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ESPN’s leak of NCAA Women’s Tournament bracket is a symptom of the network’s systemic issues

A refusal by ESPN and other mainstream sports media outlets to cover women’s sports and associated issues equitably is at the heart of yesterday’s debacle. In this edition of Hoops Happening, a look into the issues at ESPN, Natasha Cloud’s tweets about the leak, and more.

Advertising Week New York 2016 - Day 4
Former ESPN reporter Kate Fagan (right) speaks on a panel with espnW senior vice president Laura Gentile (left) and former WNBA president Lisa Borders (center) at the Women & Sport event on Sept. 29, 2016 in New York City.
Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York

After Mississippi State was named the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament’s Portland region, Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer — with guards Jazzmun Holmes and Jordan Danberry seated next to him — said during the team’s Selection Monday press conference:

The commitment colleges and universities are making to women’s basketball — they’re seeing that when you make an investment you’re going to get a return.

What the colleges and universities now understand and back with dollars and sense (pun intended), the rest of the sports world — especially mainstream sports media — refuses to acknowledge.

Refuses, because it is hard to attribute a trait like ignorance to a multi-million dollar company like ESPN, which refuses to invest equitably in its coverage of women’s sports.

Hours before the NCAAW Tournament Selection Show was set to air on ESPN2 yesterday, the bracket was leaked on ESPNU.

ESPN acknowledged, via Twitter, that the bracket “was mistakenly posted on ESPNU” and stated: “We deeply regret the the error and extend our apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community.”

The network’s apology sat well with no one.

Athletes, coaches and teams worked hard all year for this big moment. Schools had organized viewing parties. So, once the genie was out of the bottle, there was no way to stuff it back in, and Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, for one, sounded off in a series of apropos tweets:

Sabrina Ionescu, who will be competing in this year’s NCAAW Tournament for the No. 2-seed Oregon Ducks in the Portland region also shared thoughts about ESPN’s debacle, which Cloud retweeted:

The selection show was moved up to 5 p.m. ET (from 7 p.m. ET). At the start of the early broadcast, ESPN’s Maria Taylor read a statement acknowledging the error, apologizing to the NCAA on ESPN’s behalf and expressing that an investigation will be conducted into how this happened.

ESPN’s issues go beyond botched NCAAW bracket reveal

Any “investigation” must go beyond the mayhem ESPN created yesterday and focus on the overall culture of the network which remains entrenched in a commitment to ostracizing, marginalizing and suppressing coverage of women’s sports. This will only change if parent-company Disney installs a leader at the top who is committed to reversing the ongoing, pervasive gender-based discrimination by which ESPN is now defined.

After all, when Kate Fagan resigned from ESPN last year after seven years with the network, she stated in an interview with The Washington Post:

To continue at ESPN I would have to be immersed in the day-to-day in sports. And I found myself more and more interested in other aspects of sports — like how it connects to our culture. That was not going to be the big business of ESPN.

Another visible ESPN personality to resign over what amounts to issues with the network’s content commitments and culture is Jemele Hill.

She was reprimanded by the network for the political comments she posted on Twitter but stated in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that she and Mike Smith, with whom she hosted various programs over the years, received backlash from the network long before Donald Trump became president, stating:

Mike (Smith) and I specifically were called political, way before any of the Trump stuff ever happened. And I always thought that was a very interesting label, because frankly, I think that most of the time it was said because we were the two black people.

It wasn’t our fault that Chance the Rapper decided to wear a Colin Kaepernick T-shirt and say that he wasn’t supporting the NFL. We didn’t have him on the show for that. We had him on the show to talk about him being in Vegas for Mayweather-McGregor. But because you have the two black people that are outspoken, with another outspoken black artist, suddenly the show is too political.

Of his decision to offer Hill a position at The Atlantic after her departure from ESPN, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg said:

Put it this way, my journalistic interests are somewhat different than Disney’s. Let me be diplomatic. I’m not sure that, as a consumer of ESPN products, I’m not sure that ESPN is particularly interested, especially in television, in standing at the intersection of sports and culture and race and gender and politics. It can be a pretty dangerous corner for some people. But that’s exactly the intersection that I want to be at.

I like having journalists on our staff who make all sorts of useful trouble, and Jemele, I believe, will make all sorts of useful trouble.

How experiences of former ESPN employees relate to the bracket leak

Refusing to address issues “at the intersection of sports and culture and race and gender and politics” — just pretending all of those issues don’t exist — erases women from conversations because women are most often affected by these issues in the world of sports. So, once issues concerning women are erased, women are erased, too — by omission.

If ESPN covers women’s sports as equitably as it covers men’s sports, it would be forced to address bigger issues surrounding women in sports. Because ESPN does not want to delve into those issues at all, sweeps those issues under the rug while keeping coverage of women’s sports limited.

So, with inequitable investment of time, resources and attention toward women’s sports — when women’s sports (and, therefore, women) are treated like an afterthought — we end up with the inexcusable and deflating experience of a bracket leaking hours early, and all the consequences that come along with it. Thus, ESPN’s apology means nothing unless the network fundamentally addresses the issues which make discriminating against women part of its business plan.

As Cloud stated via Twitter: This “would never happen on the men’s side.”

We all have something to fight for. Something that calls us to lead. The question is, How will you get it done? -Captain Marvel