Last week USA Today featured an article about Gabrielle Ludwig, a 50-year-old transgendered woman playing on a junior college basketball team in California. The story prompted a lurid on-air exchange between Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin–who host the afternoon drive program on ESPN 980 radio in Washington, DC–and guest contributor (and former college basketball coach) Chris Knoche. The three men spent the segment mocking Ludwig’s physical appearance and expressing outrage that she’d be allowed to play on a women’s team. Pollin described Ludwig as “it” rather than she. Czaban said Ludwig had no right to play sports and suggested multiple times that she suffered from “problems” and “demons” that had no place on the basketball court.
Several LGBT groups objected to the segment–as well as Czaban and Pollin’s attempted on-air apology on Monday–and ESPN 980 program director Chuck Sapienza suspended both men from today’s program. According to a press release from the station:
We strongly believe two of our employees crossed the line when discussing a transsexual person on their program last Thursday. Such intolerance and insensitivity will never be tolerated by this company. Due to the nature of their conversation, the pair have been temporarily removed from ESPN980?s Sports Reporter program.
ESPN 980 is owned by Red Zebra Broadcasting, which is controlled by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. The station has an affiliation agreement with the radio division of ESPN Inc. but is not directly controlled by the Disney subsidiary. An ESPN spokesman said the company “expressed our significant dissatisfaction to the station’s management” over Czaban and Pollin’s statements.
(Disclosure: The author has made numerous appearances on Czaban’s national radio program, which is currently carried on Yahoo Sports Radio.)
The most interesting thing here is that two members of the media are facing the exact sort of backlash that athletes typically receive when making controversial or bigoted comments. Indeed, it’s usually talking heads like Czaban or Pollin who demand such retribution. This is endemic of a 24-hour media cycle where even marginally prominent athletes are scrutinized over every public pronouncement.
There’s also the natural counter-backlash of “political correctness run amok.” Several commenters have invoked this as a defense of Czaban and Pollin, Yet this is not very convincing on this set of facts. “Political correctness” refers to two related phenomena: The first is an attempt to alter language against the practices of the majority. Language itself, like everything else man-made, is subject to the marketplace. Words and phrases are adapted and re-adapted over time. Political correctness is an attempt to short-circuit that process, generally through the dictates of government or mainstream media.
The second form of political correctness is a reduction to absurdity whereby logical criticism of an individual or idea is misrepresented as criticism of a larger group: Barack Obama is black, you’re attacking Obama’s policies, so therefore you’re a racist.
Neither of these forms of political correctness cover what Czaban and Pollin said. What they did was engage in personal attacks on Ludwig, a person they did not know and who had done nothing to provoke such criticism. To put it bluntly, Pollin and Czaban engaged in verbal bullying, a point emphasized by Ludwig’s own response to what happened:
These two people in Washington DC just tore my life apart, and they don’t even know me. They did it in respect to how I look, how I’m built, the tattoos on my body. They took great pride in humiliating me in the national public. I don’t know if I’m supposed to cry or scream or beat them up. It’s affecting my sleep, it’s affecting my confidence.
Media bullying is hardly limited to transgender athletes. Bullying has become a common language across all media. It’s always easier to engage in personal attacks and demean people rather than engage the marketplace of ideas. A milder form of media bullying is the ubiquitous trolling, which has become so accepted that it’s the basis of much of ESPN’s programming.
There’s a general sense that athletes are fair game for bullying because they’re wealthy and famous. That’s why the Ludwig case stood out, because the target was not LeBron James but an obscure junior college basketball player. If Czaban and Pollin had spent 10 minutes belittling James’s appearance or mental state–which they no doubt have at some point–nobody would have batted an eye.