Women still struggle to be taken seriously in sports media – but there’s signs that the game is changing.
Covering sports still isn’t a level playing field for women.
After NFL quarterback Cam Newton cracked it was “funny to hear a female” ask him a pretty standard football question, the NFL, the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) and the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) quickly condemned Newton for being so condescending toward Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue, and Dannon yogurt announced Thursday that it “will no longer work with him.”
I don't think it's "funny" to be a female and talk about routes. I think it's my job.
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) October 4, 2017
But female sports reporters told Moneyish that Newton’s fumble is often business as usual in the sports media boy’s club. After all, just last year Houston Astros prospect Brooks Marlow tweeted that, “No lady needs to be on espn talking during a baseball game specially Mendoza sorry,” referencing ESPN broadcaster Jessica Mendoza calling Major League Baseball games.
She’s a former Olympic softball player.
And two female sports writers were temporarily blocked from a visiting locker room in Indianapolis in 2015.
Nancy Armour, a columnist for USA Today Sports, has also been barred from locker rooms that let male reporters in during her 23-year career. Plus, she’s frequently quizzed with sports trivia to prove she knows what she’s talking about, or people assume she’s a groupie looking to date the players.
“I’ve been in the locker room before an NBA playoff game talking to a player who kept pulling up his towel further and further to see what reaction he would get out of me,” she said. “We might forget that we’re still in a man’s world, and things like this happen, and it reminds you that we have work to do.”
While women make up 45% of the NFL’s fan base, they only make up 10% to 20% of sports media, according to the most recent APSE Racial and Gender Report Card. And shrinking newsrooms have made it even harder for them to score jobs.
ESPN NFL reporter Michele Steele told Moneyish that she’s sometimes the only woman in the media room, especially during midweek games. “There’s added pressure when you’re the only woman there, or one of just a couple of women there, to stick the landing on a question,” she said. “Because I’m a woman and I work for a large network … I know there is going to be more scrutiny of what I’m saying, so I don’t want to waste my shot. I’m careful not to ask any off-the-field topics or something that isn’t going to be taken seriously by ‘football guys.’”
Progress is being made. Last month, Beth Mowins became the first woman to call an NFL game on TV in 30 years. The aforementioned Mendoza became ESPN’s first female Major League Baseball’s analyst.
But Google “female sports journalists,” and two of the three top results are “hottest female sports reporters.” And women are also subjected to nastier comments and sexual harassment on social media from anonymous sports fans.
This isn’t exclusive to sports, of course. Silicon Valley CEO Eileen Carey recently revealed she dyes her blond hair brown to be taken more seriously in the tech world. Only about 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women – and that’s an all-time high.
So why are women still getting sidelined after decades of covering professional sports? Even male sports reporters are scratching their heads.
“You come across so many intelligent, well-informed females in the business of sports if you turn on the TV, if you go inside a locker room or clubhouse,” ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Kevin Negandhi told Moneyish. “There are people that just can’t accept them, and I don’t understand that line of thinking.”
Sports Illustrated’s Melissa Ludtke literally opened doors for female reporters when she sued the New York Yankees for the right to let women into the locker room to interview players during the 1977 World Series, giving them the same access that male journalists were getting.
“You can change the law, but changing attitudes takes a lot more time,” she told Moneyish. “I find it heartening that people aren’t letting Cam Newton’s dismissiveness slide. When women and men stand up for women and women’s ideas, then you can collectively change attitudes. Actions need to be echoed by others.”
These journalists agreed that continuing to call out both micro and overt sexism, and teaching the next generation why it’s wrong, is the best game plan for now. And that goes for fields outside of sports, as well.
“If you lean in, and you don’t have others around you buttressing you as you lean it, it’s exceedingly challenging to do,” said Ludtke, noting how women’s voices are often lost in meetings when no one backs them up. “If you see a woman’s good idea being dismissed, stand up for it, throw your support for it, and in turn, hopefully they’ll have your back when it’s needed.”
Armour noted that a male sportswriter colleague of hers stopped his son from wearing a Newton jersey to school on Thursday, explaining what the QB had done wrong. “You have to teach the next generation that girls and boys can do any they want to do,” she said. “Call out racism, sexism – any discrimination – when you see it, and let people know immediately that this is not OK.”
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