Story from Jan. 17, 2007
What if you were told that one of the leading sports entities in the world was gay-friendly; That the company actively recruits gay people in its hiring efforts; That one of its top corporate initiatives over the last several years has been to make the workplace gay-friendly; And that some of its most high-profile members welcome the opportunity to work with gay people.
It may sound like a fantasy world to some, but it's the ever-growing record of the self-proclaimed and widely recognized "worldwide leader in sports," ESPN. Over the last 10 years, ESPN has developed a history of visible gay-friendly actions that have separated it from much of the rest of the sports world, including:
- ESPN first aired their groundbreaking Outside The Lines special, "The World of the Gay Athlete," on Dec. 16, 1998. They followed that with a second OTL special, "The Gay Dilemma," on June 3, 2001.
- Luke Cyphers from ESPN The Magazine and ESPN producer Craig Lazarus participated in the first Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation conference in March of 2003.
- ESPN was a sponsor of the Gay Games in 2006, and ESPN Mobile sponsored a basketball team that participated in the Games; That team was captained by openly gay former ESPN The Magazine basketball editor LZ Granderson.
- ESPN has recruited at conferences for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association since 2004.
- ESPN aired a five-minute segment over Memorial Day Weekend 2005 about Andrew Goldstein, the openly gay lacrosse goalie at Dartmouth (incidentally, they got the story from Outsports).
- ESPN was honored at the 2006 Commercial Closet's Images in Advertising Award for "Outstanding Business-To-Business/Trade Ad."
In a sports industry that has largely ignored gay issues, in which very few professional sports teams offer same-sex domestic partner benefits, and from which some of the most homophobic public quotes have emerged in recent years, how has the "worldwide leader" come to buck the trend and embrace diverse sexuality?
Diversity has its advantages
ESPN Senior Vice President and Director of News Vince Doria has trouble linking ESPN to the rest of the sports world. He said that while it's certainly a sports entity, the company goes out of its way to separate itself from some of the trappings of the sports world.
"While some people may want to take this place and attach it to the sports landscape, we are much different," Doria said. "There isn't a locker-room mentality up here. We have a lot of former players and coaches who work up here as analysts, and part of the introduction to this place is that they are crossing into another world up here. It is not an extension of the locker room. It's a workplace that is very sensitive to issues of race, gender and sexual orientation."
Locating the corporate headquarters in remote Bristol, Conn., two hours from both New York City and Boston, certainly helps hit that point home.
By all accounts it has been people like Doria and other upper management at ESPN who have in recent years been the driving force behind many of the gay-positive initiatives at the company.
Lorie Valle is the first-ever director of diversity at ESPN. The position was created three years ago in an effort to infuse diversity into every corner of the company, from hiring to programming. Before Valle, the head of training oversaw diversity initiatives at the company; Now it's Valle's full-time responsibility.
Valle said that several years ago diversity was listed by corporate management as one of the top priorities for the company two years in a row. Management then asked, How can we ever remove diversity as a top priority? Diversity then went from being an initiative to being listed as one of the company's core values, and it is reflected in a portion of the company's value statement: "We embrace diversity to best serve all sports fans worldwide"
Valle said the company's constant desire to be ahead of the curve and to continue its reign atop the industry are what drive its desire to infuse diversity into its corporate culture.
"In order to understand the needs and wants of our diverse audience, everyone can't look the same or be from the same place," Valle said. "Diversity of thought is the most important part of diversity."
LZ Granderson (now a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and a Page 2 columnist) has been openly gay since his first day with ESPN The Magazine in 2004. Previously, he was a sportswriter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"I've been in journalism for about 13 years and I have never worked in an environment as supportive of its gay employees as I have at The Magazine," Granderson said. "The leadership at the company as a whole, and the Magazine specifically, is such that I knew the doors were always open to hear my concerns and the concerns of other gay people."
According to Granderson, the support and inclusion of gay people isn't simply window dressing at ESPN, it's a serious dedication to diversity.
"[Gay people] are in decision-making positions where we help dictate the direction of coverage, and our views are sought based upon on knowledge and not minimalized because of our orientation," Granderson said.
One of Valle's regrets is that their outreach at the NLGJA conference annually has led to far fewer leads than their participation at other professional conferences. Valle attributes that to a perception that ESPN is just another sports organization with a locker-room mentality. Still, she has no intention of slowing her recruiting of qualified gay candidates.
"You have to build trust with folks," Valle said.
Granderson said he knows four openly gay employees at ESPN and several others who work for the company on a freelance basis.
Gay-friendly faces of ESPN
When NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo came out in 2002, some NFL players had some not-so-positive things to say about his sexuality. ESPN commentator Sean Salisbury, a former teammate of Tuaolo with the Minnesota Vikings, came to his side in a column for ESPN.com.
Salisbury wrote: "There are people in the league who have that homophobic attitude, saying, ‘I could never play with anyone who's gay.' It's the macho culture: In football, you're never supposed to cry, you're not supposed to be sensitive, you can't be friends with someone who's gay. My advice: Get over it. You've probably been playing with someone who's gay. If you think there aren't other gay players, you're crazy. And it takes a lot more of a man to do what Esera has done than it does to threaten someone for being different."
ESPN commentator Trey Wingo is also incredibly gay-friendly, in part for a very personal reason.
"I've been aware of it my entire life," Wingo told Outsports. "My cousin Tim is gay, and it's just been a part of who he is, and it's never been a issue in our family. It's no more a part of him than my gray hair is a part of me. It's a piece of who he is, it doesn't define him. I love and respect him for who he is, plain and simple."
The company's diversity initiative extends well beyond sexuality. ESPN's broadcasts of men's basketball and football now regularly feature women on the sidelines and in some cases calling the games.
So when will ESPN have a gay on-air personality to go with the gay-friendly faces? It may just be a matter of being presented with a good candidate.
"We've never had that opportunity, but my personal opinion is that it would be a very interesting thing to do," Doria said. "I think we're big enough to do something like that without being overly concerned about any risk with our viewers. I think it would be a good message to send. I'm sure there are gays up here whom I'm not aware of. I think I can speak for management that there wouldn't be any trepidation about that."
A story is a story
While some sports media outlets have opened up in recent years to featuring stories of gay athletes and gay issues, ESPN was well ahead of the curve. The 1998 Outside The Lines special was, to the best of Outsports' knowledge, the first hour-long TV program dedicated specifically to gay issues in sports.
"You can see evidence of our thinking on air, because of some of the programming we've done, because of some of the pieces we've chosen to do," Doria said. "To the notion that we would shy away from those because we're not sure how the viewership may perceive them, it's never been much of a point of discussion here because they're good stories."
Doria said ESPN's on-air attention to gay issues in sports reflects a dedication to reporting quality stories.
"We continue over the years to look at various issues that touch gay athletes," Doria said. "Honestly, in a lot of cases, they just strike us as good stories. They often have some drama to them, they're often compelling to the point where they sometimes spotlight injustices or inequities or unfairness. I'm not sure it's anymore complicated than that. It's just a good story."
Wingo reiterated Doria's assertion that, gay or straight, ESPN focuses on subjects that make good stories. An added bonus, said Wingo, is that ESPN is able to tell some stories involving gay athletes that have positive endings, like the story of openly gay Dartmouth lacrosse goalie Andrew Goldstein.
"The fact that his team accepted him fully made it an even better story to cover," Wingo said.
The locker room still has some bullies
Even in an environment as gay-friendly as ESPN, there is still some work to be done.
Bill Konigsberg worked at the Bristol corporate headquarters for ESPN.com from 1999 to 2002. He said that most of his experience as an out gay man at ESPN.com (he came out in a heralded article on the Web site in 2001) was positive, the company even sending him to the 2001 NLGJA conference.
While he never had a bad experience dealing with ESPN.com, he said he felt uncomfortable dealing with some of the people on the TV side.
"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't something of a locker room mentality there," Konigsberg said. "In the screening rooms, where the production assistants cut highlights, it's a serious locker room. Gay was not at all good down there. In the newsroom and in editorial meetings, you could occasionally hear homophobic things being said."
Management understands that there are still places to improve.
"I'm not going to say we don't have work to do, like any organization," Valle said. "We haven't arrived. There are places in this company where sexual orientation is not an issue, and there are parts of our company where gay people aren't comfortable being open about their sexual orientation."
Despite the lingering problem corners of the company, Valle remains very optimistic about the work ahead of her.
"As someone who is a diversity practitioner, I'm very proud to work for this organization because the leaders mean what they say. ESPN is all about action and getting it done."