AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2005

The Pioneers   

Three women who helped level the playing field in sports journalism.

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

Melissa Ludtke, then a reporter for Sports Illustrated, gained national attention when she filed a lawsuit after being banned from the locker room during the 1977 World Series between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. No single action resonated with female journalists more than the 1978 federal court ruling granting equal access for women covering sports.

Unlike many in the field, sports was not a passion for Ludtke in her early days. The art history major had just graduated from Wellesley College and was undecided about a career when a dinner brought her together with Frank Gifford of ABC's "Monday Night Football." As a youngster, she played volleyball, basketball and tennis and attended games with her father and three sisters. Conversation with Gifford flowed easily that night.

"He paid me a compliment. He said that for a girl I knew a lot about sports..he was very encouraging and willing to introduce me to folks at ABC," recalls Ludtke, now 53. She freelanced for ABC Sports, but when it became clear that she wouldn't be hired full-time, she took a secretarial position at Harper's Bazaar.

In 1974, Ludtke landed a job with Sports Illustrated's research staff, eventually becoming one of two reporters on the baseball beat. She later took a job at CBS and, in 1983, covered the Los Angeles Summer Olympics for Time magazine.

To insiders, the precedent-setting court order became known as "the Melissa Ludtke rule." When the 1977 incident occurred, Ludtke recalls being told she was not allowed in the locker room because the players' wives had not been consulted and, if she entered, their children would be embarrassed in school the next day. "I immersed myself in sports; I paid my dues. By the time the lawsuit fell in my lap, I wasn't a newcomer," says Ludtke, editor of Harvard University's prestigious Nieman Reports. "It was not a crusade; I was just trying to do my job better."

Lesley Visser calls it a "great blessing" that her parents didn't discourage her when, as a little girl, she announced she planned to be a sportswriter when she grew up. "They just said, 'fine,' even though there were no role models," says Visser, 50, who was the first female journalist to join "Monday Night Football" and report from the sidelines at the Super Bowl.

On Halloween, when other girls dressed like Mary Poppins, Visser went as the Boston Celtic legend Sam Jones, wearing his number 24 on her back. In 1975, after graduating from Boston College, she took a sportswriting job with the Boston Globe and later moved to CBS Sports and then to ABC and ESPN. Visser, who returned to CBS in 2000, feels she is leaving an honorable legacy.

"I wasn't a fraud"--someone who was "just a pretty face, not passionate or committed," says Visser. "I had to stand up for myself on many occasions. I also had good support. You don't land on Normandy by yourself." Visser and her husband, Dick Stockton, a sportscaster with Fox and Turner Broadcasting, met during the 1975 World Series and have been married for 22 years. Having children, she says, didn't fit with two demanding schedules.

A clash during the 1980 Cotton Bowl between Nebraska and Houston still upsets her. In the fourth quarter, Visser procured an armband for entry into the locker room. But the Houston coach blocked her entry, saying, "I don't give a damn about equal rights. I'm not having her in my locker room." He grabbed Visser by the shoulders and led her away.

The reporter remembers thinking, "Oh my God! Don't cry on the 5 p.m. news," as the media zeroed in on the scene. "It was one of my worst humiliations, and there were many," she says. "You get some scar tissue from it, but I'm pretty happy now." The 2004 International Olympic committee chose Visser to carry the torch along a strip in New York City, recognizing her as a "pioneer and standard-bearer" in sports journalism.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, in the 1960s, Christine Brennan remembers being the only girl in the neighborhood who played sports. Instead of dolls, her passion was sitting in front of the radio, tallying statistics for her beloved Toledo Mud Hens, a minor league baseball team.

"I never threw like a girl. I always knew how to fire the ball and hold the bat. The boys usually picked me first to play on their teams," recalls Brennan, 46, who writes a column for USA Today and also works under contract with ABC News and ESPN. In 1981, Brennan became the first full-time female sportswriter at the Miami Herald. In 1985, as a reporter for the Washington Post, she was the first woman to cover the Washington Redskins.

Brennan was elected the first president of the Association of Women in Sports Media and won the organization's Pioneer Award in 2004. "I was lucky; sports welcomed me with open arms. I was never going to let anybody stop me," says Brennan, who has authored five books, including "Inside Edge," which is about figure skating, named by Sports Illustrated as one of the top 100 sports books of all time.

In the early days, there were snags. The reporter was covering her first football game for the Miami Herald in 1981 when a state trooper prevented her from entering the University of Florida locker room. He grabbed her arm and said, "No women allowed in here." The situation was solved, Brennan says, when a group of male sportswriters saw what was happening and shoved her along in a wave with them.

Brennan makes a point of granting interviews, she says, because, "Call me a Pollyanna, but I know what it is like not to have a role model. If it was not for the extraordinary vision of my parents saying, 'You can do this,' I might have fallen by the wayside."

There hasn't been time in her hectic schedule for marriage and children but, "I don't see that as a sacrifice," says Brennan. "I was able to carve out my career and my life exactly the way I want it. This is not a job--what I'm doing is heaven on earth."