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Atlanta Dream rookie Aari McDonald made a statement on WNBA draft day in April, sitting in front of a neon sign with the phonetic spelling of her name: “AIR-e.” She’d spent the NCAA tournament correcting journalists about how to say her name and she was likely trying to make sure people got it right from the moment she was drafted into the W. Now, two months later, it’s clear she had reason to be concerned.
This season, the WNBA is more accessible than ever before, with more than 100 nationally televised games. The league’s 2020 bubble season, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, brought a lot of attention to the league, thanks in part to players’ racial justice activism, and because, for a while, the WNBA was one of the only sports happening. Viewing numbers for 2021 are up 74 percent from the 2020 season. But as visibility increases, so does attention on the broadcasters (the people whose voices narrate the game to television viewers) and the announcers (who call the plays over the arena speakers for fans in attendance). And that spotlight has revealed a problem: the consistent inability—or unwillingness—of broadcasters and announcers to pronounce players’ names correctly.
It’s unclear why this keeps happening. Teams provide pronunciation guides for all their players, and there are only 144 names to learn. This is an issue that we see happen much less often in the men’s professional leagues, even though there are many more players (and when it does happen, it’s rightly called out); it signals a level of disrespect that the male players don’t face to the same degree.
The mispronunciations are not happening equally; it is Black players, players of color, and international players that bear the brunt of these errors. “The way announcers continue to butcher players’ names in the W is especially concerning and very revealing as it almost always is a Black girl’s name that gets stuck in their mouths,” Amira Rose Davis, professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State University, told VICE. “Stumbling over Arike Ogunbowale while getting Sabrina Ionescu right is not about the so-called difficulty of a name. It’s about what names are deemed worthy of knowing.”
These mistakes are not without impact. A name is significant and holds within it a person’s culture, ancestry, and identity. Repeatedly mispronouncing an unfamiliar name is a form of implicit discrimination, one that has been referred to as “a tiny act of bigotry”—though the impact is far from small. Having a name that is constantly mispronounced can negatively affect a person’s confidence and self-esteem. It’s also reflective of the larger discrepancy in coverage of white players versus Black players, which is likely to make the white players’ names more familiar to fans and media members alike. According to a 2019 report, more than 80 percent of WNBA athletes are people of color and nearly 70 percent are Black, making these discrepancies even more unacceptable.
A CBS broadcast called the Las Vegas Aces’ Dearica Hamby “Erica Camby;” the Indiana Fever broadcast airing on CBS Sports Network on May 16 confused New York Liberty players Sami Whitcomb and Kylee Shook (because, I guess, both have long blonde hair). During one game I watched, a broadcaster butchered Betnijah Laney’s name so badly it was unrecognizable. And then there is poor Astou Ndour-Fall, whose name is pronounced differently on every broadcast but never the way she says it herself.
And it’s not just the television crews who are making this mistake. At the May 24 game between the Dallas Wings and New York Liberty at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the Liberty’s in-game announcer mispronounced Wings star player Arike Ogunbowale’s name for the entire game. The difference between a television broadcaster and an in-game announcer getting a player’s name wrong is that when the latter happens, the player can hear it in the moment. It can affect their mood and play.
Liberty fan Francois Monroc and his wife were sitting in Section 12 behind the Dallas bench and could see Ogunbowale’s frustration. “There was one moment when he messed up her name again quite badly and you could see she was really upset,” Monroc told VICE. “I saw her when there was a time out and they went to the corner on the bench and you could see that she was shaking her head.”
Ogunbowale didn’t let it go unnoticed, taking to Twitter following the game. “I’m still confused why the NY announcer said my name wrong for 40 minutes,” she tweeted. And she has a point. Ogunbowale is the league’s scoring leader; an announcer should know that they are going to have to say her name quite a bit and should practice beforehand.
The organization confirmed that the in-arena announcer received a pronunciation guide prior to the game. “The New York Liberty organization values the importance of correctly pronouncing all player’s names and will work diligently to get it right moving forward,” a spokesperson told VICE. “We will put respect on Arike’s name and the names of all WNBA players who compete in our arena.” (There was no official public apology from the Liberty.)
Other players and teams are also calling it out on social media when it happens to them. In May, the Bally Sports North broadcasters called the Sun’s DiJonai Carrington “Dijon,” like the mustard, when Connecticut played the Minnesota Lynx. “I know I’m a rookie buttttt y’all gotta learn how to correctly pronounce my name… cmon,” she tweeted after the game.
The Connecticut Sun’s social media account tweeted feedback directed at Anne Marie Anderson and Carolyn Peck, the Las Vegas Aces broadcast team, during their May 23 game: “Hey @LVAces broadcast, It’s NA-TEE-SHA. Not Natasha. Can you please correct?” And that wasn’t the only error during that game; the broadcasters also mixed up players, and they didn’t even get the team name right, repeatedly calling them the “Suns” (the name of the Phoenix NBA team). The Sun’s Twitter bio currently reads, “Hi, new friends! It’s Sun. Just Sun. Singular.”
Robyn N. Brown, the marketing specialist and team reporter who also runs the Sun’s social media accounts, told VICE she decided to tweet in the moment because she was frustrated, but also because she was back in Connecticut and it was the only way she felt she could get in touch with the right people.
The mispronunciation also came on the heels of other errors, Brown said. “Atlanta called [Natisha Hiedeman] ‘Natasha’ and changed Kaila [Charles] to ‘Kayla’ and I didn’t say anything. So when it happened again in Vegas, I can’t walk over and talk to anyone to let them know. Seemed like an easy way to reach a team is to @ them.”
Beyond just correcting the record, Brown’s tweets served a larger purpose: advocating for the players who were on the floor and could not do so themselves. “The purpose of my job is to elevate the women on my roster and expand their recognition,” she said.
Mistakes happen, of course, and no broadcast—or broadcaster—will be perfect 100 percent of the time. But the quantity and consistency with which these basic missteps are occurring speak to a larger, systemic problem. National Women’s Soccer League fans have been vocal about the same issue, lamenting that weeks into the season, players’ names are still being pronounced incorrectly on the broadcasts.
“When we talk about growing the infrastructure around women’s sports it has to include conversations about things like referees and broadcasters,” Davis said. “From the NWSL’s officiating inconsistencies to some of the things we have seen this season in the WNBA with announcers mixing up players or misidentifying them.”
Erica Ayala, a multimedia journalist who covers the WNBA and who has worked as a color analyst for the National Women’s Hockey League, told VICE that there are cultural norms and differences that come into play, especially when a name is unfamiliar to American tongues. But, she pointed out, it is part of the job to get it right. When she was preparing to call a game, she made it a point to ask the players themselves how they wanted to hear their names said—and, not infrequently, the way they pronounced their own names was different from the way the name was being said on broadcasts.
In addition to the pronunciation guides that teams already provide, Ayala says she would like to see teams take a few minutes on media day to record each player saying their own name. The University of Minnesota women’s hockey team does this, providing an audio sample of the players saying their names in each athlete’s bio. But, of course, the broadcasters and announcers would still have to actually use these materials for this to be effective.
For its part, the WNBA says it’s aware of the issue. “We are aware of the feedback related to issues with some national and local broadcasts of WNBA games,” a league spokesperson told VICE. “The league and teams are working together with broadcast producers and announcers to upgrade broadcast preparation and execution, and to commit to continuous improvement and achieving the highest standards.”
What that will look like is unclear. The WNBA’s coverage is piecemeal; the league has deals with ESPN, CBS, Amazon Prime, NBA TV, Twitter, Facebook, and a variety of local broadcast networks. That means that it doesn’t necessarily have control over who will be calling its games. In some cases, the networks hire their own broadcasters, while in others, the teams may have more input in who gets hired. Either way, there is no central training mechanism or single person overseeing the broadcast teams. Coverage is not centralized, making quality control difficult. But at the end of the day, regardless of which network is airing the error-filed broadcast, the product reflects back on the league itself.
“I would like to see the WNBA take more ownership—and the teams take more ownership—of making sure their players are hearing their names properly and they’re seeing them spelled correctly,” said Ayala.
Some teams are doing exactly that. The Atlanta Dream, under new ownership this season that includes former Dream player Renee Montgomery, invested in an all-Black woman broadcasting team made up of veteran WNBA analysts like LaChina Robinson and Angel Gray. And in the male-dominated world of sports broadcasting, women are much more highly represented on WNBA broadcasts than they are in other parts of the industry. That’s a huge win for gender parity, but if the quality of the commentary isn’t up to snuff for a professional league, it inadvertently plays into inaccurate stereotypes about women being less qualified for these broadcasting positions.
These missteps impact the fan experience, too. The number of fans taking to Twitter to voice their feelings about it makes that clear. VICE spoke to three fans who were at the May 24 game between the Wings and the Liberty, and all of them said they grew increasingly upset as the night went on and the announcer continued to bungle Ogunbowale’s name.
Steve Burton, a 33-year-old Wings fan who has been following Ogunbowale’s career since she played for Notre Dame in college, attended the game at Barclays specifically to see Ogunbowale play and was really bothered by what he saw as a sign of blatant disrespect. “This was the first WNBA game I’ve attended and the experience was really awesome,” he told VICE. “I’ll go to more games this season, but that definitely made me uncomfortable and marred the experience for me.”
“When I make a mistake, the goal is to not make it again,” Las Vegas Aces play-by-play broadcaster Anne Marie Anderson told VICE. “If I don’t catch myself during a broadcast, that is why watching the show back is critical,” Anderson said.
Peck, the Aces color analyst, also said she is committed to improving with each game she calls. “Every player deserves to have their name pronounced correctly,” Peck said. “I’m extremely disappointed in myself if I mispronounce a name and work very hard in trying to get it right.”
And Davis hopes the players will continue to demand the respect they deserve. “When we talk about athletes of the W being tossed breadcrumbs and told to feast, this is the type of thing that comes to mind,” she said. “Players are right to speak up and demand that announcers get their names right—and put some respect on it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the YES Network mixed up Sami Whitcomb and Kylee Shook. The incident occurred during the Indiana Fever broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
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