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ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast ‘The Spy Who Signed Me’ underscores need for more WNBA media coverage

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ESPN’s most recent 30 for 30 podcast, “The Spy Who Signed Me,” highlights Sue Bird’s and Diana Taurasi’s experience playing for Shabtai Kalmanovich’s Spartak, once the best, and best treated, women’s basketball team in the world. Yet, for all the twists and turns of this captivating tale, it presents a rather unsurprising, yet sobering takeaway — the WNBA needs more coverage!

The owner of Spartak Moscow Shabtai von
Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, along with Lauren Jackson and Tina Thompson, celebrate Spartak’s victory in the final of the 2008 EuroLeague Women’s Final Four with owner Shabtai Kalmanovich.
JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

ESPN launched season six of its 30 for 30 podcasts with “The Spy Who Signed Me,” the story of Sue Bird’s and Diana Taurasi’s time as the selected, spoiled stars of Spartak — a Moscow women’s basketball team owned and operated by the gregarious and generous (yet suspicious) Shabtai Kalmanovich.

It’s a compelling story. At the close of the episode, Kate Fagan, a former ESPN writer and on-air personality, states:

The way we treat female athletes here is disrespectful. I mean it, we should be embarrassed that the best experience that Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird have where they felt most respected was by apparently an ex-KGB officer who was eventually shot dead outside of the Kremlin. He treated our female athletes with more respect than they’ve ever felt domestically. Like that, that’s quite an interesting legacy to actually try to understand.

Unfortunately, the podcast stops short of “actually try[ing] to understand” this “interesting legacy.” While describing the disrespect experienced in the United States by Bird, Taurasi and other women’s professional basketball players, the podcast does not consider the decisions that have produced — and reproduced — this disrespect. Most crucially, the program does not dare analyze the role of ESPN, and sports media in general, in this disrespectful and embarrassing legacy.

Bird, Taurasi and their love for an assumed former KGB agent

There are forces that have prevented women athletes from earning fair compensation and necessary appreciation in the United States. As such, Bird, Taurasi and other women professional basketball players must go to great lengths to earn an income commensurate with their excellence, which leaves them blameless for potentially values-compromising decisions they may have made. Nevertheless, it can be a bit startling to hear Bird and Taurasi speak with such fondness about an assumed former KGB agent.

Of Kalmanovich, Bird recollects:

Loved his family, loved women’s basketball, loved us. Viewed us as performers and entertainers and wanted to share our talents with the world. And then also, he was you know, I was going to say providing, but he was allowing us to like have a career, and make tons of money doing it, and with that you’re able to take that home, and have a life.

But, because of the disrespect they have endured as women athletes in the U.S., their affection for Kalmanovich is understandable, as is their willingness to remain ignorant of his questionable affairs.

On the reports and rumors of Kalmanovich’s actions and arrests, Taurasi asserts:

I mean life is about second chances, right? Shabtai wanted to be more than a convicted spy. He wanted to be more than whatever else people suggest he is. He wanted to be more than that.

Basketball allowed him to be more.

In turn, because he cared about women’s basketball and respected women’s basketball players, he became a generous patron that players could appreciate. So, while the NBA’s recent imbroglio with China has encouraged an examination of the balance between principle and profit for sports leagues and individual athletes, the podcast does not aim to encourage such questions. Instead, “The Spy Who Signed Me” appears to cajole sympathy for the plight of the modern women’s basketball star.

Disrespected in her home country, she has to travel to a cold, corrupt communist one to play for a charismatic yet questionable man.

“The Spy Who Signed Me,” like the previous 30 for 30 podcast, “Back Pass,” about the collapse of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), effectively activates emotions of the women athletes being novelties, which serves as evidence of the enduring inequities encountered by women in sports. But this treatment of complex issues women athletes face encourages audiences to express further admiration for all that Bird, Taurasi and other stars of women’s sports have achieved.

Yet, in order to inspire this appreciation, the podcasts largely positions Bird, Taurasi and their fellow female hoopers as victims, subject to disrespect so severe that they would become dependent on a paternalistic figure to pad their wallets.

And what is essential but overlooked in “The Spy Who Signed Me”? ESPN is complicit in the climate of disrespect that sent Bird and Taurasi to snowy Moscow and continues to ship other women to an array of international outposts.

ESPN, the worldwide leader in men’s sports

While ESPN appears willing to create content about disrespected women athletes, it has consistently proven unwilling to use its sports media muscle to give these women the respect they deserve.

In an interview about the podcast with NPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show, Sue Bird emphasizes the importance of “investing” in women’s basketball:

And I’m not just talking about money. The thing in America that we are constantly begging for is media coverage. ... From what I understand, we get two percent of media coverage in terms of sports. So, it is interesting to think about what it could be like when women’s basketball, women’s sports, are invested in.

With the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader” situated to provide this, why hasn’t it? Supply, after all, can create demand.

For example, every four years America falls in love with a young woman athlete we have never heard of before. NBC fires up that iconic, instrumental Olympic music to convince its audience that some young woman athlete — be she a swimmer, gymnast or track star — is awesome and important. So, you better stay up late and watch her perform on tape delay! And then watch her interview on The Today Show the next morning!

It is in NBC’s interest to make Americans emotionally invest in previously little-known athletes. So they do so, injecting their coverage with the requisite gravitas to generate attention and affection.

ESPN does the same with its coverage of the NFL and NBA. Ultimately inconsequential announcements are presented as “breaking news,” with anchors and the audience breathlessly awaiting details from Adam Schefter or Adrian Wojnarowski. The network effectively manufactures a sense of importance through obsessive analysis, which furthers interest.

This interest then accrues to the leagues, its teams and its players. In 2016, the NBA signed record television deals with ESPN and Turner Sports, causing an enormous leap in league revenue, which benefited owners through increased franchise valuations and players via increased salaries.

The WNBA does not receive such media treatment.

It’s time for structural change, not sympathetic stories

Coverage of the WNBA comes across as perfunctory and obligatory, and it does not inspire interest or incentivize financial investment.

Sociologists Cheryl Cooky and Michael Messner have completed a 25-year longitudinal study that “measures the quantity and quality of television sports news and highlights programs’ coverage of men’s and women’s sports.” The 2015 iteration of their study, published in the volume No Slam Dunk, determined that when it comes to televised sports, “It’s (still) dude time!”

Answering their question, “What would respectful coverage of women’s sports on news and highlights shows actually look like?,” Cooky and Messner introduce three “benchmarks”:

1.) Present a roughly equitable quantity of coverage of women’s sports.

2.) Present women’s sports stories in ways roughly equivalent in quality with the typical presentation of men’s sports. This refers, of course, both to the technical quality ... and to the sports anchor’s ...

3.) Hire and retain on-camera sports anchors that are capable and willing to do steps 1 and 2 ... [H]iring and retention decisions should prioritize anchors and analysts — women and men — who are knowledgeable about and love women’s sports.

ESPN could choose to catalyze this change.

How about regularly leading with WNBA highlights on SportsCenter? How about putting WNBA stories on the front page of ESPN.com? How about having ESPN’s main social media accounts post and re-post news about the WNBA? How about promoting (and paying) WNBA troopers LaChina Robinson and Holly Rowe like they are Stephen A. Smith?

ESPN could choose to infuse coverage of the WNBA with a sense of urgency, anticipation and necessity. Based on its 30 for 30 podcasts, ESPN recognizes that women’s sports are important. Even more, it recognizes that women athletes are disrespected. But, for now, it appears the network would rather tell sympathetic stories about the secondary status of women athletes than initiate substantial, structural change.

An “interesting legacy” for sure.