It’s been a big past few weeks for sports, with Peyton Manning announcing his retirement, the Warriors continuing to leave people in awe (besides the time when, you know, they lost to the Lakers) and conference tournaments for basketball starting up (BRING ON THE MADNESS).
But the sports story that I’ve been most closely keeping track of recently has been none of these: It’s the lawsuit of former ESPN reporter Erin Andrews against a Nashville hotel where a stalker filmed her changing through her hotel room’s peephole in 2008.
The reactions of some Internet trolls to Andrews’s $55 million award are disgusting but don’t particularly surprise me. Instead, it strikes me as the type of sexist rhetoric that won’t ever truly go away. The argument from the defense — that Andrews benefited from the incident — perplexes me, not simply because it’s ridiculous and heartless but also because the lawyers thought that that was a legitimate defense in the first place.
Yet, to me, the most shocking part of the trial has been a part of Andrews’s testimony that has not received much attention: her accusation that ESPN would not let her return to her job until she gave a sit-down interview about the incident.
Yes, Andrews testified that ESPN told her she could not go back on-air until she did an interview about the ordeal, encouraging her to do it with Good Morning America. Andrews speculated that ESPN chose Good Morning America because the program is part of ABC, which shares the same parent company (Disney) as ESPN.
Begrudgingly, Andrews agreed to do the interview, but instead opted to do it with Oprah Winfrey, whom she felt more comfortable with, as Winfrey had been a victim of sexual assault.
The day after Andrews testified about this in her trial, ESPN responded with a statement, saying “Developments in the case have been interpreted by some to mean that ESPN was unsupportive of Erin in the aftermath of her ordeal. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have been and continue to be supportive of Erin.”
Forcing your own reporter to relive the incident through a sit-down interview and making herself vulnerable to millions of viewers before she can continue with her job doesn’t seem supportive to me.
In fact, ESPN’s strong-arming looks like an attempt to either profit off her tragedy or to convince its viewers that it was not staged, which is what many people believed, according to Andrews. Either way, it is a disappointing and abominable move from the company.
Statistics show that ESPN does better than most other sports media in hiring women and incorporating them into meaningful roles within their organization. Just think of the most prominent women in the industry as a whole — I’d be willing to bet that most of them will be ESPN reporters. I’ve personally spoken with several female and male executives from ESPN, who have told me how fully committed the company is to hiring women and supporting them within the organization, setting an example for the rest of the industry to follow.
But what’s the point of hiring these women if you’re not going to support them, not only in their day-to-day work but in unthinkably traumatic situations such as these?
Erin Andrews had to deal with being secretly filmed and having an estimated 17 million
scum of the earth people view a nude video of her on the Internet. But to then have people in her life, including her employer, not only entertain the idea that it was a publicity stunt but also make her go on TV to prove her “innocence” shows that perhaps ESPN isn’t quite the woman-friendly place it prides itself on being.
It would be one thing if ESPN merely suggested or encouraged her to do the interview — still not acceptable, but perhaps a little more forgivable; but the organization would not allow her to return to her job unless the interview was done. “That was the only way I was going to be allowed to go back,” Andrews said.
If Andrews had wanted to do the interview, that would have also been a different story, but she clearly had no interest in doing so. She was mortified and scarred by what happened, and all she wanted to do was move past it.
Instead, ESPN made her talk about it to all of America.
“I wanted nothing to do with it,” Andrews said in her testimony. “[Right before the interview] I was in the office, or her green room, and I was sitting there and I was just bawling at my parents. ‘It’s Oprah Winfrey, how do you not want to see her?’ And I was just freaking out, and I just said ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this. I just want to go back to college football. I don’t want to talk about what happened to me, why can’t I just be normal? Like, why can’t I go back?’”
And when she did finally go back to ESPN after the interview, she wasn’t the same person as before the incident.
“She’s mad,” Andrews’s father said about how his daughter changed following the release of the video. “She’s scared. She’s terrified. She’s depressed. She cries. She’s full of anxiety … She’s not the girl that we used to know at all.”
That girl, according to Andrews’s therapist, dreamed of being a sportscaster since she was young. Not only have the actions of her stalker humiliated her and made people look at her as a sex object, but the lack of support from ESPN showed that they prioritized their own prerogatives over Andrews’s well-being and ability to do what she loves.
Sports media is far from treating women with the same respect given to men. But if ESPN truly wants to be the gold standard of gender inclusion, then it also has to follow through on treating its women with support and as valued members of the organization, instead of being part of the problem.
Send Alexa an award for writing the realest column this section has published all volume at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.