Women In Sports: Fight the Power Outage

by Amy K. Nelson

Last week a San Francisco sports radio host named Damon Bruce shared some silly, pretty neanderthal thoughts about women and their role in the sports world, which, predictably, set off the outrage cycle on social media.

Yesterday, my former colleague Rob Neyer, a baseball columnist for SB Nation, took a slightly different tack in a piece he wrote, but it still appeared to some readers that he’d endorsed Bruce’s line of thinking. Neyer’s larger point, I think, was that this type of invective — whether it’s gender, class, race or sexual orientation-based — should actually be given a pulpit, out in the open and transparent as possible, to serve as a beacon for our constitutional rights. Like, free speech. Because without free speech, how will we identify the social cretins among us?

Neyer may have had some potentially interesting points in his piece, but he chose to include this paragraph:

In my experience, the relative dearth of women covering sports is due not to a lack of opportunity, and not to prejudice — which isn’t to say those things don’t exist, because of course they do — but rather because a relatively small number of women grow up wanting to be sportswriters.

A lot of people were angry, and a lot of people wrote about how Neyer had tripped up in a “fallacy,” which is a point well-taken — but I’d argue it missed on addressing the much larger issue here: very few women hold positions of true power in the sports journalism industry. When it comes to finding women employed at the top of major media and news-gathering organizations (let alone the smaller shops), the pickings are slim. And I don’t think it’s due to a lack of desire. My path to this career was a little untraditional. I majored in photojournalism, psychology and sociology at an unconventional school in Hampshire College, but upon leaving there abandoned my dream of being a war photographer for my other long-held aspiration: to work in sports. I’m lucky (and have worked hard) to have made it this far.

Molly Solomon made history when she was named executive producer (and SVP production/ operations) for the Golf Channel; she became the first woman to hold that title for a national sports channel. That was in 2012. Those corner offices are still mostly occupied by men, most of them white, most of them middle-aged. There are many female executives in the sports world, and especially on the business side — but not nearly as many who make decisions about front-facing talent and staffing. Solomon said she didn’t fully realize the impact of her hire until she attended the Sports Emmys and had younger women approach her and thank her for clearing a path for them.

After I read Neyer’s piece and some of the reactions to it, I reached out to a number of women in our industry. I wanted to see what they thought about hiring in the field. It was very, very difficult to get any of them to go on the record. In speaking about the issue, most fear not only for their current jobs, but also any future employment prospects. The query I sent out, though, engendered passionate responses.

“Perhaps I’m most amused by the audacity to cower when confronted with the very ‘right to free speech’ they defend,” NBC Sports on-air host Michelle Beadle told me in an email. “At the end of all of this, there are many [people] who think this way. I don’t always take the misogynist tirades personally as I think sometimes they’re aimed at a few ‘bad apples’ or [are] just desperate attempts at relevance. Then again, my current situation leaves me with a really bad taste in my mouth and an even greater desire to stick it to ‘the man.’”

But if more women were in those corner offices, would that mean more women fulfilling those dreams — and yes, contrary to what Neyer wrote, there are plenty of us who dream this — of working in the sports industry?

“It would be nice to see more women in [executive] roles,” Beadle told me, “but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee more options.”

Of course. And it would be naïve and unfair to not mention the many men in our business who have and will serve as our allies (I’ve had a plethora throughout my career), and who aren’t threatened by women in this industry or at the prospect of having one as a boss. But I’d recently read this article about a man who retooled Etsy’s approach to hiring women in the male-dominated world of engineers, and it made me curious why it’s rarely discussed or seen as something to be addressed in our business, especially when I know how much it affects the women in it (to varying degrees, of course). Just look at the hiring numbers.

Maybe part of it is the code: as I write this, for example, I could be torpedoing my own career. One veteran female sports journalist who’s had female bosses also offered a predictable refrain that goes well beyond sports.

“I’ve worked for women who were not female friendly,” she said. (She requested anonymity so not to endanger her current job.) “It’s almost like they wanted to overcompensate for being the one woman with any juice so they didn’t hire women or push for coverage of women’s sports or ideas.”

Even if jobs aren’t being lost to men, discrimination still very much exists. Some of it is nuanced. Some of it isn’t. But when I hear about women whose appearances are scrutinized down to the makeup and accessories they’re wearing, while male colleagues skate by unnoticed? That’s some old-school, old boys’ network bullshit. It reminds us Just Who’s In Charge. Companies have a right to police how its employees represent on air. But when it’s consistently targeting just the women — and when that policing goes beyond being zealous — the instinct is to reach for the shot glasses of Jaeger and hope for a better tomorrow.

Beadle, with whom I was once colleagues with at ESPN and whose now-canceled NBC sports show I appeared on, is arguably one of the few women who’s carved out her career on her terms, at least to us. When she started a podcast when we were at ESPN together, she made it a point of showcasing women in our industry, me included. I really didn’t know her well at the time yet she still asked me on to her show, and had me back multiple times. I cannot say the same about many of my other colleagues, male or female. It’s easy to feel as if we’re not seen as authorities capable of intelligently opining on-air.

“I listen to a shitload of talk radio,” the veteran female journalist told me. “Do you know how many women I’ve heard interviewed about the [Miami Dolphins controversial Richie] Incognito thing? None.”

This is a frustration many of us have — of sometimes feeling we’re invisible — but one we rarely voice. Last fall, a group of women in our industry started getting together at a Manhattan sports bar to drink, watch football, be debaucherous, drink, and watch football.

It wasn’t a “VAGINAS ONLY” space; men from both in and outside of the industry would often join us. But it was nice for us (most of whom have been working in this industry for 10-plus years) to share our collective frustrations, insight, and support with one another. It was an eclectic group of on-air talent, writers, publicists and influencers who gathered each week. We all just happened to work in sports.

At the time, Beadle’s new sports show was just about to launch, and given her talent and power, we had high expectations. One of our colleagues turned to me, and, as we looked at Beadle from across the table, said, “We’re all pulling for her. If she can’t make it, no one can.”

I’m not interested in framing this as some sort of Norma Rae moment; at the time it was actually a depressing thought, made more demoralizing by the fact that it was a veteran in the field who said it. Out loud. It made me sad and mad and anxious about my own career. It also made me think about whether or not she was right.

Admonishing Rob Neyer isn’t the answer, and calling for Damon Bruce’s firing isn’t some move that will magically alleviate some of these fears and frustrations. As Beadle said, he’s not alone with his bigotry. What I’d rather see is a desire to get more women in positions of real, true power. If more women are entrusted with the vital role of making these sorts of important, impact decisions, they’ll be able to determine if the Damon Bruces of the industry should even get the job in the first place.

Photo via.

Amy K. Nelson is an award-winning journalist who’s worked in the sports industry for over a decade. A writer, producer, photographer and on-air correspondent, she currently is based in New York City.