It’s spring 2013 and ESPN writer Kate Fagan is driving home to New York from Bristol, Connecticut. She has just come from closing the latest issue of ESPN: The Magazine. Her feature on Brittney Griner–the WNBA’s No. 1 pick and an out lesbian–is the cover story.
And then it hits her. She, with the help of several others, just did something big.
“Not everybody that saw it was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s so subversive.’ But, think about it: a black lesbian, 6’8” with a snake around her neck! Nobody puts that on the cover of their mainstream sport magazine,” Fagan said. “We told a good enough story that we introduced people to an athlete that would maybe make them think, challenge how they thought. And I thought that was really important.”
Challenging what people think is one of Fagan’s main intentions in her work. She often reports on issues tied to female and LGBTQ athletes, trying to challenge the norm of sports media: that male athletes get the most thorough, thoughtful coverage.
Before writing about female athletes, Fagan was one, playing basketball at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And her desire to write goes back even further. Fagan said her interest in journalism started when she read a 1995 Sports Illustrated piece on the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
“I remember reading this story in that specific issue and then I told my mom, ‘this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to write about sports,’” Fagan said.
After college, Fagan worked at a series of small newspapers before securing a job at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Initially hired to report on high school sports, Fagan was quickly promoted to the Philadelphia 76ers beat.
Jim Cohen, who hired Fagan at the Inquirer and placed her on the beat, said she was an easy choice for the job.
“I didn’t consider her for the Sixers beat until she excelled on high schools in her first few months and the Sixers beat soon opened up. She was an easy decision,” Cohen said. “She demanded instant respect on that beat from players, coaches and readers, because of her knowledge, her personality and her toughness–and her fairness. It wasn’t until later that I found out that she had never been to an NBA game before I put her on the beat.”
In 2012, Fagan moved to ESPN, after working on their Title IX project. And while her main focus at ESPN has been women’s issues, she said that has not always been her goal. In fact, she used to want the opposite.
“If you’re a woman in sports media or you played sports in college, I think it’s a natural tendency to want to prove to people that you can talk about other things,” Fagan said. “And I kind-of was in that place for a while.”
But then she realized that mindset was contributing to a bigger problem.
“It really became clear to me that in many ways the reason why women’s sports stories don’t get told as much is because the men who play sports, they end up just gravitating toward male sports. And then the women who could be the champions for female athletes also want to prove that they’re not just about that,” Fagan said. “There are so many issues and they need smart media members to decode them in women’s sports and I didn’t want to leave that by the wayside. Because I thought there’s an opportunity to change the way some people thought about them.”
Fellow ESPN writer Jane McManus said that this drive toward critical thinking is what makes Fagan a good journalist.
“I think every journalist has to be a critical thinker. And she’s definitely a critical thinker,” McManus said. “I think that’s by far her best quality as a journalist is that she is able to think about issues and come up with an angle or an idea that sort-of people haven’t thought about and elaborate on that.”
Fagan works hard to do her part to make sure women’s sports get at least a fraction of the coverage men’s sports do, by slipping those stories in whenever she can.
“I think the thing that I try and do is just gradually introduce more story-lines into the mainstream,” Fagan said. “Like, every single time I’m on “Around the Horn,” if I win, my face-time will always be about a female athlete or women’s sport or something that is in that genre because otherwise it’s not going to get airtime that day.”
Fagan is determined. And in her attempts to make people think and challenge the norms, she is also fearless.
“I don’t care about the backlash anymore,” Fagan said. “Because if I write a story that’s about women or gender or challenging the status quo of sports and how female athletes are treated or LGBT issues, the whole point of the backlash is usually, if I haven’t messed something up, it’s from people that just want the status quo.”
Fagan may not be able to make people change their minds, but she can keep pointing out problems within sports and sports media. And she does not intend to stop challenging the status quo any time soon.