Categorized | Women in Sports

The Turf Ceiling

Lisa Olson and Lesley Visser were two pioneering women in the locker room. (Associated Press)

Female sportswriters still struggle for recognition and opportunity

By OMAR KASRAWI

It was a rainy South Florida afternoon. The Association for Women in Sports Media’s 2008 annual national convention was taking place inside the Miami hotel. The last group panel of the day, entitled “Negotiation during the hiring process” was in full swing and Dave Morgan, Yahoo! Sports’ executive editor was speaking. He was explaining how a woman could leverage a higher salary during a job search.

For Karen Crouse, current New York Times sports reporter and one of the 139 attendees of the AWSM conference, it was the perfect opportunity to ask a simple question. “What are any of the chances that any of us in this room are going to be in a position to talk money for a job with you?” recalled Crouse in a phone interview. (All other interviews in this piece were done by phone.)

“I mean, how many women have you hired in major writing roles?” Crouse followed up.

Morgan, who was once a member of Crouse’s wedding party, had a simple answer. “He was honest. Zero,” she said.

Over 39 million unique visitors frequented Yahoo! Sports in February of this year, making it one of the top Internet sports websites according to web traffic monitoring site ComScore. For comparison ESPN.com, the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” drew nearly 24 million visitors that month.

According to Crouse, when she asked Morgan why he hasn’t hired any women to high profile positions he answered that he follows the recommendations of his staff. “Well, he has all men on his staff,” said Crouse. “So of course this is just the definition of the old boys’ network.” Morgan did not return emails asking for an interview.

Since the 1920s women have been working their way into that club, slowly chipping away in a field where they had no presence before. In 1920 Lorena Hickok became the first woman to cover a men’s sporting team as a beat reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. Since then, female sports journalists have fought against harassment, stereotyping and discrimination to establish themselves as equals to their male counterparts.

And yet, as of 2008, there were only 22 women serving as executive sports editors in the United States, according to the Gender and Race Sports Card of the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE). This represented an increase of 1.5 percent from the same report two years earlier. The number of female reporters, during the same time frame had dropped from 219 to 208, comprising 9.3 percent of the total talent pool.

“Right now the number of women in leadership positions in newsrooms is around 39 percent,” said Marie Hardin, the Associate Director for Research at Penn State’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. “Well that number’s misleading because the sports department is dragging it right down.”

Since 2008 the number of female editors appears to be even smaller, not counting assistant or copy editors. At least five of the editors listed in the report are either no longer at that position, have been replaced by a man or seen their position collapsed into another role or downsized.

The economy and the decline of the newspaper industry may have more to do with this than the traditional barriers that woman may have faced in the past. According to the American Society of News Editors census there were 2,400 newsroom jobs lost at daily papers in 2007. In 2008 that number rose to 5,900.

“I think the economy is the number one factor [in women losing their editorial jobs],” said Colleen McDaniel, the sports editor for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot since 2007. “I can’t think of a single paper that hasn’t laid off staff.” The Pilot, as of 2007, was the 51st ranked paper in the U.S. with a daily circulation of 183,024 according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

“Unfortunately, I think that when the economy goes on the downturn, I think diversity hiring goes out the window,” said Amy Moritz, president elect of AWSM and a reporter for Buffalo News.

According to Johnette Howard when she started out papers like the Detroit Free Press actually gave out bonus money to editors that promoted diversity. Johnette Howard began her sports writing career with the Detroit Free Press in the early 1980s.

In 1976 Dave Smith, then editor of the Boston Globe, hired Lesley Visser to cover the NFL. Visser was one of the first two women that year to report an NFL beat. Smith brought Visser on directly after her graduating college. “Leslie was not a diversity hire,” stressed Smith. “And it was time to open the door [for women]. It was time to do everything possible to make sure they don’t fail. You have to give them the shot.”

Hardin, whose research interests focus on the career paths of woman in the sports journalism industry, is planning to begin collecting data on the effect of the recession on minority and diversity retention this summer.

While the state of the newspaper industry is still on the decline, in 2007 the Internet overtook newspapers as the primary source for news for young adults. According to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press people between the ages of 18 and 29 are consuming as much news via the web as they do TV now. And with the digital revolution sending more and more people to the Internet for sports news at sites like ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, and AOL Fanhouse among others, female writers and columnists are not being brought on in the same numbers.

That same APSE race and gender survey from 2008 says that the percentage of female sports columnists in the print industry remained steady at 7 percent since 2006. The actual number rose from 20 to 28.

“I think there might be a few reasons for that,” said Bill Dwyre, former editor of the L.A. Times sports section and current columnist there. “Women don’t grow up competing in little league football or baseball as much as men do. But they do grow up doing more sports now. The whole age of women competing in sports has made a difference. The more you compete the more you want to write about it. But still not in the proportions of men.”

According to an ESPN sports poll in 2004, 42 percent of NASCAR’s fan base was women. The NFL claims its Super Bowl audience is 40 percent women. According to Nielsen’s online research women are flocking to Internet-based sports sites as well. The number of unique online female visitors jumped from 12 million in August 2007 to 16.4 million the following year. This growth was 76 percent higher than that of men over the same time period.

And yet Yahoo! Sports currently employs one female columnist out of 33 total. CBS Sports Online, whose web traffic is comparable to ESPN.com’s, currently, lists two women out of 34 columnists. ESPN.com has 11 columnists out of over 100 total.

“Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s changed,” said Joanne Gerstner, former president of AWSM, speaking of the opportunities afforded to women in the online sports world. “I’m all for the best person getting the job and I’m not saying you automatically have to hire a women but when you have a talent, like a Karen Crouse, why wouldn’t you want to call her when you have a writing opportunity opening?”

When a female reporter’s stories appear online they may find themselves subject to the same spirit of harassment they might’ve encountered out on the beat. Numerous responses to a recent column where Howard said the NY Jets had supplanted the New England Patriots as favorites in their National Football League division focused on Howard’s gender. MarcusMarcus12323536 posted, “…Nothing more painful than a female sportswriter who never played the sport…”

“Reason #42,846 why chicks should not be allowed to cover sports,” responded BIGSTICK3314 to the same article.

“It used to bother me when I was younger,” said Howard. “Now I don’t really pay it much attention. Moritz recalls that when she started covering St. Bonaventure University’s men’s basketball team she would be disparaged for what she wore or how she acted at a game.

“To have a female cover [the team] was different for [the fans],” said Moritz. “Being the only female at the time meant no anonymity to my byline.” Moritz felt like she was being watched but didn’t know by whom and learned to ignore it. “I just stopped looking [at those type of comments] because its just giving power to idiots if I do.”

The harassment hasn’t just typically come from fans. In the case of Juliet Macur’s time covering NASCAR, it was from her fellow writers. “I was one of two women in the garage,” recalls Macur, who now writes for the NY Times. Macur focused her time on the auto beat by covering a variety of stories on auto safety.

“The harder edged the stories got, the more I would hear that I got these stories because I was sleeping with the drivers or because I wanted to marry one,” said Macur. “The truth was no one was writing those critical investigative pieces at that time because it was the quintessential boys’ club.”

Macur thought this treatment would never happen since “the Lisa Olsons went through this before me,” referring to the 1990 incident where the New England Patriots cornered the then 26-year-old journalist in their locker room. Players proceeded to harass Olson, who was working for the Boston Herald at the time, by fondling their genitals in front of her and taunting her.

Olson now writes a column for the online sports AOL Fanhouse and was one of the first three newspapers writers brought on board there in 2009. The other two were Jay Mariotti and Kevin Blackistone. Olson was tired of the daily grind of working a sports beat at the New York Daily News and left the industry. She came back to be an online columnist because she could work at more relaxed pace. “The stress of writing for a daily N.Y. newspaper and the brutal deadline of having to file a proper column 20 minutes after a game ends is gone now,” said Olson.

One of the major reasons reported by female reporters for leaving the field were such hours and deadlines. A 2005 survey of AWSM members highlighted that the issues women face today are similar to the ones that pioneering journalists like Lesley Visser faced in 1976. They still fight against harassment, the lack of advancement opportunities, the conflict of trying to balance a working life with the grueling demands of a following a team around, among others. “It’s pretty much a demand that you’re available 24/7 when you start out,” Olson said.

Not every reporter gets to start out covering college sports like Visser did. Or NASCAR and the NFL like Macur. Moritz took a non-sports newsroom job at the Olean Times Herald in Rochester, N.Y. She would volunteer to work in the sports department until an opening eventually opened up. McDaniel started out as a copy editor for the newsroom at the Utica Observer Dispatch in upstate New York before becoming their assistant sports editor. McDaniel also volunteered to do sports work until that opportunity opened up.

Some women in the 2005 survey of AWSM members responded that when they started out they had to cover sports less important on the American totem poll of sports worship or just women’s sports. Hardin however feels that the coverage of women sports is tied to the representation and retention of female sports reporters.

“When we decide as a sports media industry that we are going to cover female sports and give female athletes better visibility, then that will translate into better representation for female journalists,” Hardin said.

McDaniel doesn’t agree with that statement. “That’s an argument you hear a lot at AWSM but at the end of the day we have to serve our readers,” McDaniel said. “And when my paper gets those survey interest results back we find that people want to read about men’s sports.”

Despite disagreements like that, one point remains clear: that no matter how far things have come for female writers, there is still a long way to go. “I could probably name you nearly all the female sports writers and journalists across the country,” said Macur. “Name another industry where you can say that. That just shows how small a club we still are.”

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