Why you should care
Because the media plays a powerful role in the sports we watch.
Some days it feels like Kate Fagan’s life is dictated by boorish men, and today is one of those days. Raymond Moore, the CEO of one of tennis’s biggest tournaments, has held forth on the “lady player” — namely that women “ride on the coattails of the men” and should “get down on their knees” to thank male players— which means we have to reschedule our interview so Fagan can get on the air and weigh in on sports and sexism.
When such incidents occur, and it’s more often than you might imagine, sports fans look to Fagan for help interpreting them. The 34-year-old staffer for espnW is remarkably versatile: She can wax eloquent about basketball on her FiveThirtyEight podcast one week and write a cover story on a soccer superstar the next — all the while dealing out sports stats with the best of them. But Fagan has used her platform to talk about the issues that most sports magazines barely touch, like mental health, domestic abuse, racism and sexism. In 2014, she published a memoir about coming out as gay on her college basketball team, and she’s set to publish a book about Madison Holleran, the UPenn runner who committed suicide, soon. Along the way, Fagan has become a vocal referee, opining on the very human side of sports and calling foul on sports Neanderthals all over.
As we all know, there is ample media coverage of women’s sports. We kid. In fact, there’s less women’s sports coverage on TV news today than there was back in 1989, according to a 2015 study by Cheryl Cooky, a sports and gender scholar at Purdue University. The same study reported that coverage of women’s sports made up just 2 percent of all SportsCenter coverage in 2014. The quality and quantity of sports coverage affects the game, Cooky says: Her research shows that the popularity of a sport is a byproduct of media coverage. And compared to male players, female athletes are disastrously second class. Their salaries are lower, their sponsorships less lucrative. Some women’s teams spend their lives precariously close to folding.
Is this changing? Fagan says that ESPN and the rest of the industry are already expanding to reach women — instead of looking overseas for the next big audience — and ESPN, for its part, says it approaches “each day and program with an open mind” and has a long record of reporting on women’s sports — it launched its women’s division seven years ago. Yet some argue that such efforts are tantamount to “ghettoization,” letting platforms like SportsCenter remain boys’ clubs.
Fagan approaches her work from a personal place. The daughter of a professional basketball player overseas, Fagan herself played at the University of Colorado, making it deep into March Madness. She went semi-pro but didn’t love basketball enough to continue, she tells me in the swanky hotel bar where she often studies before taping at ESPN’s studios. She did love novels, though, and so Fagan began writing about what she knew. She covered sports at a local Colorado paper, working her way up to covering the 76ers and then all the way to espnW.
When Fagan “latches on to an issue, she’s able to clearly articulate her thoughts and opinions on it,” says espnW features editor Laura Marcinek. But can she make the general public care about mental health, identity and discrimination? Should Fagan succeed, it might be because her approach is a conscious exercise in not being pigeonholed into women’s coverage solely. She says she needs to have her “finger on the pulse of day-to-day sports” in order to “then get the opportunity to be smart about something else.” And though her first love is writing, she knows she needs to be on multiple platforms to build a core following.
Being on television as a woman has been no cakewalk. During a recent appearance, a caller requested that “the skirt” get off the screen. How does Fagan feel about that? She’d much rather have people say what they think than not know what they’re thinking. Her Twitter feed is filled with backlash — to her — something few white male reporters have to deal with. Others, like Erin Andrews, have spoken out on the difficulties of being a woman in sports journalism.
After our meeting at the hotel bar, Fagan appears on SportsCenter, reacting to Moore’s comments. She speaks confidently but not brashly, and unlike other talking heads, she often likes to pause before holding forth. Moore’s remarks, she says, call “into question a lot of things … about the power structure at the top of tennis and who in these days is looking out for the female athletes.” (Moore declined to comment for this article.)
The male anchor suggests that, deep down, a lot of people might feel the same way as Moore. Fagan agrees. But the next day, Moore will resign.