You almost have to try to screw up as colossally as ESPN did with this year’s ESPYs.
In explaining its snub of Aliyah Boston, who was a force of nature in leading South Carolina to the national title, the network said it had prioritized inviting athletes nominated in categories that were going to be shown on the telecast. And that, this year, that didn’t include the best men’s and women’s college athletes.
That was the first blunder.
ESPN, to its credit, has devoted a great deal of airtime this summer to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX. The ESPYs broadcast was even scheduled to include a segment by historian Amira Rose Davis on the landmark legislation that opened the doors to gyms, playing fields and so, so much more to girls and young women across the United States.
Yet ESPN decided that in this, of all years, it would not showcase the best female college athlete category during the main telecast Wednesday night. A category that literally would not exist without Title IX.
I thank God for continuing to bless me, for guiding my steps, and for the love and support of my family, fans and community. I would like to say congratulations @78jocelyn_alo and all the ESPY winners🎉 I remain thankful in all things. pic.twitter.com/BkO2iPA8YS
— Aliyah A. Boston (@aa_boston) July 20, 2022
So the ESPYs could feature what instead? The best boxer? Best jockey? Best bowler? No disrespect, but these are fringe sports. If they get airtime Wednesday night – the categories weren’t among those announced during Tuesday’s preview show – it would be the equivalent of shunting Best Director to the Oscar’s pre-show so Best Sound Mixing could be given out in national prime time.
Making it worse was that, at least in the jockey and bowler categories, all the nominees were men.
More disheartening was to see ESPN’s backpedaling after Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley blasted the network for the snub, an acknowledgment that the network had erred. As it turns out, ESPN did have room for Boston in the 3,400-seat Dolby Theatre.
Boston declined the B-list invite, and her reasoning was as heartbreaking as it was infuriating.
“I’m used to this. It’s just another moment when the disrespect and erasure of Black women is brushed off as a ‘mistake’ or an ‘oversight,’ ” Boston said in a statement. “Another excuse why our milestones and accomplishments aren’t a ‘priority’ this time, even now, 50 years after Title IX.”
If you don’t think there’s something to what Boston said, go back to last year’s ESPYs. One of the most powerful moments of the entire night was Paige Bueckers’ speech honoring Black women.
A speech Bueckers, who is white, gave after winning the best female college athlete award.
“With the light that I have now as a white woman who leads a Black-led sport and celebrated here, I want to shed a light on Black women,” Bueckers said in her speech. “They don’t get the media coverage that they deserve. They’ve given so much to the sport, the community and society as a whole and their value is undeniable.”
Only a year later, ESPN deemed that a Black woman, Boston, was unworthy of being in the spotlight.
“A system that needs change. The fight continues and there is a need for REAL & PERMANENT change, not temporary fixes to protect an image. All love Aliyah, you deserve much much better,” Bueckers said on Twitter in response to Boston’s statement.
That Oklahoma softball player Jocelyn Alo, not Boston, won best female college athlete is irrelevant. People of color, particularly Black women like Boston, are constantly bombarded with microaggressions and unconscious biases. Expecting them to accept these or not make a fuss is just another form of oppression.
It is up to the people with power and privilege to adjust their behavior, to consider in advance whether their actions are or could be considered discriminatory or marginalizing.
As much fun as going to the ESPYs would have been, this wasn’t about an invitation. It was about being seen and being valued.
“To every Black girl and every Black woman: no one can take away what God has in store for us,” Boston said in her statement. “You matter. You are valuable. You are a priority. You are seen, and you are LOVED – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
ESPN had a chance to make a similar statement. And it blew it. Big time.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.