A young lady from Ohio State sent me a list of questions about women in sports journalism. I know this is a subject of great interest to some, and eye-rolling boredom to others.
For those who are keenly interested, here are my answers…
Do you believe that discrimination against women is still a relevant issue?
I do, but I believe discrimination today takes a different form than what existed in the past. Whereas before, discrimination was very overt and contemptuous, now it is much more subtle.
Before, there was a belief that women were unable to do the work of a sports journalist. They couldn’t go where the men went, or understand sports the way a man would understand sports, or communicate effectively to sports fans who would automatically tune out anything a woman had to say on the topic.
That belief system is largely gone now. In its place is an unwillingness to use women in certain positions simply because they’ve rarely been trusted to do the job before.
Let’s face it, the corporate world is not known for its creativity. The greatest inventors and innovators may have patrons or financial backers. They never have bosses. That’s because people in suits and one-size-fits-all consultants quash what’s new and different all the time.
Sports journalism is especially formulaic, and so there are many higher ups in the industry who won’t hire or promote a woman simply because they’ve never seen a woman do the job before.
In other words, before there was no belief in a woman’s capabilities. Today, there’s simply no “script” for how to use a female sports journalist.
When did you decide you wanted to go into sports media?
I decided that in high school. As a 5’3” athlete, I knew if I wanted to find a career path that allowed me to stay connected to athletics, it wouldn’t be as a World Cup goalie or as a WNBA point guard. (Even if the WNBA had existed then, which it didn’t.)
In college, I suffered somewhat of an existential crisis. Sports reporters aren’t all that important to society in the grand scheme of things. If an asteroid was going to hit earth, they wouldn’t make sure to house a sports reporter in the bunker…In fact, they might close the door if they saw one of us coming.
With that in mind, I considered covering hard news. However, while doing a student telecast, I was reading the story of an apartment fire, halfway through which, I realized it involved an acquaintance’s apartment.
I switched back to sports quickly after that.
How did you decide you wanted to go into sports media?
How difficult was it for you to find a job in your field?
Difficult, but I have myself to blame for much of that. I was unwilling to leave the Columbus area, and this job is very hard to work in when you’re that inflexible.
I ended up editing video for the now defunct ONN television network in the middle of the night and interning for a local sports radio station during the day. I was not sleeping a lot, but I made a valuable connection during that internship. Plus, I was working for a company that operated under the same corporate umbrella, so when a job opened up at 1460 The Fan (now 97.1 The Fan) I was ready to pounce on it.
Are you happy with your current role?
I don’t do “happy” well when it comes to my job. I’m too much of a striver to ever be content with what I’m doing. It’s important to me to always do better.
One thing I’ve found, although it is not specifically tied to the issue of gender, is that sometimes your strengths can hold you back.
If you’re smart, for instance, your ideas may be nuanced; and in a field where you have one paragraph or two minutes to connect with your audience, nuance is difficult, if not impossible, to pull off.
If you love sports, you might fail to connect with more casual fans, who are somewhat less passionate.
If you’re a versatile employee, you could end up being a backup for everyone in the company. Without being able to specialize, you might not find a niche, and your work could go unrecognized.
And if you’re trusted by the boss, they might not check in with you enough that you’re the first one to come to mind when an opportunity presents itself.
Have you reached your goal, or are you still working toward a different role?
My primary goal is to do better tomorrow than I did today. In that sense, my career is always a work in progress.
As for my role? There are still things I would like to try. I want to be able to host shows at 97.1 The Fan. I would like to have more of my writing published.
Have you noticed any gender discrimination on the way to where you are? If so, how did you handle that?
Oh, yes. In high school, I did the sports for the televised morning announcements. One teacher asked his class as a bonus question on an exam to name “The Voice of Tiger Sports.” Everyone got it right, with one exception: There was one student who named the guy who had filled in for me…once, explaining that girls can’t do sports.
When covering the NHL draft in Columbus, Ohio, I was asked by a reporter from New York if I knew anything about hockey. This was right after we’d been introduced, so I hadn’t said anything to make him doubt my hockey knowledge. Besides, by that time, I’d covered the Blue Jackets for six years. Bottom line? I’m fairly confident he wouldn’t have asked a male reporter the same question in that situation.
Not all examples of discrimination are like that, though. Consider the press conference where a (now former) Blue Jackets coach snapped at me after a perfectly innocent question. After that happened, my Twitter timeline was flooded with people who wanted to know if I was ok. Although I was more than fine, I genuinely appreciated the concern, even if I knew I would not have received the same tweets if my name was, say, Larry Schmidt. Actually, this may present an example of a way in which I wish my male colleagues were treated more like women, in the fact that the audience remembers us as people, you know, with feelings.
In any case, my philosophy when confronting the more negative forms of discrimination is to assume people are well-intentioned, but may not know any better. When that is your baseline, the best response naturally is not self-righteous anger but calm reason.
And the best way to educate someone that women can indeed do this job is to do your job.
That segues nicely into your next question, I think.
How do you deal with the underlying idea that sports are only for men?
Again, the very best way to convince the audience that women have a legitimate role in sports is to do your job well.
Also, I think we have a responsibility to help other women in the industry. While I would never tell another reporter what to do, I do find it beneficial to discuss our experiences and how we’ve dealt with our situations.
Unfortunately, we are still at a point where women are really underrepresented in sports journalism. So what one woman does tends to influence the audience’s perception of what all women are capable of doing. The more we help each other then, the better off we will be.
What would you say to someone who said they don’t believe women belong in sports media?
Oh, gosh, if someone actually said this, they’d be too far gone to convince otherwise. You kind of triage the situation, right?
It’s much more important to take the person whose bias is less pronounced and help them understand their behaviors and attitudes.
A couple other things…
Why is it important to have female sports reporters? It’s because they can offer a different perspective.
Imagine, for instance, how disheartening it is for a female listener who’s tuned in to a sports radio talk show to hear five straight callers defend Kobe Bryant after he’s been charged with rape. The callers feel like the alleged victim was “asking for it.” They can’t imagine a woman who would turn down the opportunity to sleep with an NBA player. That situation is unlikely to happen if the host is a woman.
There are still a lot of girls, who because of society’s expectations, aren’t raised by parents who will watch a ballgame with them. These girls may grow into women who want to be sports fans, but can’t find someone who will educate them without being condescending. A female commentator might be useful in such a situation.
And can you picture a reporter asking LSU football coach Les Miles about “sweet, young thing” Erin Andrews, if the room was half-full of female newspaper writers?
Is physical appearance more of an issue for female reporters than male reporters?
In television, yes. In other forms of media? Yes, but you can mitigate this. My Twitter avatar is a fedora, not my picture. (As an aside, I do use a lot of emoticons, which I’m aware is considered feminine, but I prefer to think of it as friendly.) I always try to wear outfits that might elicit the compliment, “You look nice,” rather than, “You look hot.” If you don’t want your appearance to be an issue, you can take steps to downplay it. I might just be saying this because I’m homely, but I do think that is a way to let your talent shine through.
Remember what I said about nuance?
In radio, at least, that’s an issue that does have a much greater impact on women than men. When you have so little time to establish a rapport with the audience, you can’t be yourself, you have to be a sort of simplified, larger-than-life version of yourself.
You’re a character, in other words.
For men, there are a lot of choices when it comes to stock characters. They can be the grumpy former newspaper writer, the jovial ex-jock, the know-it-all, the frat boy who never grew up, the whipped husband who has to sneak out to catch the game…The list goes on and on.
For women, there’s really only the airhead and the tomboy.
Don’t get me wrong. You do have to layer in some complexity eventually. Radio people aren’t stereotypes, and radio listeners won’t tune in day-after-day to hear the same old shtick. However, if you aren’t someone the audience will identify with quickly, they’ll just turn the station.
One last challenge women in our industry face?
I’ve talked to a lot of ladies who are the only woman in their company. That makes it impossible for them to prove a pattern of discrimination.