By CLAIRE COFFEY, AVA SIANO & VERONICA BIANCO
Of Grant Magazine
This article is republished with permission from Grant Magazine, the publication at Grant High School in Portland. This story was reported by students Claire Coffey, Ava Siano and Veronica Bianco, the Keizertimes did not edit it.
In 2019, a study by Purdue University found that coverage of female athletes on televised news and highlight shows totaled only 5.4% of all airtime, a negligible change from the 5% observed 30 years earlier in 1989. For decades, female athletes have been fighting an uphill battle to get the recognition they deserve.
In Oregon, young women look to the Instagram account @eliteoregongirls (EOG). With nearly 3,000 posts exclusively covering female high school athletics and over 9,100 followers, the account, founded in 2020 by Eric Watkins, a man in his late 20s, is the primary platform for female high school athletes across the state and is easily the largest of its kind in Oregon.
However, it seems that the man who’s made a living out of watching and photographing teen girls playing sports might have motives other than increasing representation.
On May 19, 2022, the Salem-Keizer school district banned Watkins from all Salem-Keizer school properties and all school-related events with a Notice of Trespass. Watkins lives in the Salem area. Should he violate the order, police would be called to the scene.
In correspondence between the district and the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) obtained by Grant Magazine, the district explained the basis for the ban: inappropriate messages between Watkins and student athletes in the district, some as young as 13 years old.
Screenshots obtained by Grant Magazine of the messages between Watkins and one female student athlete show they communicated back-and-forth for more than two years, beginning in 2020. According to the district, the communication had been occurring without parent permission, and the screenshots show that the vast majority of the conversations were initiated by Watkins.
In one conversation, Watkins told a student, “I can talk to your Dad and convince him to let you come with me to Ohio,” followed by a crying-laughing emoji.
Watkins himself admits it: he flirts with female student athletes. In one message to a high school female soccer player, he says, “I can joke and flirt a lot, so I could see the confusion,” followed by a crying-laughing emoji. Watkins was referring to confusion over whether or not he was being serious about something.
The messages were not limited to a single person; Grant Magazine obtained screenshots of messages between Watkins and at least five female student athletes.
After a short leave of absence and inquiries from Grant Magazine, Watkins has announced that he’s abandoning EOG altogether.
Watkins’ monopoly on female high school sports reporting coupled with inappropriate interactions with student athletes begs the question: What treatment must female athletes endure to get the same representation as their male counterparts?
Watkins ran an Instagram account called @theoregonselite before EOG, which covered both boys and girls high school sports.
On March 16, 2020 he posted an announcement declaring he would abandon @theoregonselite and switch completely to EOG after realizing just how little representation for female athletes there was. Watkins says, “The potential to inspire an entire state of girls, motivate them, and be there for them is more than worth the risk to me.”
While Watkins’ Instagram username specifies a focus on Oregon’s “elite” athletes, his coverage is not limited to the top teams in Oregon. This has been a valuable aspect of his work – his coverage doesn’t discriminate based on school size, location or ranking. Teams outside of Portland, Salem and Eugene are finally getting time in the spotlight.
“All girls have the opportunity to be elite, and my goal is to be able to cover as many (athletes) as I possibly can and give them all the love that they deserve,” says Watkins.
Since the beginning, his work has been conflict-prone.
In December, 2020, an Instagram account called @elite_oregon_girls_shade emerged. The account’s description says that it is run by a group of high school and college-aged female athletes who are “strongly against the ‘Elite Oregon Girls’ Instagram account.” It was only active for a few weeks.
Most of its seven posts are screenshots of Watkins expressing conservative views on Twitter and Instagram. The caption of its first post says, “We will be sharing information about (Watkins) and how he is strongly against female rights, supports extremist ideas, and is only using this page (EOG) as a way to become known throughout the PNW.”
The account shared a screenshot of Watkins retweeting an anti-abortion statement by avid pro-life activist Lila Rose. Its caption argues that Watkins’ views on abortion contradict his support of female representation, making him unfit to run a platform meant to support and uplift girls.
The pushback didn’t deter Watkins. As COVID-19 restrictions were eased and high school sports resumed, Watkins dove into covering Oregon’s female athletes. He says, “I started the year out in Eastern Oregon. I started up in Pendleton, and then hit John Day, La Grande, Baker, Pilot Rock. That’s about 500–600 miles between those cities. And that’s just for one weekend.”
The work wasn’t easy: Watkins moved quickly, posting photos and videos of games he attended on his website and social media accounts within days after they were taken. Additionally, the EOG Instagram and Twitter accounts and website were almost constantly flooded with stats, rankings, photos and other sports-related news. When Watkins wasn’t able to obtain stats and highlights, he relied on his followers, largely female high schoolers and their parents, to send them to him.
Watkins’ conversations with female student athletes from the Salem-Keizer school district went far beyond sports-related questions, and the district caught on.
In communication with OSAA, the district elaborated on the ban. They wrote that his messages were “causing concern to students, parents and staff.” Their concerns were with conversation threads, nearly all initiated by Watkins, that were “overly personal in nature” and “seemed to place the student in the role of confidante.”
Watkins inquired about one student’s personal life, asking questions like, “How was your Thanksgiving?” and “Are you a high achieving student?”
Furthermore, the messages show that Watkins created relationships with not only the student, but with her family too. In one message he says, “That’s what your Mom told me…” and in another, “I haven’t seen you or your sister in a while, I hope y’all are doing well,” followed by a heart emoji.
Watkins dispenses compliment after compliment. In one instance, he responds to an Instagram story picturing a student wearing her homecoming dress with, “I love it! You look beautiful,” followed by a heart emoji.
After he received criticism over the tweets that the shade account highlighted, he messaged the student, saying, “I deeply appreciate you coming to my aid this week against the baseless attacks I was dealing with. The attacks put me in a very fragile, vulnerable position mentally this week.” In the same message, Watkins discloses that he struggles with a severe mental illness.
In another message to the same student, Watkins says, “I’ll come to your Noon game and hang out with yall, take some photos and I have a surprise for you too,” followed by a smiley emoticon.
He also offers to get her gifts, saying, “I have a chance to get two more (professional basketball player Sabrina) Ionescu autographs. If I get them both, do you want one of them?”
In a conversation thread with a different student, Watkins says, “You let me down girl,” followed by a crying-laughing emoji. Subsequent messages indicate that he was most likely referring to a game he attended that the athlete’s team lost.
Then, Watkins told the student about his time in college, saying, “They found it very odd that I supported girls so much and I actually got bullied for it even in college. It was a toxic culture.”
Later, Watkins reached out again, expressing his frustrations about OSAA’s strict media clearance policies (he didn’t possess a media credential at the time). Watkins said, “I’m so pissed and upset, this is a never ending nightmare … I’m ready to quit.”
Watkins reached out to that same student out of the blue about contracting COVID-19, and later sent a message asking them if they liked a tweet he had recently posted.
The topics that Watkins discusses with young female student athletes go far beyond his role as a sports photographer and reporter. Furthermore, clear power dynamics are at play: Watkins decides who he covers and when, gives out awards and highlights individual athletes.
Because of his large following, his presence at games is desirable, giving female athletes all the more incentive to engage with him.
Salem-Keizer alerted OSAA of their concern for athletes’ safety because Watkins holds a media credential. According to OSAA, if the school’s district does not instruct otherwise, as is the case with Salem-Keizer, the credential “admits the bearer into events and often provides access to specific public areas that are controlled by the school (sidelines, courtside, hallways outside a gym, etc.).”
Even though the organization knows about Watkins’ inappropriate relations with OSAA athletes, his credential has not been revoked.
Watkins doesn’t see an issue with his conduct, and sees the trespass order as the district working to silence him. In a statement to Grant Magazine, he says, “SKPS’ (Salem-Keizer Public Schools) obstruction of my goals to bring coverage that girls across Oregon deserve and need has not hindered me.”
In the same statement, Watkins addresses the overly personal nature of the conversations. “I handle details confined from student-athletes about personal struggles or hurdles with the utmost care and share my own experiences as a form of being relative and showing empathy.”
In contrast to his statement, which implies that the athletes confide in him first, all of the messages show otherwise: Watkins shares first, which rarely elicits a personal response from students.
According to communication within the Salem-Keizer district, Watkins looked into appealing the trespass order, but ultimately declined to do so.
Watkins furthered his interactions with students by adding student contributors to his team. He says he did so to take some of the weight off his shoulders, turning to young, aspiring female photographers to cover games he could not attend.
EOG initially had two student contributors from Salem-Keizer schools, but they were forbidden from working with Watkins because of his rocky relationship with the district. The post introducing them has since been deleted from the account.
Even after introducing student contributors, Watkins says that the physical and mental demands of running EOG were taking too great a toll on him. On November 22, 2022, he posted an official statement on the account’s Instagram story, writing, “I’m stepping back from running EOG for an unknown period of time.”
The story post (that has since disappeared) is multiple slides long, explaining how he feels “tired, broken and lost.” Watkins expresses thanks to his followers, writing, “I could walk away and confidently call EOG a success.”
Although he then stopped traveling across the state to report on games, he continued to interact with student athletes. Just 11 days after releasing his statement, Watkins returned to Instagram on December 2, 2022 and asked his followers for updates on their athletic lives. The following slides of his story ranged from Watkins reacting to game results, stats and highlights, to him congratulating players on achieving personal athletic goals.
Three days later, on December 5, 2022, Watkins officially stepped down from running EOG, explaining the decision in a post that was nine slides long.
He writes that he has felt “undervalued” and he urges people to remember that “it is a lone person holding up the forefront for girls’ sports coverage.”
He says the pushback from parents and athletes regarding his power rankings and “athletes to watch” lists steered EOG away from his original vision.
Watkins concludes the message by writing, “My presence may be missed, but it will eventually become normal again … Fight for yourselves, don’t expect others to always be able to fight for you.”
What is the future of EOG? In a message he sent to a student athlete last year, Watkins alludes to an answer: “I can start anew eight hours away in a new state that is completely open.”
In his farewell post, Watkins writes, “I have so much to bring to girls and womens’ sports but I have simply done all I can do for Oregon’s girls.”
What Watkins has done for Oregon’s girls is cross boundaries, initiate inappropriate conversations and compel them to engage with him simply to get the coverage they deserve regardless.