Diversity in Media: The Reason Behind ESPN’s The Undefeated

This is the 2nd of a three-part article, which takes a look at why ESPN has invested on a new site, the rationale behind it, and critical reactions to The Undefeated.

Where The Undefeated Came From

ESPN’s new site, The Undefeated, got its name from a Maya Angelou quote: “‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it,’” which the site’s former editor, sportswriter Jason Whitlock, quoted in an interview last year. 

“I thought that pretty much summarized the African-American experience in general,” he said. “We are The Undefeated.”

“This is a thoughtful attempt to talk about issues that touch on race; it’s not all going to be serious,” said Marie Donoghue, the ESPN executive vice president who oversees Grantland, FiveThirtyEight, and The Undefeated. “It will also be joyful.” (The New York Times)

Reason for The Undefeated: “Because Not Enough Black Media”

“Through the lens of sports, The Undefeated will be the premier platform for intelligent analysis and celebration of black culture and the African-American struggle for equality. The Undefeated will challenge, engage and advocate for people of color in a manner consistent with the black-press pioneers, such as Sam Lacy, who led the charge for Jackie Robinson’s civil rights-sparking baseball career.”

The above quote, written on The Undefeated site, states the clear rationale behind ESPN’s new website. John Skipper, president of ESPN, said so in interviews, like the one he had with Re/code during the annual Code/Media conference held in Dana Point, California last week. “There is nothing more important in our culture right now than race relations…There is not enough black media in this country. There is not enough black-owned media in this country. There are not enough sites run by people of color.”

Drive Towards Diversity in Media

“Challenge, engage and advocate for people of color in a manner consistent with the black-press pioneers”  

It is clear in this phrase ESPN’s thrust is towards the inclusion of black people, towards building greater diversity in media by providing more opportunities for African Americans.

“We want to give some opportunities to a new generation of [writers of] color,” Donoghue said of ESPN’s efforts to raise the diversity quotient in sports journalism. 

Rush Limbaugh doesn’t think so, however. He was quoted as saying:

“And now ESPN with their website, The Undefeated, which is one hundred percent African-American in content. As though that’s the only way the African-American audience at ESPN can be properly served. Just doesn’t seem like it’s going in the right direction to me. I know the word empowerment is used a lot and this will be seen as empowering the people who are employed to work on this website. And it’ll probably be said that it’s empowering the African-American audience of ESPN. But it’s still segregating, isn’t it? Is that what we’re out to do now? Is that the objective? Segregation?

African Americans in Media

African Americans are reported to be underrepresented in media, and as ESPN’s John Skipper mentioned, only few sites are owned by Blacks. Here is an excerpt from a report last year by the Washington Post:

In 2013, minorities owned just 6 percent of commercial television stations in the country, 6 percent of FM stations and 11 percent of AM stations.With a few notable exceptions (the cable network Black Entertainment Television launched in 1980 and TV One followed in 1995), African American ownership remains particularly low, hovering at less than one percent of all television properties, and less than 2 percent of radio. Last year in fact, just two television stations were owned by black owners. (That number is up to about 10 today).

The same report likewise mentioned that aside from media consolidation being the reason for this low representation of Blacks and other minorities, lack of diversity is compounded by historic discrimination.

Last year, The Pew Research Center published a fact sheet regarding the state of African-American media, stating: “In broadcast, a few new African American-oriented television news programs emerged in 2014 and at least one new syndicated radio program emerged.[…] And seven full power TV stations came under black ownership in 2014 – up from zero in 2013.”

What Critics Say About ESPN’s The Undefeated

There are those who echo Rush Limbaugh’s sentiment, seeing the new website as being racist. One article, commenting on a previous report about the site’s launching and even overlooking the fact Whitlock is no longer with The Undefeated, asked, “Diversity now means separate blacks from whites?”

Online commenters chimed in with their own negative reactions: 

  • “This is why I will no longer watch the racist ESPN…”
  • “Amazing how Blacks can have their own magazine – Ebony. Their own black congress caucus and now their own black ESPN – wasn’t the civil rights movement about everyone being treated equal? “
  • “The blacks have their own heritage month, and they want to get rid of everything of MY heritage now they have their own espn channel.”

Moving Forward, Undefeated

Nevertheless, at this point, as The Undefeated is set to relaunch sometime this year, several journalists from the Washington Post have joined ESPN’s new site, following the move of their former managing editor, Kevin Merida.

The latest is Clinton Yates, who will be The Undefeated’s senior writer. Yates has this to say about his move to The Undefeated, when reached for comments by Andrew Beaujon of the Washingtonian: 

“The thing about being a black writer is that people always add the label to whatever’s being written. I’m hoping to be one of the people, along with the many tremendous voices at the site who can show people what the true depth, complexity and overall fullness of what blackness and thus its writing is about.” 

Late last year, Kevin Merida, in an interview with the USA Today, spoke of the challenge of writing about race: “My main thing is you just have to be brave. If we meet high standards for excellence, then I don’t worry about the rest.”

The Undefeated comes at a time when race is still a contentious issue, when African Americans alongside other minorities are still fighting for equal opportunities, such as owning their own enterprises and having their own media outfit. Segregation? Only for those who limit their understanding of what diversity is truly about from the prism of their own fears and racist attitude.

*Note: The Undefeated now operates as Andscape: https://andscape.com/