The profusion of sports networks means that channels are struggling for new ways to distinguish themselves, be it Fox Sports 1’s deal to broadcast Ultimate Fighting or ESPN’s brand extension through sites like Grantland and FiveThirtyEight. Now, CBS Sports Network is launching a panel sports talk show, called “We Need To Talk,” where all the participants will be women.
I am all for having more women in sports commentary and sports reporting, particularly when that reporting goes beyond the sidelines and beyond the task of gathering platitudinous player and coach reactions. But this move makes me a little queasy for two reasons.
First, there is the separation of female sports fandom from sports enthusiasm in general, in which men’s perspectives are assumed to be a neutral default. To get women to buy team gear, it does not just have to be fitted appropriately to our bodies, it has to be pink and twee. There is the underlying suspicion that we are really just tuning in for the cute boys, unless we are watching women play soccer, basketball or hockey, in which case we are assumed to be lesbians. Either way, lust is the default.
There is nothing particularly male or female about appreciating a perfect touchdown pass, a glorious, sky-scraping catch that robs someone of a home run, a killer serve or a ferocious drive to the basket. Creating an all-female sports panel implies that there is another uniquely female conversation we have to have, whether it is about women’s sports that do not tend to make the ESPN highlight reel or domestic violence in the NFL.
I suppose I am curious to see what shape those conversations might take when men are not participating in them, if only because we have such voluminous examples of what it looks like when men discuss Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, and every other possible sports topics without the inclusion of a woman’s opinion.
But I would hate for “We Need To Talk” to become some sort of substitute for the thing that would really make sports broadcasting more interesting: more shows where men and women talk about sports together. And it would be even worse if the existence of “We Need To Talk” became the equivalent of men’s and women’s teams, giving women an opportunity to comment and report but in a forum that leaves mainstream sports broadcasting free to ignore those opinions and the subjects that the show brings up.
Sports broadcasts, especially sports talk, will be interesting when they incorporate more perspectives, not just from women, but from men with a greater diversity of experiences and opinions.
The solution to incidents like Stephen A. Smith’s disastrous commentary on Ray Rice’s attack on Janay Palmer is not to put a woman on the air whose sole job is to balance out her male colleagues and to provide cover for her show and her network. Women should not be responsible for men’s failures to speak with thought and care, or for male disinterest in certain news stories and whole sporting leagues. The solution is panels composed of men and women who are all tasked with speaking thoughtfully about play on the field and the workings and conduct of the giant industries that run professional sports off the court and gridiron, and who are invested in doing it together.