine senior researcher. Jones began her journalism career as a freelancer at the New Orleans Times-Picayune while in college.

Associate Editor Rhiannon Walker graduated with her broadcast journalism degree from the University of Maryland in 2015 and had secured nine media internships while in college. I met both Jones and Walker last summer at the NABJ convention in New Orleans.

“I had a high school teacher who tried to talk me out of [studying journalism], Walker recalled. “She wouldn’t let me write on the [school] newspaper. I pulled my weight three times over to get to ESPN.”

I subscribe to both The Undefeated and Robert Littal’s BlackSportsOnline (BSO). Littal and I finally met face to face at the New Orleans NABJ, but we have talked by phone a few times over the years. “Early in my career,” he told me as he thanked me for my support, “a lot of people didn’t take me seriously.” He is not restricted by so-called mainstream norms: “I can say exactly what [the Black athletes] say.”

Lapchick in his executive summary wrote, “What would be the impact of having more people of color and women involved in sports media? Would stories become more inclusive of all athletes and better represent and appeal to our entire society? The positions evaluated in this study are the primary decision-makers in sports media, and they determine the content reported by their organizations.”