Sideline to Byline: Diversity numbers must translate into opportunity in sports media – Daily Trojan Online

When people ask me how I became a sports editor, I always say I kind of fell into the role. I checked the sports section box on my Daily Trojan application thinking nothing of it — a week later I was scrambling to follow a golf scorecard for a recap due in less than 72 hours. The section was never a place I thought I could lead, but here I am.

I’m no sports encyclopedia, but I grew up in a sports family. SportsCenter was on loop for hours at a time in my living room, and we never missed a chance to see our hometown Royals or Chiefs play. I’ll never forget the collective excitement of my city transforming from a fly-over spot on the map to world champions both in the World Series and the Super Bowl. 

We feel such personal pride in the athletes most of us will never meet, and I’ve found that phenomena holds no geographic barriers. It’s something I still love to witness and write about at USC, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel like a fraud every time I do. I’m writing this attempting to contextualize such a feeling. 

Sports media holds no tangible barrier of entry for me, yet a presence of subtle exclusion remains. It’s there when I am one of only a handful of women in a packed press box. It’s there where I see the countless suits on the countless pregame and halftime shows. It’s there when I see the abysmal numbers of women across all newspaper sports sections in the country. 

The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport releases a bi-annual study tracking the makeup of newspapers’ sports section leadership across the country. Their most recent publication in 2018 gave an overall grade of D+ for racial and gender equity in hiring practices. 

Women only make up 10% of this country’s sports editors. Looking at this study’s record, that trend hasn’t improved in its decade of coverage. The people setting the story agenda for local sports happenings are still overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white. 

When I first started looking into the problem of diversity in sports media, that number seemed incredibly off to me — at least through my lens as an ESPN consumer. But that makes sense with ESPN being the, if not only, sports outlet with improved hiring practices under the leadership of former network President John Skipper. 

Under his reign, diversity became a prerogative both on and off camera. The outlet, seen as the mecca for all sports reporting, accounted for the largest totals of women and people of color who are sports editors, assistant editors and writers. In a way, ESPN has a near monopoly when it comes to diverse voices within this sector of media. 

It’s not a bad thing — if anything I’m happy the authority on sports has a production team that strives to reflect its audiences. But we have to remember that this sports media powerhouse is far from perfect when it comes to supporting said diverse voices. 

From my vantage point the watershed moment exposing the network’s actual treatment of its staffers was Jemele Hill’s departure in 2018. 

Hill, a sports reporter and on-air talent for 12 years at ESPN, was suspended for calling out Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner, on Twitter for his McCarthian stance on national anthem protests in 2017. She has repeatedly stated that the network’s hesitancy to enter itself into “political” discussions wasn’t the whole reason behind her leaving, but the tension within her workplace suffocated her individuality in reporting. 

“You give up a lot of your creative freedom, your autonomy,” said Hill on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast in 2020. 

Last year proved that even the most powerful sports media outlet couldn’t separate itself from politics anymore, but it still saddens me that it took such a societal-shifting event like the murder of George Floyd for the network to readdress its identity-erasing practice.

Diversity in a newspaper section cannot serve as a PR bragging point, and the corporate obsession to appear inclusive takes away from the actual work needed to support and uplift different voices. Writers, editors and producers alike can’t just be shoved into a mold of what has been done — people need space to innovate content, to make it more inclusive and representative. 

The identity of who sets the sports media agenda directly dictates what gets covered — and the lack of diversity with local sports outlets means a lack of perspectives for specific sports markets. 

Take Los Angeles. The editors of the Los Angeles Times sports section are almost exclusively white men, save Deputy Sports Editor Iliana Limón Romero. For such a major market with sports fans of all different backgrounds, this is a snapshot of how whitewashed sports coverage can become for a certain area. 

At the Daily Trojan, we are not excluded from this dilemma on representative reporting staffs. While our sports section is 30% women, we still miss the mark ensuring our coverage is inclusive and reflective of the diversity within USC Athletics. 

In our letter from the editor last semester, we acknowledged our historical fault with insular sports reporting, but I can’t write this column confident that we’ve followed through with the solutions promised.

I can criticize the coldness I feel from this sports market for not being an expert in sports, but I also must acknowledge the privilege from barriers journalists of color must face while trying to bring a new perspective. That effort has to be more than just writing this column or reading a sports media diversity study, it has to be followed through in actively uplifting voices of color, both in my section and within USC Athletics.

We may be “just” a student-run paper, but I believe we have the reach of a local outlet, connecting to communities both on and off campus. Our practices and priorities, when it comes to diversity, ultimately reflect the broader media environment. If we, as student journalists, don’t reflect on our paper’s representation, how can we criticize the media giants we aspire to be a part of?

To push the envelope, we have to scrutinize both ESPN and local outlets and acknowledge the space Black and Indigenous people and people of color and women journalists are making for themselves. Hill now writes incredible pieces for The Atlantic and produces her own podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.” Romero is a part of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Task Force, creating networks for journalists of Hispanic descent to connect. 

The peaks of the sports media mountain can be goals to reach, but if we’re going to fix the diversity reporting problem we have to expand our reporting and coverage to different perspectives. 

Taylor Mills is a sophomore writing about sports media. She is also a Sports Editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Sideline to Byline,” runs every other Monday.