Cornell Athlete Ally hosted ESPN personalities Sarah Spain and Kate Fagan on Wednesday in Statler Auditorium.
According to Cornell Athlete Ally president Megan LeDuc, Spain and Fagan were selected to speak at the event because they have both worked towards diversity and inclusion in the sports field.
A 2002 graduate of Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, Spain is well known on the Chicago beat and has worked with ESPNChicago.com, espnW.com, national ESPN Radio, SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, His & Hers and more.
Fagan is a columnist and feature writer for espnW, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She is also a regular panelist on ESPN’s Around the Horn and can also be seen on First Take and His & Hers, which airs on ESPN2.
Both Spain and Fagan were student-athletes during college. Fagan played basketball for the University of Colorado from 1999-2004 (she stayed an extra year as a redshirt). She went to multiple NCAA tournaments.
“When I started coming into who I was, that’s when things started to get more complicated,” she said.
It was during this time that Fagan realized she was gay and, although she noticed that other people around her were gay as well, no one was talking about it. Because of this, despite having a great college experience playing basketball, a lot of her takeaways included confusion and an identity that she wasn’t able to articulate properly.
Spain was a member of the track and field team at Cornell throughout college and a captain her senior year. While at Cornell, she never considered working in sports.
“It never occurred to me to do it as a job because there were very limited women working in sports,” she said.
Because she worked with so few women, her goal when she first started with ESPN was to fit in and be “one of the guys”. She wanted to convince people that she was knowledgeable, while showing that she was the type of person you would want to have a beer and watch sports with.
“At some point I had to make the conscious decision that it was more important to me to talk about things that mattered,” she said. “The world is a much bigger place than ‘Are the Cavs really at risk of not making the playoffs’.”
Instead of continuing to try to be someone that appealed to everyone that liked sports, she decided to take the influence that she gained and use it to attack the things that she thought were wrong and that were important to her. Although her main job is to report sporting information, she still finds a way to use her platform to talk about social issues like sexism and homophobia.
“It’s easier for me to feel like I’m still doing some good, and that I’m attacking bigger things than just sports,” she said. “It was a really easy choice; I’ve always been very opinionated.”
Fagan explained that her first couple of years, she avoided talking about anything that had to do with LGBTQ, gender or domestic violence because she didn’t want people to think that she was gay or that she saw herself as being marginalized because of her gender.
“I still hadn’t found my voice because I still wasn’t occupying who I was yet,” she said.
Over time, these issues started going hand and hand with sports. One example she saw was Michael Sam declaring before the NFL draft that he was gay.
“I thought, ‘Am I going to sit on the sidelines of this important conversation because I haven’t processed who I am and am afraid of reinforcing stereotypes about female athletes and women in sports?,’” she said. “The answer was no, I’m not going to be scared of that.”
She explained that while these conversations gave her the opportunity to find out who she was, she didn’t want it to be the only thing she talked about. She was able to find ways to address these issues and apply it to a mainstream sports and daily sports talk.
There were very few women working in sports when Spain and Fagan started working for ESPN. The turning point was the Ray Rice incident, when the Baltimore Ravens runningback was released from the team after a video surfaced of him punching his then fiancé in an elevator.
“So many sports companies did not have women who were allowed to give opinions, and it was former NFL players stumbling their way through mass stereotypes and uninformed beliefs about what domestic violence and its victims are all about,” Spain said.
Because these stations needed a female voice, both she and Fagan were asked to go on other ESPN properties and stations like NPR, and companies realized how small the number of female voices in sports really was. After the incident, companies started hiring more females to share their opinions.
Sexual harassment of women in sports continues to be a huge issue. Spain explained that during the first interview that she went on for a major job, she was severely sexually harassed by her interviewer who tried to make out with her and described sexual positions to her. He made it seem like if she wasn’t reciprocal, she wouldn’t get the job.
“That was my first wake up call that there were real mistreatment issues for women in sports,” Spain said.
Being taken seriously was also very difficult for her early in her career. Her first time in the locker room, she had an older male reporter tell the PRs on the team that she must be sleeping with the players because they were giving her better answers. She also had a PR person say that her boobs were too distracting in the locker room, and that they had to do something about it.
“My only real answer to it was to put my head down and work as hard as possible and eventually convince people that I deserved to be there and that I belonged.”
Fagan explained that the toughest issue for her working in sports is that she is seen as an activist because she wants to talk about female athletes and women’s sports, and because she identifies as gay. She’s had stories about gay athletes that she was not allowed to report on because people felt she had an agenda.
“What people don’t realize is that I may be an activist for talking about LGBT issues and how they relate to sports, but you’re an activist for the status quo,” she said. “If I have an agenda because I want to write about an athlete coming out, then you have an agenda to write about white male athletes all the time; that’s reinforcing something as well.”
Fagan has also struggled to be seen as more than a gay female working in sports.
“When I do Around the Horn, 20% of the comments would be about the content I provided, and the rest would be some comment on my sexuality or my appearance,” said Fagan.
Spain also continuously has her appearance under scrutiny in ways that her male counterparts don’t have to deal with.
“If you’re a woman on television, you’re going to be objectified by everyone that’s watching,” said Spain. “Unfortunately, even by women who just want to judge.”
Body image has been an issue for her as well. Because of injuries that she’s had the last five years, the only exercise she’s allowed to do is yoga, making it very difficult for her to stay in shape.
“I don’t fit the profile of most of the people on TV as far as body type goes, and that is a challenge for me,” said Spain. “Sometimes I have to remind myself of all of the other things that I have going for me, and that my personality should be enough.”
Although there are more women in the industry now than when they started their careers, both women explained that they still have to struggle to be heard. Spain explained that it’s really hard for women to be subversive the way that men are because women are rarely ever separated from their sexuality. Because of this, she pushes the boundaries of what she says and does to make it harder for people to judge women in her position.
Fagan explained that a female working in sports is going to have to fight more to get less, and that’s something that you have to be willing to do if you want to get into the industry.
“I have to get them to take me seriously when I talk about basketball in a way that a guy wouldn’t have to,” said Fagan. “You’re going to have to work harder to prove that you’re legitimate.”
Athlete Ally would like to thank Haven, the LGBT Resource Center, Interfraternity Council, Feminist Gender and Sexuality Program, the Graduate School, the International Students and Scholars Office, SAFC, Ryan Lombardi, Jamie Hill, Megan LeDuc, Morgan McKim, Sarah Knee, Julie Wushensky for making the event possible.