AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2005

Offensive Interference   

For decades women sportswriters faced intimidation and harassment from male athletes, coaches and even colleagues. Thanks to the perseverance of pioneers, the blatant sexism has subsided, and locker-room doors are open to both genders. But the battle for equality isn’t over.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » The Pioneers

Her adrenaline was pumping as sportswriter Paola Boivin, 25, rushed into the St. Louis Cardinal clubhouse in pursuit of postgame coverage. As she maneuvered through the mass of bodies, a Cardinal player menacingly blocked her path. In a voice dripping with vitriol, he asked whether she was there to interview someone or to look at a bunch of guys' penises.

Before the stunned reporter uttered a word, a sweat-soaked jock strap sailed through the air, smacking Boivin in the head and falling to the floor. She remembers looking down and thinking, "Oh my God!" as she turned and fled her tormentors.

"That incident came close to ending my career," recalls Boivin, who was covering sports for a small newspaper in California. The game with the Los Angeles Dodgers was one of her first big assignments. The year was 1985.

The bullying of Boivin in the locker room was indicative of the times.

As greater numbers of women invaded the temples of male supremacy--the press box, the sidelines and, most sacrosanct of all, the locker room--a testosterone frenzy erupted in sports venues across the country, igniting the worst rash of sexism ever witnessed against a group of reporters. Being called a bitch was the least of the indignities, according to pioneers who began forging a new frontier in American journalism in the mid-1970s.

Battle lines quickly formed as women inched their way into terrain where no precedents existed for a female presence. By 1978, women sportswriters had acquired a powerful weapon: A lawsuit was filed when Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn prevented Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke from interviewing players in the locker room during the 1977 World Series. A year later, a federal court judge ordered equal access for female reporters, as coaches, players and some male sportswriters howled in protest. Finally, the doors were open.

Twenty-six years later, the life of a woman sportswriter has changed dramatically. Today, there appears to have been a steady erosion of the blatant sexism that plagued women into the 1990s. The benchmarks of progress most often mentioned include significant changes in the sports department culture over the years resulting in more opportunities for high-profile assignments and promotions. While the forerunners operated in a vacuum, without mentors or role models, the Association of Women in Sports Media, with 450 members, offers a supportive network.

But despite the inroads, the playing field still is far from level.

Women complain that their numbers are paltry on three fronts: Not enough have been tapped for top management positions, or for the coveted role of sports columnist. They often feel overlooked for glitzy assignments like the Super Bowl or the World Series. Many struggle to balance travel and work with marriage and family. Prejudice still appears unexpectedly.

Tracy Dodds, a groundbreaker in women's sports reporting, recalls early male stereotypes of female sportswriters as "sluts and groupies." Has that changed today? "Very much so, but there still is a long way to go," says Dodds, a sports enterprise writer for the Indianapolis Star and a former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors.

Joanne Gerstner, 33, president of AWSM, the women sports journalists organization, talks about the sacrifices made by those who came before her. "These women went through hell, through utter degradation, to do their jobs," she says. "I am walking on a road paved by many who gave up their souls, their psyches to get us where we are today."

Early in the struggle, women sportswriters rarely went public about the mistreatment by coaches, players and, sometimes, even their male coworkers. They focused on their jobs, keeping a low profile, hoping the friction would subside.

Women sportswriters tell of facing a gauntlet of intimidation. At times, a fraternity-prank mentality took hold. A slap on the rump with a wet towel as they waded through a sea of male athletes or catcalls as a player mischievously urinated in front of them. Disapproval came from a myriad of sources, including players' wives and girlfriends who took umbrage at the notion of strange women seeing their men in the buff.

Some of the more outrageous episodes have become legendary among the ranks of female sportswriters. Susan Fornoff was on assignment for the Sacramento Bee the night she accepted a delivery from an usher during a Kansas City Royals-Oakland Athletics game. As male colleagues watched, she opened a pink box to discover a live rat with a note attached that read, "My name is Sue."

The sender, she learned, was an Oakland A's player who felt "a lady should be a lady. He just doesn't think I belong in the locker room," said Fornoff at the time of the incident in June 1986. She left sports for the first time in 1992 because, "I was, frankly, beaten down by the maleness of the locker room," says Fornoff, who writes for the home and garden section of the San Francisco Chronicle. She later did a two-year stint covering golf, but "this time the schizoid hours and travel got to me," she says. "I am very excited about the change."

Rookie reporter Joan Ryan was conducting a locker-room interview for the Orlando Sentinel when she found herself surrounded by players from the now-defunct United States Football League. First, they hurled derogatory remarks, then a player who had been cutting tape off his ankle began to slide the blade of a long-handled razor up and down her leg.

Ryan later described the scene in a column: "I happened to be the first reporter down to the dressing room. I pushed open the door, knots in my stomach, and walked smack into a path of naked men, trudging from the showers back to their lockers. They stopped in their tracks, then shouted and laughed, barking obscenities and closing in on me like bullies in an alley."

As she bolted from the locker room, she noticed that "in the doorway, watching this spectacle with amusement, was the team owner." He shrugged off her complaint, faulting Ryan for being in the presence of naked men. The incident occurred in March 1985.

After 13 years, Ryan, one of the country's first female sports columnists and a founder of AWSM – also known as "awesome" – switched beats. After a stint on the op-ed page, she now writes a metro column for the San Francisco Chronicle. "The older you get, the less patience you have with 22-year-olds blowing you off in the locker room. It's been a great transition; I don't miss it at all," she says.

One case of locker-room brutality stands out above all others.

Lisa Olson's September 17, 1990, mugging by a group of New England Patriot players is considered a watershed moment for women in sports journalism. The sheer rawness of the players' taunts and the investigation, firing and fines that followed set clear parameters for intolerable behavior backed by the NFL's hierarchy.

Olson, who was 26 and working for the Boston Herald, described being accosted by naked football players who made vulgar comments and lewd gestures as she conducted a practice-day locker-room interview. The NFL's investigation, which resulted in a 108-page report, noted that one player, Zeke Mowatt, was seen fondling himself at an arm's length from Olson and asking her: "Is this what you want?" Others gyrated their hips behind the reporter, echoing Mowatt's comments. The reporter told how the players "positioned themselves inches away from my face and dared me to touch their private parts." She depicted the incident as "mind rape."

Olson reported receiving 100 obscene phone calls and 250 pieces of hate mail from Patriot fans after the news broke. When the tires on her car were slashed, the perpetrator left a message that threatened, "The next time it will be your neck." When her apartment was burglarized, a note ordered her to "leave Boston or die." Patriots Owner Victor Kiam publicly labeled Olson "a classic bitch."

The sportswriter fled to Australia and took a job with the Sydney Daily Telegraph Mirror. She settled a civil harassment suit against the Patriots, reportedly for $250,000, and eventually returned to the United States. Olson, who writes about sports for New York's Daily News, did not return phone calls requesting an interview.

"She went through hell and she's chosen not to dwell on it anymore," explains Joanne Gerstner, who, like many others, is protective of Olson. In 1993, the reporter made a rare public appearance at an AWSM convention. Asked how it felt to be the focus of such intense media attention, she replied, "When I see my name like that, it doesn't seem like me anymore. It's like I stop being Lisa Olson."

While some men were hell-bent on running women sportswriters out, others offered a lifeline of support and cooperation. Women interviewed for this story stressed that most of the men they dealt with on assignment and in the sports department were not insufferable chauvinists. Many male editors helped boost their careers. Some, like Vince Doria, vice president and director of news at ESPN, made diversifying staff a priority.

Doria brags that ESPN was the first network to hire women as sports anchors and to make them part of reporting teams for high-profile events. Gayle Gardner, an early role model in the field, was a prominent presence from 1983 to 1988, during ESPN's formative years.

Once Doria joined ESPN in 1992, he continued the effort to bring more women into sports journalism. "I have hired a lot of women. It always seemed to me to be the right thing to do," says Doria. He was one of nine male sports editors to contribute $100 each to help jump-start AWSM in 1987, when he was with the Boston Globe.

"Today female sportswriters are all over the place. No one gives it a second thought," says Doria, who believes that women can have an edge over men in the field. He has been quoted as saying that men are bombarded by clichés from an early age and look for the conventional angle. Women might be more likely to offer a fresh view.

Diversity also is a top priority for Roy Hewitt, sports editor at Cleveland's Plain Dealer. "You're limiting yourself when you don't do it. Diversity is good for any department at the newspaper, including sports," says Hewitt, who had a run-in with Penn State University's legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, over locker-room access for a female reporter in the mid-1980s. Hewitt was then deputy sports editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Rather than allow her in, a stubborn Paterno closed the locker room to everybody. Instead, the coach selected players to come into an interview room for post-game chats. "The male reporters hated it," recalls Hewitt. "The reporter got a lot of under-the-breath comments. They blamed her for being shut out."

The editor appealed to the Penn State sports information director, noting that if modesty was the issue, the newspaper would purchase robes for the players. "They never took [the paper] up on it," says Hewitt, who did not see the situation resolved during his time at the Inquirer.

Tracy Dodds was associate sports editor under Hewittt at the Plain Dealer. In a column she wrote after leaving the paper, she credited him with "going beyond a token hire, to continue to recruit, promote, and, most important, support women in sports. He is not the only one. There are a handful of others."

Welcoming women into the mix should have been a no-brainer, especially since sports fans cross all race and gender lines, says Jerry Micco, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors. "The more people in the department that reflect that, the better. I can't imagine that a sports editor at any paper of any size with a brain of any size would say anything different."

By the mid-1980s, the four major professional leagues--the NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball--hammered out policies that complied with the federal court's equal-access ruling.

Some, like Micco, credit female sports reporters with adding a richer mix to overall coverage. "Maybe [women] do bring a little more to the party when it comes to working sources, getting inside people's heads better. They might approach a story from a more human standpoint than men do," says Micco, assistant managing editor of sports at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Karen Crouse was reporting for the Daily News of Los Angeles in May 2001 when she walked past the locker of Lakers player Horace Grant and noticed a picture of his mother. That led to a poignant story of Grady Mae Grant's influence on her son as he grew up in Sparta, Georgia. "It clearly never occurred to any men covering the team to write that story," says Crouse, now a sports columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

Also, noted sports journalist Christine Brennan has turned the spotlight on Olympic figure skating, and she triggered a national debate when she wrote about the Augusta National Golf Club's ban on female members in her column in USA Today (see "Howell Much Is Too Much?" March 2003).

The progress for women sportswriters has been monumental. Yet, many say they are still butting against a glass ceiling, a hierarchical system that prefers men for the top jobs.

There are exceptions, such as Brennan, who works on contract for ESPN as well as USA Today; Michelle Tafoya, reporting from the sidelines for ABC's "Monday Night Football"; and Sally Jenkins, prize-winning sports columnist for the Washington Post. Still, many work in low- to mid-level positions where they are likely to be pigeonholed, covering women's sporting events or low-profile competition like college water polo.

No one seems to have a handle on the number of women who function as department heads, columnists or sports beat writers. APSE's Micco says that women make up about 6 percent of the 682 members in his organization. When it comes to women sports editors, "There's not a whole heck of a lot of them around," he says.

Dodds, a former sports editor at the Austin American-Statesman, notes that "in the early 1970s, you could name all the women in the business because there were so few. Today, you can name all the female sports editors and columnists."

Although 1,000 media credentials were issued for the Ryder Cup golf tournament held in Detroit earlier this year, only a handful of women were among the press corps, says Gerstner, a sportswriter for the Detroit News. "I can name you almost every single woman who was there," says Gerstner, who counted nine. She admits she might have missed a few, but "the numbers were slim." A few years ago, AWSM put the number of women working in some phase of sports journalism at about 500.

Prejudice still comes unexpectedly and leaves a sting. It can happen at work when Gerstner answers the sports department phone. "The caller will say, 'Can I please speak to a sports reporter?' I say, 'I am.' Then the caller says, 'I want to speak to a man.' It reminds you that you are different, that you stick out," she says.

The obstacles women face often vary according to the stage of their careers. It might be juggling a travel-intensive beat and a marriage/family relationship. For others, it could be the barriers to becoming a columnist or sports editor. It might be the pressure to look good on TV when one isn't the 20-something ingenue anymore, says Gerstner. "We joke at [AWSM] conventions that we all need cabana boys to help at home. Men often have women to take care of the kids. They don't have to make that choice."

Female sports journalists who cover high-profile teams say their jobs tend to demand long road trips, with more night and weekend schedules than many other newsroom positions. Premier sportscaster Lesley Visser, a trailblazer with ESPN and CBS Sports, notes, "I have worked every weekend for 30 years" when the beats she covers, like football, are in season. Many female sports reporters spent up to a month in Athens last summer to cover the Olympics.

Sometimes, the rigors of the job clash with responsibilities at home, forcing a career change. Claire Smith, one of the first women to cover Major League Baseball, broke through the editing ranks to become assistant sports editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, a job that, she says, better accommodates her role as the single parent of a 17-year-old son and caretaker for elderly parents. Her hours are more predictable; there is less stress and less time out of town.

"It definitely was time for me to get off the road," says Smith, who began covering baseball in 1982 and left the beat in 1998 to be a sports columnist. She became an editor in 2001. "This job doesn't require me to get in an airplane or try to raise my son by telephone."

Smith cites another reason why women make the switch: "A lot of us go to the news side because you get tired of being the only girl in the traveling boys' band. It wears on you after awhile."

Michele Himmelberg opted out of sports nine years ago, despite being a founder of AWSM and a trailblazer who fought – and won – a legal battle for equal access against the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1979. She was writing for Fort Myers' News-Press at the time. "I left the business because I had two children and my lifestyle was chaotic. I somehow managed in the early years... I felt tugged and pulled," says Himmelberg, now a business writer with the Orange County Register.

Is she sorry she left sports? "I am glad I [covered sports]; it was interesting, fun, exciting. That was a good chapter in my life. Now I have another chapter."

Some make the juggling act work through strong support from a spouse or relatives. Ann Killion, a sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, spent three weeks in Athens covering the summer Olympics. She got home the day after school started. While she was away, her children, 13 and 9, were in the care of her husband, a school administrator, who has a set schedule and predictable hours.

"You have to have a spouse who totally supports you," says Killion, who has another safety net – her father-in-law and mother live nearby.

Still, there can be an emotional toll. Killion talks about bursting into tears at times when being out of town forces her to miss her children's soccer games or other important school activities.

It is a reality, she says, that having a family limits career options. "It's pretty well known in the sports world that I have two kids, own a house and live near relatives. It's like, 'She's never going to leave.' I don't get a lot of calls for jobs in Chicago."

For some women, like Karen Crouse of the Palm Beach Post, parenting just isn't part of the mix. "With my hectic schedule, I don't see how I could do the job the way I do it now and give full energy to raising children," says Crouse, who has been married for 10 years. Her husband is a copyeditor at the Post.

During an interview, Crouse broaches another common issue. As the lone female covering sports at the Post, she sometimes feels isolated and frets over whom she would turn to if a problem, such as being harassed or not taken seriously on the job, cropped up.

"I could tell a male sportswriter and he would look at me like I'm from Mars because these experiences are uniquely ours in this business," the columnist says. "I have a great relationship with my editor, but he doesn't know what it is like to walk in our shoes. He tries to be empathetic, but it only goes so far."

Crouse turned to a psychologist for advice on handling job stress, including feedback from readers laced with sexual slurs. "You take it personally and it eats at you," she says. "I have had people call me the 'c-word.' None of the men gets called the equivalent of that."

In response to one of her columns, a caller left a voice mail message that said, "You have no talent for this shit. You need to go into the entertainment business, lady." On the same day, she received this one: "What the fuck do you know about the Lakers? You don't know anything about the NBA, female." Some have suggested she write recipes instead of covering sports.

"That's the thing about being a woman in this business," says Crouse. "It's never just about yourself. For better or worse, you're representing the entire gender."

That reality, among others, hangs heavy over women in the field, according to sports sociologist Mary Jo Kane, who poses theories about the highly personal and sexually charged responses hurled at these professionals over the years.

Female sportswriters often have been targets, says Kane, because they have "backstage access" to one of the most powerful and revered symbols of male superiority in American culture, coupled with a public voice, through the media, to criticize men. That, she concludes, places them in a unique position regarding the power relationship between the sexes.

"For men to regain control, women have to be reassigned to the role of sex object. The gender order is upset when women enter a locker room," the researcher says.

"If your baseline is where female reporters were in the Phyllis George era, we are light-years ahead of that," Kane adds. "But if the baseline is where women are in the 21st century compared to their male counterparts, we are still literally and figuratively limited to the sidelines in men's major sporting events. It's a tougher nut to crack."

(Phyllis George, crowned Miss America in 1971, has been billed as the first woman sportscaster in America, coanchoring "The NFL Today" show with Brent Musburger from 1975 to 1984.)

Younger women entering sports journalism "often don't know the history and they take it for granted. There is little appreciation for the blood that was spilled to get them where they are today," says Kane.

In that case, Paola Boivin has important lessons to teach. When her editor filed a complaint with the St. Louis Cardinals management after the jock strap incident in 1985, a curt reply noted that an investigation had found no truth to the allegation, despite a room full of witnesses. Boivin recalls a bright spot on that dreadful day. As she fled the locker room, a male sportswriter chased after her. "I saw that; it was horrible. You didn't deserve it. Is there anything I can do?" he asked. Boivin didn't recognize him and was too flustered to ask his name. "I wish I did because I would like to thank him," she says.

"It's funny," she adds. "For all the male reporters who made you feel like you were intruding in their domain, so many others have gone out of their way to be supportive. I look back now and realize how much that mattered."

At 44, Boivin is a past president of AWSM and an award-winning sports columnist for the Arizona Republic. Why did she decide not to quit? Boivin answers: "There was a pull towards not giving up and letting them win."