Hours after the news broke on Jan. 19 that Conor McGregor, the star mixed martial arts fighter, had been sued in Ireland by a woman who claimed he’d raped her in 2018, ESPN weighed in.
On the Tuesday evening edition of SportsCenter, ESPN described the sexual-assault allegation as an “alleged personal injury.” The “situation,” as they phrased it, had been investigated by police, though charges had not been filed. The anchor noted they’d confirmed this information with McGregor’s lawyer and added that McGregor had denied the allegations. The following morning, a different SportsCenter anchor recited the exact same script. The segment was followed by a commercial starring McGregor—for a brand of whiskey founded by McGregor.
None of the above is false, but it’s far from a complete picture. According to court documents obtained by The New York Times, the woman in question was invited into McGregor’s bedroom where he propositioned her. When she declined, a struggle ensued. McGregor was physically restraining the alleged victim and while she was subdued, told her, “That’s how I felt in the Octagon, I had to tap myself out three times, that’s how I felt,” the lawsuit states. She was then raped by McGregor, the victim claims. The allegation was initially reported by the paper in 2019. At the time, McGregor was arrested and questioned by the police.
ESPN chose not to include those details. The brief item was repeated verbatim on the morning of Jan. 20 on ESPN2. By the afternoon, a few alterations had been made. The New York Times was cited and the audience was informed the case concerned an alleged rape. For some reason, the SportsCenter segment still opened with the odd descriptor “alleged personal injury.” An ESPN.com aggregation of the story from Jan. 19—which also used the same inexact language—didn’t include a link to the Times’ reporting.
And after that, nothing. The case was seemingly not mentioned again on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, or ESPN News this week, nor were the words “rape” or “sexual assault” spoken on air in conjunction with McGregor, according to transcripts on the television-monitoring service TVEyes. Look hard enough on all ESPN platforms, and you’ll find out this is the third woman to accuse McGregor of committing a sexual crime, or you can learn about the bigoted, attention-grabbing insults he’s hurled in public. But it pales in comparison to the wall-to-wall content devoted to parsing every bit of McGregor minutiae an MMA fan could ever hope to consume.
In response to a request for comment, an ESPN spokesperson said via email, “We are covering Conor McGregor thoroughly,” and forwarded three stories published by ESPN.com dating back to late December. One example provided by the spokesperson is a 5,000-word story which recounts McGregor’s entire UFC career, devotes four short paragraphs to the two rape accusations, and omits an incident last year when McGregor allegedly exposed himself to a woman.
A female ESPN reporter was appalled by the relative radio silence. “It’s abominable that the company would do this,” the reporter, who requested anonymity to discuss her employer, told The Daily Beast. “Particularly because it feels like there isn’t a uniform policy when it comes to how ESPN covers these things.”
“It’s abominable that the company would do this. Particularly because it feels like there isn’t a uniform policy when it comes to how ESPN covers these things.”
McGregor will be taking on Dustin Poirier on Saturday night in a pay-per-view extravaganza broadcast on ESPN’s streaming platform, ESPN+. It promises to be one of the highest-grossing UFC events of the year. Despite—or perhaps partly thanks to—the controversies, McGregor has been UFC’s chief cash cow for quite some time. Occasionally, that’s meant UFC has had to tolerate or even ignore his worst behavior. Moreover, ESPN+ represents a crucial element of ESPN’s long-term economic health. The network has been shedding cable subscribers for years thanks to cord-cutters. They’ve partnered with UFC, too, to the tune of a $1.5 billion five-year contract. The ESPN spokesperson did not respond when asked whether their ability to report on McGregor is in any way compromised by their financial relationship with UFC.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that ESPN has devoted plenty of airtime and column inches to all things Conor McGregor. They’ve examined how the fight will cement his legacy or whether he’s going to take another heel turn. His various public spats with UFC honcho Dana White have been probed, as has his pre-fight emotional state, which is never a sure thing when it comes to McGregor. If that’s not enough McGregor content, check out an exclusive interview with MMA reporter Ariel Helwani, or a separate sit-down with star ESPN yakker Stephen A. Smith, available on ESPN+.
During a segment which aired multiple times this week on ESPN and ESPN2, Helwani did bring up that McGregor “nearly let it all slip away” while on hiatus from the sport followed by a clip of the lightweight fighter hurling a bench at a bus in 2018. He also appeared on the podcast ESPN Daily on Tuesday, an episode which was recorded, in all likelihood, prior to the lawsuit being made public.
Asked to “parse the latest drama” surrounding McGregor, Helwani brought up McGregor’s absence from The Octagon in 2019. During this time, McGregor had royally pissed off a bunch of people in Ireland, he added, like slugging an old man in a bar. Since then, McGregor has regained his native country’s favor by advocating for social-distancing measures during the lockdowns, donating PPE, and visiting hospitals.
“He really was on his best behavior in the early portion of the pandemic,” said Helwani, and “took it upon himself to be a beacon of light.”
Halfway through the episode, host Pablo Torre broached the subject of McGregor’s allegedly criminal behavior. Helwani pivoted to McGregor’s vehement denials and insisted, “Becoming a father has dramatically changed him.” The exchange lasted for about a minute or two of the 30-minute podcast. Helwani did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
On ESPN.com, other unseemly parts of McGregor’s backstory are parsed out. In addition to the historical primer and news aggregation, the ESPN spokesperson pointed The Daily Beast to a Tuesday story which described McGregor as a ”polarizing figure” whose “hard-hitting mouthiness” had gotten him in trouble. Over the course of two sentences, the rape accusations and the racist and xenophobic comments he’d made were touched upon. But readers who weren’t already in the know were left to guess exactly what those comments might have been. (A few examples: McGregor branded a Mexican-American MMA fighter a “cholo gangster from the hood”; called Floyd Mayweather “boy” and said Black boxers in the movie Rocky III looked like “dancing monkeys” in the run-up to their shameless cash-grab of an exhibition fight; and referred to the Muslim wife of former opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov as “a towel.” Though he did apologize, McGregor was caught on tape whispering to a training partner, “I never knew he was a faggot.”)
This is not to say that conversations about McGregor’s place in the pantheon of combat sports legends or how the smart money sees the fight going aren’t worthy of ESPN’s time. Far from it. And whatever criticisms one might have of how the Worldwide Leader has acted this week doesn’t invalidate the yeoman work ESPN journalists have put in over the years reporting on athletes and sexual assault, including McGregor himself. (This Monday alone, ESPN’s Mina Kimes and Jeff Passan exposed the harassment perpetrated by the New York Mets’ now-former general manager.) But it’s not the first time ESPN has been accused of providing a cushy landing spot for athletes accused of violence against women.
Back in 2015, Stephen A. Smith was invited to Mayweather’s residence to chuckle over his fancy cars and whatnot. For some reason, the former champ’s repeated instances of domestic violence didn’t come up during the conversation, or at least were left out of the final broadcast version. After critics took issue with the frictionless interview, Smith unleashed a real stem-winder, as is his wont, blaming the audience for caring about Mayweather at all.
The female reporter who spoke with The Daily Beast praised the network for its diversity efforts, and said the resulting stories and segments dealing with racial issues, particularly during the George Floyd protests, were proof of their benefit. Going back to its inception, ESPN had garnered a reputation for stomaching the excesses of its highest-profile male stars, and their reported instances of sexual harassment. Perhaps, she suggested, if ESPN had come as far when it came to gender parity in the workforce, McGregor would have been portrayed in a different light.
If nothing else, “Maybe they wouldn’t be making such obvious mistakes,” she said.