Guy Harrison is an assistant professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. His new book, On the Sidelines (Nebraska, 2021), is out this month.
I conducted my research on women sportscasters in the U.S. for the better part of seven years. The most consistent feedback I received during that time, as I presented and published that research in various venues, was that the research was “timely.” Whether it was sideline reporter Pam Oliver’s demotion from Fox Sports’ top NFL commentary crew in 2014, the misogynistic response to Jessica Mendoza’s postseason debut as a Major League Baseball TV analyst in 2015, Erin Andrews’s tearful testimony as a stalking victim during her civil trial in 2016, the #MeToo movement in 2017, Maria Taylor being yelled at by Alabama head football coach Nick Saban during a postgame interview in 2018, or Taylor’s well-documented exit from ESPN less than a month ago, it seemed women sportscasters were often in the news. While interviewing women sportscasters for this project, I had hoped that, by the time On the Sidelines was published, it would cease to be so “timely,” and that I could qualify many of the arguments I make in the book by stating that things are getting better.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
In fact, recent events should signify to us that the issues impacting women sportscasters run deeper than many of us expected. To be sure, ESPN’s failure to meet Maria Taylor’s contract demands had much to do with her exit but the network’s culture, which has reportedly long been hostile to Black employees and Black women especially (Taylor is Black), also played a critical role in her decision to take her talents to NBC. That anti-Black culture was illustrated, quite vividly, when Taylor’s former ESPN colleague, Rachel Nichols (who is white), was recorded last summer telling a confidant that Taylor had earned a hosting position over her because ESPN needed “to give [Taylor] more things to do because [the network was] feeling pressure about [its] crappy longtime record on diversity…” It’s a claim many people of color—and some white women—have heard in the workplace, that they were hired or promoted to improve an organization’s diversity and not because they are actually qualified to do the job.
Nichols’s comments, along with the fact that she (and not Taylor) is still employed by ESPN, demonstrates one of On the Sidelines’s central arguments: the sportscasting industry’s longstanding inclination for idealized white femininity is the foundation upon which nearly all women sportscaster mistreatment rests.
That is, when it comes to the harassment of women sportscasters or the prejudice that stunts their hiring, development, and growth, it’s not just sexism. The issues all women sportscasters endure, regardless of race, stem from a widely-accepted notion of an ideal white, hyperfeminine woman, as defined by Black (Dorothy Roberts and bell hooks) and white (Katerina Deliovsky) feminist scholars alike: long hair (preferably blonde), thin build, fair skin, youthful appearance, and perhaps most importantly, deferential to men and therefore seemingly open to their romantic or sexual advances. And as these feminists have long argued, as a result of this ideal, white women enjoy certain advantages but, to varying degrees, all women suffer.
The sports broadcasting industry has long sought to employ the ideal white woman, going back to Phyllis George, 1971 winner of the Miss America pageant and the first woman to hold a national on-air sportscaster position. Men (and women) in and out of the industry have internalized these expectations and, in some cases, have acted on them. Thus is largely why Pam Oliver, who is Black and was in her 50s in 2014, was demoted and replaced with a younger white woman with blonde hair named Erin Andrews. It’s why some men (and women) hated that Jessica Mendoza showed no deference when she replaced a man as one of ESPN’s lead baseball analysts in 2015. The perception that women sportscasters are hired to serve at the pleasure of heterosexual men no doubt played a role in Andrews’s stalker snooping on her body through a hotel room peephole. And, while Nick Saban is not known to be warm, friendly, and deferential with the media in general, it’s more difficult to imagine him, as he did with Maria Taylor, scolding a male reporter on national television for asking a question that Saban was not inclined to answer.
Taking all of this into account, it should not surprise us that, after a year of tiptoeing around the fractured relationship between Taylor and Nichols, and entertaining Taylor’s demands for a higher salary, it is Taylor who ESPN decided it no longer needed. Although telegenic and still relatively young (34), she is not white and she is not deferential to her white colleagues or the (mostly) men who negotiate contracts.
It stands to reason, then, that if we simultaneously attend to sexism and racism in sports broadcasting, research on all women sportscasters may stop being so “timely.”