ESPN’s “First Take” is a sports debate show, but on a recent Friday morning, the conversation centered on rape on college campuses.
Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman next to a dumpster, had been released from prison after a shockingly short three months in prison. The show’s two resident pundits, NBA best friend-in-chief Stephen A. Smith and Ivy-league boxing analyst Max Kellerman, were criticizing the ethics of the California judge who handed Turner the sentence.
“Sometimes when you are young, you go to college," Kellerman began at one point, "A kid is going to drink a little bit too much —”
“That doesn’t make it OK,” Molly Qerim, the show’s lone female host, said, cutting Kellerman off. She had been concerned her co-host was about to unintentionally justify the rapist's actions.
The rebuke from some of the show's fans was instantaneous.
"Molly is a f------woman. Period. She needs to shut the f---up and let them speak because it's their job and not hers. She should just stick to asking questions and warning about commercial breaks," barked one commenter on YouTube after the exchange. "See, feminists like Molly are why I can't stand feminists —always playing the victim card," added another fan.
Qerim, 31, celebrated her one-year anniversary this month as the permanent host of “First Take." Her show faces challenges in an increasingly crowded market, but in an industry dominated by men, she's helped "First Take" stand out as an outspoken woman willing to lead her co-hosts into controversial social issues and politics — even if the fans don't always appreciate it.
“When there is a certain subject matter where I want to get involved, where I think I could add to the conversation, and especially with gender issues, I appreciate having that voice and that seat at the table,” Qerim told International Business Times in a recent interview. “I am not the debater. If I am going to get involved in the conversation it is because I feel it is really necessary, what I want to add.”
In many ways, "First Take" is like ESPN's equivalent of Fox News' "Fox and Friends," setting the network's agenda in terms of what topics will be grabbing headlines for the rest of the day. Qerim tees up the most eye grabbing stories from the sports world and Smith and Kellerman have at it, exchanging hot takes until Qerim cuts them off. But recently Smith, the show's face, has been asking Qerim to insert herself into the conversation more often.
While more women have broken into sports broadcasting in recent decades, far too many have been relegated to the role of the sideline reporter with a pretty face or the silent host tasked with tossing to commercial. According to The Women's Media Center's 2015 Status of Women in the U.S. Media report, there were only two women listed among the 183 sports reporters that made up Talker magazine’s yearly ranking of the top 100 sports commentary talk shows — that is, the top sports reporters with an opinion to share. The same report found that women staffers comprise 41.2 percent of all TV news employees and just over 30 percent of TV news directors.
Part of the problem is that while women make up almost half of most sports audiences, men are still the target demographic for sports broadcast networks.
Qerim breathes sports. She is a New York Giants fan, a loyal devotee to her alma mater, the Connecticut Huskies, and has been a sports fan since she was a child.
“[My dad] is my best friend, to be honest with you, so we’re really close. I’m the youngest child, so by the time I came around he had a little more free time and was a little more solidified in his career, so he raised me, essentially — not that my mom didn’t do a fantastic job as well,” Qerim said. “A lot of what we we did was watching sports together, going to sporting events and playing sports. That’s where my love came from.”
She is on her second stint with ESPN after turning heads at on the West Coast for a few years at the NFL Network. Her stoic broadcasting presence is at its most potent when she weighs in on the more political or social justice-related issues. That comes in handy at a time when the sports world is finding those issues harder to ignore.
The NFL has been facing controversy over how it handles domestic abuse allegations, many star NBA players have expressed solidarity with victims of police shootings, openly gay players have finally broken into professional sports and, most recently, there is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests of the national anthem in the name of more equal treatment of African Americans by law enforcement.
On "First Take," Qerim is calculated about when she chooses to jump in, but when she does, she means business.
The Turner debate was one of those times. Qerim was visibly seething while introducing the topic and wrapped up the discussion by quoting the viral court statement from the victim.
“I was kind of hot. I was kind of livid at that point and I thought that was an opportunity to be a voice for her,” Qerim said. "That kind of rage and passion coming out, that is just real and authentic and that is what the show is. I’m usually pretty chill, but when there are situations where there is that type of injustice, those are the moments where I feel I have to speak up, especially if there is a female involved in the situation and you are the female at the desk."
Earlier this month, when “First Take” discussed Penn State’s plans to honor former head coach Joe Paterno during halftime of a game this season — Paterno was fired in 2011 after he was revealed he had done nothing to stop former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky from sexually abusing multiple kids at on-campus programs over decades — Qerim again weighed in.
“I don’t care if he won the national championship every year, the fact that he turned a blind eye to these kids getting molested — I’m glad Penn State’s moved on, but I’d like to see how these victims feel. This makes me sick,” Qerim injected on air.
Ratings have held steady, according to Nielsen. The show is averaging 388,000 viewers per episode this year, down from 2015, but more than the 378,000 it averaged in 2014. That despite the launch of multiple direct competitors, none more aggressive than Fox Sports Network's "Undisputed," which poached Skip Bayless, Smith's former sparring partner on "First Take," this summer and goes on air a half hour before its ESPN counterpart each morning.
But as a woman, the backlash to speaking up in the male-dominated world of sports talk can be harsh.
“I’ll notice that if I’m looking at social media, there are some debate topics where I just tee up the conversation and I’m letting [Smith and Kellerman] go. We are wrapping up the conversation and I haven’t been a part of the discussion whatsoever and the only thing people will comment on is how you look,” Qerim admitted. “But it is very true, as soon as you have an opinion and it doesn’t matter if it is a tweet, anything, people take sports so personally. As soon as you are a woman with an opinion and they don’t like it, the haters will come out in full force.”
That is especially true given Qerim’s role requires her to step into heated debates, interrupting two men, in front of the primarily male, white audiences usually courted by daytime sports talk.
“I think it is really important that I am always listening,” Qerim said. “Sometimes it is tricky because the guys are talking sometimes at a five-minute stretch and sometimes when I think they might be going off the rails, to interrupt them is difficult because sometimes that is not where they are going. But at the same time I have to interrupt it because I don’t want it to necessarily go there. I always have their best interests and the show at heart. It’s not about me and me being right or wrong.”
Qerim said she has the support of her co-hosts and producers. Qerim and Kellerman chatted after the Turner discussion: there were no hard feelings. And Smith, who is famous enough to warrant his own "SNL" parody and has been at the center of multiple media firestorms throughout his career after slip-up comments about topics such as domestic abuse and how to be a good NBA wife, thanked Qerim on-air for her protective interruption.
She also has the support of ESPN, which she says has never tried to curb her contributions to the show or hold the show back as a whole from wading into controversial waters. Earlier this year, “First Take” broadcast from a YMCA in Chicago’s Southside to highlight the uphill battles inner city kids, especially African-American kids, face growing up in violent neighborhoods — Qerim names this as one of her proudest moments at the show.
“It’s tricky when you have people tuning in to hear about sports, not politics, but I think in issues where they intertwine, that is not something ‘First Take’ is not going to shy away from and potentially will go to another level than another sports show," she said.
While she counts female sportscasters like Sage Steele, Hannah Storm and Robin Roberts as role models and mentors, Qerim says she does not see a gender-limited ceiling for herself.
“People will say, ‘You could be the next X,'" she said, referring to comparisons between her and other women broadcasters, "And I've always felt, 'Well, why couldn’t I be him as well?'”