After a 46-point playoff performance April 18, LeBron James was asked by TNT reporter Allie LaForce about the death of Erin Popovich, the late wife of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. James has a notably close relationship with Popovich – arguably the most respected head coach in the NBA – from years of working together on Team USA.
When asked about Erin Popovich’s death, James became visibly emotional, saying, “Oh my God,” and initially struggling to find the words to answer LaForce’s question. It almost looked like he had been blindsided by the question and within minutes, the internet exploded.
Both Twitter and a subreddit about the NBA were filled with posts suggesting – among other, more vulgar things – that LaForce’s question was “disgraceful,” “utterly classless” and “disgusting.” Both LaForce and TNT were called “vultures” and accused of trying to get a rise out of a superstar player for ratings – a suggestion that ignores the fact that the interview followed a highly-viewed playoff game.
But about an hour later, TNT host Ernie Johnson announced that LaForce had talked to James before the interview and told him beforehand that Erin Popovich had died. At around the same time, James – who takes a hiatus from social media during the NBA playoffs – posted a video to Instagram via Uninterrupted, saying that he agreed to LaForce’s question beforehand.
But the damage was already done.
Besides being called sexist slurs and facing insinuations that she was the pawn of TNT producers, many internet users called for LaForce’s job, saying she needed to be fired. Some even held up her question as proof that her career was over and that she was, in more explicit terms, a human piece of garbage.
If a male reporter had done the same thing, maybe he’d get called an idiot. Maybe people would call for him to be fired too – that behavior isn’t out of the ordinary when the anonymity of the internet is combined with many sports fans’ fragile masculinities.
But the immediacy of the attacks on LaForce’s gender belies a much bigger issue in sports journalism.
Female reporters often face stigmas and challenges that male reporters never have to – like entering male locker rooms where players are often naked and make sexist remarks. The sexual harassment of female reporters is widespread in top-tier college and professional sports.
Some athletes, like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who said it was “funny to hear a female” ask a question about football, laugh at female reporters when they ask in-depth questions.
Besides that, they face constant criticism for their appearance as a result of an unfortunately pervasive stigma that female reporters can either be pretty, or good at their job – not both. And when female reporters slip up, or ask a poorly worded question – of which LaForce did neither – their credentials are put in the crosshairs in a way no male reporter would ever have to endure.
One female reporter told my sports journalism class a story of her uncomfortable experience at an NBA practice, where players stared at her constantly while she waited to conduct an interview. While she waited, they made sexually suggestive comments about her.
In LaForce’s case, she committed the crime of being an attractive and intelligent female reporter asking a tough question of the most famous athlete the world. James is the face of the NBA, and is constantly asked questions about issues unrelated to basketball. In this case, he was asked – in a respectful manner, following his approval – about the wife of the most respected coach in basketball
And it was a fair question to ask. Good journalism requires asking questions that even reporters like LaForce admit they don’t like to ask. While critics can argue that the question was out of place, that argument cannot be plagued with sexist remarks that discredit a well-respected reporter on the basis of her gender.