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Women in Sports Media

How to Thrive in an Industry Despite Society Doubting Your Credentials

Written by: Pamela Modarelli Hegner

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The Chicago Cubs have just suffered a devastating loss in the heat of a playoff run, and you are about to enter the locker room to get post-game comments. You look around and realize on this day, you are the only female reporter heading in to the clubhouse.

You go straight to Sammy Sosa’s empty locker and wait. He comes out of the shower, wearing only a towel and you try not to look as he gets dressed, but you need to monitor when it’s appropriate to shove a microphone in his face and start asking questions about the loss. It’s a little intimidating as you stand there, trying not to get a naked glimpse of the slugger, but its about to get worse. Now, you need to ask him to explain how he struck out twice with runners in scoring position.

Luckily, Sosa is gracious and you get your sound, then head back to the station to start editing for your show.

Working as a woman in sports media can be incredibly intimidating or incredibly empowering. I’ve seen women get eaten alive by not knowing something about a team, athlete or game; instantly losing credibility in what can be very much a boys’ club. Even though many women are highly successful in the field, that loss of credibility can leave a female journalist with a reputation almost impossible to repair.

suzy kolber espn female sportscaster women in sports media“I do think through the years women were judged more harshly,” says ESPN Anchor/Reporter Suzy Kolber. “If a guy makes a mistake, no big deal, but if a woman makes a mistake, they jump on it.”

However the veteran Kolber says she always felt accepted and was never disrespected during any moment in her career thus far. Even the awkward Joe Namath incident from 2003 didn’t bother her. When interviewing the Hall of Fame Quarterback on the sidelines, the clearly intoxicated Namath said that he wanted to kiss her, twice.

Kolber handled it like a pro responding, “Thanks Joe, I’ll take that as a huge compliment.”

Kolber said she couldn’t believe the media swarm that ensued. “It was over for me the second it happened. I had no idea that every outlet in the country wanted an interview. I said to Joe afterward, I’m not talking about it. I’ve never viewed it as something awful that happened. It was just a bad moment for a good guy. For me, it was not disrespectful; it was just Joe being Joe. People who know me knew I could laugh about it.”

I think it’s great Kolber was able to let this go so easily. But I think it stands as a reminder that female sportscasters can have a lot more to contend with compared to their male counterparts. Succeeding in this business as a woman is so empowering if you can hold your own in a newsroom or locker room full of testosterone-laden men who are skeptical of a female.

I have always felt that the jury is still out on women in sports media until they can talk the talk.

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“At first, some assumed I didn’t know much about sports because I was a woman,” says Alex Brady, Producer for NFL Network. “That usually subsided after having a conversation with me. I don’t think it’s ever affected my ability to get or keep a job. No one has ever treated me poorly in this business simply because I was a woman.”

One former female sportscaster who we will keep anonymous, spoke very candidly about an embarrassing moment in a football press box with her boss. “It was my third day overall, so the learning curve was still very high. In my zeal to sound plugged-in and knowledgeable, I slipped in a comment about a play ‘on the 51 yard line’. That was (several) years ago and I still recoil thinking about it!”

“There have been plenty of times, where I have had to prove my worth with my sports knowledge but I am fortunate to say I have always been treated with respect,” says ESPN SportsCenter Anchor Cindy Brunson. cindy brunson espn female sportscaster women in sports media“For me, respect is earned by a journalist demonstrating knowledge, interest and passion. I have seen plenty of ladies flame out quickly for just getting into sports to be on TV. Fans and people in the industry can sniff out knowledge and passion and will dismiss people quickly who don’t have one or both.”

Many women aspire only to be on camera, and this can be a mistake because it may limit your opportunities. Kolber feels her on-air career was boosted by having a job behind the scenes.

“Whatever you can do to be more versatile, the better,” Kolber says. “I’ve always thought it made me a better reporter/anchor because I was a producer. I know what it takes to make a whole show. If you know what everyone else has to do it makes you better at your job. Don’t be afraid to break in that way.”

Kolber agreed with me that learning about sports and its history is not knowledge you acquire overnight. The most respected women I ever worked with were those who as girls grew up with it, much like your typical sports-crazed boy would.

For me, I was the son my dad never had and I watched endless games with him from the time I was very young. So knowing about icing or bunting or punting was just second nature to me. It was something I never had to study up on. Brunson had a similar upbringing.

“Thanks to the fact my father didn’t have any boys, my sports education started really early and as a result I have always felt like I can hold my own whenever I talk about sports,” Brunson says. “In fact, what I have gotten a real kick out of over the years is talking sports with guys who may not be familiar with me or my job and simply blowing them out of the water when they try to dumb down a conversation about baseball and I chime in with hall of fame stats and number of gold gloves won by a player the person mentions.”

I enjoyed a career as a sports producer for over ten years, and while it was not my primary job, I had to conduct several locker room interviews. I dealt with some comments and a few difficult athletes, but no major incidents.

Unfortunately, other women have different stories to tell. Lisa Olson is the one I remember most vividly. While working for the Boston Herald in 1990, the reporter was harassed by New England Patriots players and eventually settled for a reported $250,000 in a civil suit against the team.

And even though that was several years ago, the debate over allowing women in the locker room keeps coming up. As recently as September 2010, Mexican reporter Ines Sainz was allegedly harassed by New York Jets players while waiting to interview Quarterback Mark Sanchez. Sainz has been criticized numerous times for what many deem inappropriate work attire. While that doesn’t mean she should be disrespected, it often sets the wrong tone.

“If you want to be taken seriously, then act like it, dress like it… study, do your homework,” says Angie Mentink, ROOT Sports Sportscaster. “Be prepared for everything you cover. If you don’t know something find out. Ask questions to people, don’t say things like ‘Can you talk about your defense.’ Ask a question about their defense.”

In my opinion, I’d like to see a neutral interview room for both male and female sportscasters and reporters. I mean, think about it. No matter what your job is, after a long, hard day at work, who really wants to stand there half naked and answer tough, probing questions?

“I think a locker room is a disgusting place for men or women to be,” Kolber says. “I have no desire to go in there. And when you do, you make the best of it.”

Brunson has a different stance.

“My opinion of women in the locker room is it’s a necessary part of doing the job. All one has to do is compose oneself in a professional manner in both dress and demeanor and you’ll find yourself in a position to succeed. When I was working in Portland, Oregon covering the Trailblazers, there were parts of Arvydas Sabonis’ large backside I wish I hadn’t caught a glimpse of, but that was part of the cost of doing business in the player’s work space. In my mind, neutral interview rooms would take away from that great soundbite you can get while player emotions are sill running high. We run into too many cliché answers from athletes as it is, and my fear is that those kind of responses would only increase if the players had more time to cool down both physically and emotionally after a game.”

There is one thing all women interviewed for this article can agree upon. Be serious about why you want to pursue a career in sports tv.

“I hate to say it, but just make sure you’re getting into it for the right reasons, because you love sports,” says Missy Moore, Padres Producer for Channel 4 in San Diego. “You love to watch them, you want to cover them, you like to read about them. It will make your job easier and a lot more enjoyable.”

“Know your stuff and be ready to outwork everyone around you,” Brunson adds. In our current information age there is NO excuse to not be knowledgeable about all sports, not just one’s favorites.”

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Photo Courtesies (Top to Bottom): Associated Press, ESPN, ESPN & Fox Sports Northwest

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