In interviews, more than two dozen current and former ESPN employees, including many who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared punishment, described a company that projected a diverse outward face, but did not have enough Black executives, especially ones with real decision-making power. They said the company did not provide meaningful career paths for Black employees behind the camera and made decisions based on assumptions that its average viewer is an older white man, in spite of its audience trends.
As ESPN grew into a sports media powerhouse in the 1990s, its executives remained almost exclusively white and male.
John Skipper, who was ESPN’s president until 2017, recalled a meeting of the company’s senior staff around 2000, when he was in charge of ESPN the Magazine. Kerry Chandler, a Black woman who was then a senior human resources executive, led a vigorous discussion about diversity. Besides Chandler, Skipper could not remember another nonwhite person in the meeting.
“Twenty-two out of 25 were white men, including me, of course,” he said, making it clear he was speaking about his time at ESPN.
Twenty years later, the company’s executive ranks look different, though the biggest difference is the elevation of white women. ESPN declined to provide figures on the racial composition of its executives, but said 25 percent of the people who report directly to Pitaro are Black, all men.
Each of those Black executives had at least a 20-year career before joining ESPN, while a number of senior white executives have only ever worked at ESPN, suggesting to many Black employees a limited career path for them at ESPN. One former midlevel employee who is Black and spoke on condition of anonymity to not jeopardize relationships in the industry said she searched for a new position within ESPN and did not want to leave the company, but no executive made an effort to retain her.
After being contacted for this article, ESPN made four Black senior executives available for interviews: Rob King, Kevin Merida, Dave Roberts and Paul Richardson. A representative from ESPN’s communications department was present for each interview, as well as every other on-the-record interview conducted with a current employee.