The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

PART II: What's Wrong With The Women of ESPN

More Thoughts About What's Wrong With The Women Of ESPN


There is something of a consensus opinion among those who think about sports for a living that part of the charm of the games is that the games never end. Unlike other forms of entertainment-say a movie or a play-sports are a continuous narrative. When you go see Burn After Reading, the latest George Clooney movie, it is not necessary to have seen his previous outing, Leatherheads, to follow the plot. But the same is not true for sports.

The sportswriter Leonard Koepett writes about this in his Sports Reality, Sports Illusion: "By and large we watch plays, listen to concerts or read books without regard to the content of the last play, concert, or book we experienced. [But] in sports, the relationship to earlier events is automatic, almost always present in the forefront of consciousness, and part of the melodrama that is unfolding."

Along these lines, the headline story in today's New York Times sports section is entitled: "After 3,846 Days, It's Finally the Rays' Time." Those 3,846 days refer to the gap between the first time the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ever took the field and tonight, the first time they'll take the field in a championship game. The tension of the game then rests not only one a contest between two teams who have worked hard all season to earn a chance to play tonight's game, rather a contest between the long suffering Tampa fans and the much longer suffering-though more recently sated-Red Sox fan.

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In my last post, I wanted to know what was wrong with the female reporters for ESPN, why their performances were so flat, why they always seemed to be a square peg in a round hole and other such oddities. And the reason I bring up the question of continuity in sports, of the thru-line narratives that make game appreciation an on-going dialogue rather than a one time affair, is because it addresses part of this problem.

Most of the sports discussed on ESPN are played by men. For sure, they give the WNBA it's due, pay attention when Danica Patrick wins a car race, and pour the appropriate amount of praise on either of the Williams sisters for turning women's tennis into one of the most exciting sports around, but their bread and butter fare is football, baseball and basketball-and until one of these leagues decide to integrate, these games are played by only men.

And they have always been played by men-and that fact is important here. When talking about sports today, we are always talking about sports yesterday. Just like in politics, in sport, the past will always inform the future. Part of the issue with ESPN's women then is that, in the mind of their audience, listening to women talk about male-only sports, is like listening to a white man talk about the problems black face with racism-no matter how well-informed and well-intentioned that white man may be, something rings hollow.

Why it rings hollow is a more interesting question. After all, we've never had a female President, but that doesn't mean I discount what Arianna Huffington has to say about George Bush. But many find listening to Hannah Storm talk about the Cleveland Browns ridiculous because, they say, "she's never played the game." And this is especially odd because by the "game" I don't mean football, I mean professional football. Not that the vast majority of ESPN viewers have played that game either, but that doesn't seem to matter.

What actually matters is what cognitive psychologist James Bruner meant when he said there are two primary modes of thought: the ‘paradigmatic mode' and the ‘narrative mode,' an idea I plan to expand further upon in my next post.

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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