I have a fond place in my heart for the professional Ombudsperson*. That’s probably not a comment that generally leaves the typical, everyday person’s mouth, but I certainly never claimed to be the typical, everyday person. The Ombudsperson historically has been an impartial public official appointed by an administration to receive and investigate citizen complaints against administrative acts of government. The first official Ombudsperson was elected by the Parliament of Sweden in 1809, and the idea has since spread across the globe. The once exclusive government position has extended into the private sector over time, but the duties have remained the same. The corporate, university, and other non-government entities Ombudsperson serves as the ethical hallmark and public representative of the organization. The private sector Ombudsperson is responsible for voicing the concerns of employees and the general public, as well as investigating injustices and complaints brought forth against the organization. Both public and private sector Ombudspersons act as unbiased mediators and work with an alternative dispute resolution sensibility. You can find more information on the role of the Ombudsperson at these websites: http://www.usombudsman.org/index.cfm and http://www.ombudsassociation.org/.
So, why the wealth of information on the not-so-normal topic of the Ombudsperson you ask? I was just getting to that. As I was perusing the pages of ESPN.com I discovered that the sports entertainment guru also has an Ombudsperson. What I was absolutely flabbergasted to find out was that ESPN (the entire organization, not just the website) had a woman serving as their Ombudsperson, Le Anne Schreiber.
As a feminist and advocate for anything that betters the plight of women, rest assured that it is not the gender of the person in the leadership position that shocks me. Schreiber’s laundry list of accomplishments, which includes being a former sports editor for the New York Times and the first woman to hold said position in any daily running American newspaper, makes her an obvious and intelligent fit for the position. I couldn’t be happier to see such a distinguished woman in a high-profile seat.
What concerns me is the description of the ESPN Ombudsperson’s duties taken directly from the ESPN website which states Schreiber, “…will critique decision-making, coverage and presentation of news, issues and events on ESPN television and other media.” I find this description both hilarious and infuriating, which is an absolutely awkward combination I might add. How is it possible that Schreiber has been in position as public representative of ESPN since April of this year and has yet to address the overwhelming concern regarding the coverage of women’s sport by the media outlet which employs her? I don’t know whether any ESPN Ombudsperson in the past has ever addressed this issue. ESPN, in all of its various media forms, has historically ignored and relegated the accomplishments of all sporting women.
A perfect example of the media mogul’s handiwork came just a few weeks back in their coverage of Wimbledon. Never mind the fact that 2007 marked the first time men and women received equal prize money at the prestigious tournament (see Perry Cohen’s piece on this website for more information), or the 50-year anniversary of Althea Gibson’s triumph as the first Black person (man or woman) to win at Wimbledon. No, that information took a back seat to much more enticing topics in their coverage of the tournament: old farts playing tennis, busty opponents, and spandex. At age 27 and on Wimbledon win #4, Venus Williams was somehow depicted as a decrepit old hag with one foot in the grave. Readers were informed that Williams’ win was made much easier due to her opponent’s large “assets” and Bonnie Desimone, the writer of one particularly enlightening article on ESPN.com, stated that if Marion Bertoli (Williams’ challenger in the final match) were to ever have a film made about her life, it should be titled “Some Real Tennis Players Have Curves.” Desimone’s coverage of Williams’ win also brought readers remarkable information regarding why there was a switch from skirt to spandex in the concluding moments of the Wimbledon final and that Williams’ has a professional golfer boyfriend. I was confused and offended after reading these articles. Was this Wimbledon coverage or a Penthouse interview?
ESPN’s treatment of the women’s Wimbledon championship is an extreme example of their commitment, or lack thereof, to coverage of women’s sports. I find it extremely hard to believe that a woman of Le Anne Schreiber’s stature has not yet toyed with the idea of addressing the issue of ESPN’s reporting of women’s sports (and how ridiculously humiliating and ludicrous it is), and I find it equally hard to believe that no one has written to the Ombudsperson voicing his or her concerns regarding said issue. So, in addition to ranting and raving in a creative and constructive manner, this blog is also being submitted to Schreiber as an official grievance and objection to ESPN’s coverage of women’s sports.
Women athletes have historically been undercut, objectified, and infantilized, and have had their accomplishments downgraded or ignored entirely. ESPN has routinely given women’s sports insufficient on-air and in-print exposure compared to their men counterparts, and has completely failed to report on women athletes and their respective sports in a dignified manner. Next time I read about Venus Williams on ESPN.com or in their magazine, I want to see reporting on her insanely fast 125mph serve and 14 Grand Slam wins, not a detailed description of her wardrobe, dating status, or her opponent’s bra size. Just in case ESPN wasn’t aware, we came to you for sports!
*I have chosen the term Ombudsperson as opposed to the traditional Ombudsman because, although some references cite Ombudsman as a historically gender-neutral term, I could not research this extensively to verify and I did not wish to offend any readers.