It was not without some trepidation that Jennifer Gish submitted her weekly sports column for the Albany Times-Union back in September 2011. The Buffalo Bills had started their season 2-0, and fans in Albany inundated the newspaper with requests for more coverage—just as they did every time the Bills started on a winning streak. So Gish decided to pen a humorous column warning Bills fans not to get ahead of themselves.
Before the piece went to press, Gish sat down in her editor’s office to talk the piece through. “You’re really stirring the pot here,” she recalls him saying. Gish expected that some readers would disagree with her or miss her playful tone. But blowback was part of being a sports columnist. In the end, they decided to go ahead and publish.
“We thought maybe there’d be a dozen emails the next day,” Gish said. Instead, the Times-Union was flooded with over 800 emails and calls from angry Bills fans. And a disturbingly large proportion—at least a quarter, Gish says—were of the most vitriolic and female-bashing kind. They were crass, offensive and overwhelmingly sexist: “Maybe you should stay in the kitchen next time.” “So how does it feel to be both a woman and so wrong about football? I guess those two go hand in hand.” “I am hoping you went to some sort of formal schooling to get the position you have or you have worked your way up from doing a lot of under-the-desk work.”
Many of the respondents had looked up Gish online, found her photograph, and didn’t like what they saw. “You may want to consider plastic surgery or something, you are one god awful ugly looking female,” wrote one Bills fan.
Gish is by no means the first female sports journalist to experience such vitriol, and she certainly won’t be the last. In 2010, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson had to personally apologize to TV Azteca reporter Inés Sainz after his players and staff directed lewd comments toward her in the locker room. Back in 2008, ESPN reporter Erin Andrews was the victim of a stalker who secretly videotaped her through a peephole at a Marriott hotel in Nashville. Since 2011 various media outlets have pitted her against former colleague Michelle Beadle, who now works for NBC, in a “catfight” that seems to be designed purely to titillate male sports fans.
Just last month Chicago Blackhawk Duncan Keith lambasted Karen Thomson, a reporter for Team 1040 in Vancouver, for asking a question in a postgame conference about a play he was involved in. “Maybe we should get you as a ref maybe, hey?” he asked, to which Thomson responded that she couldn’t skate. “First female referee,” Keith said. “Can’t probably play either, right? But you’re thinking the game, like you know it? OK, see ya.”
And these are just the incidents that make the news. Almost every female game reporter has experienced sexism in the locker room, both at the hands of team members and fellow journalists. Follow any sports game or broadcast on Twitter that involves a female sports journalist and among the genuine commentary you’ll find a slew of inappropriate remarks, some approaching the obscene. “Doris Burke is a MAN” is just one of the choice remarks the ESPN sideline reporter and color analyst is subject to every time she goes on air.
In almost every case, no matter the perceived offense, the woman’s appearance is the first target. “Society’s first way of valuing women is beauty,” says Sarah Spain, a columnist for espnW and a sportscaster on ESPN 1000 radio in Chicago.
As an aspiring sports reporter myself, I have often wondered where I would fit on the spectrum. Am I beautiful enough for on-camera work? Am I ugly enough to be taken seriously?
Sports journalism is by no means the only field where a woman’s appearance is noted before and above her qualifications, either positively or negatively. It’s the case with virtually every female politician who comes onto the scene. But sports journalism lags significantly behind other areas of the media in terms of female reporters garnering gravitas.
Why? Because sports media is still a male-dominated world catering primarily to men. The latest figures from the website nationaltvspots.com show that, on average across five of their broadcast television channels, 74.4 percent of ESPN viewers are male. Mega Media Marketing reports that only 29 percent of Sports Illustrated readers are women. This is why sports coverage seems to go hand in hand with beer and scantily clad women—something media companies encourage by producing such things as the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
SI’s annual celebration of supermodels is not balanced out the rest of the year by covers featuring strong and powerful female athletes. A recent study by the Department of Sociology at the University of Louisville discovered that only 5 percent of the 716 issues published between 2000 and 2011 had female athletes on the cover. For the decade between 1954 and 1965 the figure was just over 12 percent.
The attitude that the Swimsuit Edition encourages inevitably spills over into the realm of sports journalism. Google “female sports reporters” and you’ll see “40 Hottest Sports Reporters” on mensfitness.com.
Being attractive can cause almost as many problems for female sports journalists as being unattractive. The undeniably beautiful Spain had barely been reporting two weeks from the Blackhawks locker room in Chicago when a male veteran reporter on the same beat insinuated that she must have been sleeping with one of the players. Another mentioned to the PR department that he found her breasts “a distraction.” The fight that female sports reporters have endured first to get into the locker rooms and then, once in, to be treated with dignity and respect was explored to great critical acclaim by the Tribeca Film Festival hit Let Them Wear Towels. Part of ESPN’s Nine for IX series celebrating Title IX’s 40-year anniversary, which will be airing on the network over the summer, the film highlights how far sports journalism has come since SI reporter Melissa Ludtke’s fight for locker-room access during the 1977 World Series. It also shows how far we still have to go.
Spain, the ESPN 1000 reporter, now works in one of the toughest fields for female sports journalists to break into: talk radio. Despite being closeted in a recording booth, her presence reduced to just a voice, she still received tough criticism that her looks got her the job. “I’m on the radio,” she said drily. “You can’t even see me.”
In fact, Spain believes the very thing that most critics find offensive about a female sports journalist on talk radio is that you can’t see her face. “A lot of men are happy to get their sports from women if they’re beautiful and they get to watch them at the same time,” she said.
This is where the sideline reporting jobs—the one spot in sports journalism increasingly reserved for women—come into the picture. “That role is either filled by actual journalists,” said espnW reporter Jane McManus, “or Miss Florida, who is, you know, an attractive young woman.”
Those networks who hire the ex-beauty pageant winners do little for the credibility of hard-working, serious journalists. “It’s definitely a job that kind of pits two different kinds of journalists against each other,” McManus said. “That does not happen with men in our industry.”
Despite their presence on the sideline, women are still very much in the minority in sports journalism. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport published a report last month on race and gender diversity within 150 newspapers and websites in 2012. The report found that 90.4 percent of sports editors were men; 88.3 percent of sports reporters were men. Of the 11 women who were sports editors, six of them worked for ESPN.
While Spain admitted that the atmosphere today is a lot less hostile toward female sports reporters than it used to be, there’s still a struggle to find the right balance between looks and qualifications. “You can’t win either way,” she said. “Either you’re too beautiful and you don’t know what you’re talking about, or you’re too ugly and I don’t want to watch you.”