Women In Sports Journalism: Progress

Laura Wilson

The following is a senior thesis from Laura Wilson, a University of Montana Broadcast Journalism graduate. Her passion has always been sports.

Women in Sports Journalism: The problems they faced in the past and the problems they face today.

Turn on any sports network, and you're likely to see a woman reporting the sports. Women have finally gained national recognition and acceptance for their role as sports journalists. It is important, though, that people understand the hardships that early female sports reporters endured to help a new generation of female sports reporters get to where they are today. Furthermore, it should be noted that some problems from the past still linger in the present. American's reliance on technology has created new problems for female journalists, preventing some women from pursuing a career in sports journalism.


  1. What problems did female sports journalists face in the past?
  2. How have female journalists overcome those problems, and which of them are women still facing today?
  3. What new problems (if any) do female sports journalists face today?
  4. What progress do women still need to make in the field of sports journalism?


The female pioneers of sports broadcasting helped to pave what was once a rocky and unforgiving path to get female sports reporters to be where they are today. "As a writer for the New York Herald Tribune in 1924 and 1925, Margaret Goss described herself as the first American female journalist to cover women's sports for a daily newspaper. She was also the first woman with a regularly appearing sports column at a time when society had not fully embraced athletic competition among women. Goss challenged institutional practices and cultural norms that discouraged female journalists from reporting sports" (Kaszuba, 2006).

Anne Doyle

Anne Doyle is considered to be among the first wave of female sports broadcasters. Doyle says she's one example of a generation of women who led tremendous change in the last three decades in the work environment. In 1979 (when Doyle was working her new job in the sports department at the CBS affiliated station in Detroit), Doyle took a controversial stance in the media by insisting that she be allowed to join her male colleagues in the locker rooms. As a result, "she became one of the first female TV sports broadcasters in the country to gain access to professional locker rooms" (Smothers, 2007). Gaining access to professional locker rooms is a huge accomplishment for reporters like Doyle, but it was only the beginning of what would become a multi-decade battle for female sports journalists.

Former Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke became part of the equal access in professional locker rooms movement after being prohibited from interviewing a player in the locker room during the 1977 World Series. But Ludtke noted that just because women had obtained the right to enter the locker room didn't mean they were welcome in it. Changing the rules didn't amount to changing the attitude toward women in the locker room (Druzin, www.womenssportsfoundation.org).

"It's a lonely place...no one wants you there", Doyle said of the professional locker rooms. "There was a lot of pressure, but the thing that helped is that I knew I was part of something big—something bigger than myself" (Personal Interview, October 2009). Doyle claims she was never harassed inside a locker room, but instead, described her encounters as being "tested" by the athletes. "Day by day, you had to earn credibility with those players, I couldn't go running to management every time they said something that offended me."

Doyle looked at her career not as a challenge, but as a culture change. "Everyone was uncomfortable, because I was someone new, imposing myself into these player's 'inner-sanctum'—I was coming into their territory. It was my job to adjust to these players and to help them get comfortable around me, not the other way around" (Personal Interview, October 2009). Doyle felt pressured knowing that other women would be judged by the job that she and her colleagues did.

If she succeeded, then she would be giving other women the chance to be considered for similar jobs—but if she failed, she felt she'd be preventing other women from getting hired. Six years after Anne Doyle helped create a right of entry into professional locker rooms, some female sports reporters were still being denied access into them.

Donna Balancia

In 1985, sportswriter Donna Balancia was blocked off from the New York Giants' locker room during a preseason game. NFL officials promised stricter enforcement against teams who denied female reporters from the locker rooms, but admitted they were struggling to implement league rules that called for equal access. Female reporters were outraged that this issue had not yet been resolved, and some feared that the future of equal access was bleak. Former USA Today Sports Reporter Kathy Blumenstock said in a Los Angeles Times article, "I hope that in my lifetime this is resolved, and the older I get the slimmer the chances seem to be getting" (Gloster 1985). In that same article, former New York Daily News sports writer Jenny Kellner said she was harassed on more than one occasion by New York Jets lineman Mark Gastineau (who asked her questions about his naked body). According to former Newsday sportswriter Helene Elliot, Gastineau was one of many male athletes who acted like a "little boy" when women entered the locker room (Gloster 1985).

Ten years after Ludtke's World Series incident, Cubs reporter Paolo Boivin had a baseball incident of her own. She entered the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse in search of several players to conduct post game interviews. As soon as Boivin walked in, one of the players accused her of entering only to look at his teammates' naked bodies. Immediately after that comment was made, a jockstrap landed on Boivin's head, causing her to flee the clubhouse (Druzin, www.womenssportsfoundation.org).

Lisa Olson

But no female sports reporter has experienced the horrendous locker room harassment that Lisa Olson did. In 1990, the former Boston Herald Reporter made a standard visit to the New England Patriot's locker room to conduct several practice-day interviews. What happened, though, would change her life forever. Olson was "accosted by naked football players who made vulgar comments and lewd gestures" (Ricchiardi 2005). Olson described her encounter as "mind rape". Her allegations led to an NFL investigation, which resulted in a 108-page report that outlined more crude behavior from additional Patriots players (Ricchiardi 2005). "The players were later fined and the team's general manager was fired for trying to cover up the incident" (Druzin 2008).

This may have seemed like another large victory for women in sports journalism, but for Olson, it was far from that. Olson's locker room incident spread internationally, and every newspaper, talk show host, and TV station suddenly wanted to talk to her. But the publicity of the incident did more bad than it did good. Olson received over 100 lewd phone calls as well as 250 threatening hate letters from Patriots fans (Ricchiardi 2005). After burglarizing her apartment, the perpetrators wrote on her wall, "Leave Boston Or Die" (Druzin 2008). Olson's car tires were slashed with a note left behind reading, "the next time, it will be your neck" (Ricchiardi 2005). Olson stopped answering the door, fearing who was on the other side. She continued to cover sports the following year, including the Stanley Cup playoff coverage of the Boston Bruins. But while reporting on the game from the Boston Garden (inside the hockey arena), Olson was continuously spit on by fans sitting above her. The spitting and harassment from fans at the playoff games in Boston became so bad, she was only able to cover road games for the remainder of the playoffs (Montville 1991).

Tired of living in fear, Olson fled to Australia where she accepted a job with the Sydney Daily Telegraphy Mirror, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch (the same owner of the Boston Herald) (Ricchiardi 2005). She left her family behind to start a new life. Olson didn't fully escape criticism though in Australia—upon her arrival, a rival newspaper wrote, "How long before the token female sports writer screams harassment for being kept out of the change room?" (Howard 1993).

Olson made her first appearance back in the United States in 1993, to attend the national convention of the Association for Women in Sports Media (or AWSM) as one of the 90-minute speakers. During the convention, she answered questions and talked about how the incident still haunted her. In an article published in the Washington Post, Johnette Howard wrote, "Olson became a lightning rod for everything that is wrong today about relationships between women and men-particularly in the workplace" (Howard 1993). In that same article, it was noted that Olson was the subject of over 1,100 published stories (since the Patriots incident). She responded by saying, "When I see my name like that, it doesn't seem like that's me anymore. It's like I stop being Lisa Olson" (Howard 1993).

Are we there yet?

Laura Wilson

After decades of hardships and the uphill battle made by dozens of courageous female sports journalists, have we made it? Are we there yet? AWSM president Joanne Gerstner told the American Journal Review, "These women went through hell, through utter degradation, to do their jobs. I am walking on a road paved by many who gave up their souls, their psyches to get us where we are today" (Ricchiardi 2005). But former AP Sports Editors president Tracy Dodds says women still have a long way to go. Today, women say that their numbers are low in certain areas, especially management positions and jobs as sports columnists (Ricchiardi 2005). A 2001 informal survey of 50 high-circulation newspaper sports departments reported that women make up just 13% of employees (mainly consisting of clerks, copy editors, and reporters). A more recent study reported that only 11% of employees in sports departments are women (Shain and Hardin 2005). Another study done in 2005 found that women make up more than 40% of the total broadcast workforce, but that only 7% of local sports anchors and 10% of local sports reporters are women. "That is the lowest percentage of female representation for any broadcast work category except for photographers" (Sheffer and Schultz 2007).

And despite the battles won for locker room access and stricter enforcement against harassment, problems still persist today for female reporters who venture inside of them. ESPN Reporter Erin Andrews received criticism in July of 2008 from GateHouse News Service columnist and author of the baseball blog, "The Baldest Truth" Mike Nadel. In his article titled, "Blonde Bombshell Can't Distract Red-Hot Cubs", Nadel wrote,

Erin Andrews

"Erin Andrews, the ESPN "it" babe who clearly isn't afraid to flaunt it, sauntered around the visiting clubhouse, flitting from one Cubs player to another. Her skimpy outfit -- designed to accentuate her, um, positives -- had players leering at her. Some made lewd comments under their breath. Others giggled like 12-year-olds" (Nadel 2008).

Andrews responded by saying, "I think my overall reaction is that it's really sad that in 2008 ... I have people watching every single move I make", Andrews said. "When there's a big game between the Cubs and Brewers going on, it's sad that that's what their focus is on..." (Rand 2008).

Rachel Bachman

Rachel Bachman, a sports reporter at The Oregonian, admits that she is bothered by the "current blurring of boundaries between professional male athletes and female reporters" (Druzin 192). She says that, "Female reporters suffer a lot of harassment because some men don't understand or respect that the women are in the locker room to do a job. Few women speak out because they want to be defined by their work, not their struggles" (Druzin 192).

Bachman also says, though (in a somewhat contradictory manner), that "today, when a woman is harassed or there are access problems, there is an immediate response and a general understanding that the reporter has the right to be there" (Druzin 192). Tracy Dodds, says women are making forward progress in part from the support from their male colleagues. Sports Editor at Cleveland's Plain Dealer Roy Hewitt says you're limiting yourself if you don't diversify your departments, which includes sports. Dodds, who worked as a sports editor under Hewitt, credited him with "going beyond a token hire, to continue to recruit, promote, and most important, support women in sports" (Ricchiardi 2005).

ESPN and female reporters

Vice President and director of news at ESPN Vince Doria, says that ESPN was the first network to make female sports reporters part of high-profile sporting events. After joining ESPN in 1992, Doria made it a priority to increase the number of female sports reporters on staff. President of the Associated Press Sports Editors, Jerry Micco, believes that women bring something extra to the table when it comes to getting inside peoples' heads and obtaining sources. He also says that "they (women) might approach a story from a more human standpoint than men do" (Ricchiardi 2005).

Freelance sports columnist Viv Bernstein says women who are aggressive reporters and ask tough questions still face the problem today of being labeled a "bitch" (compared to men, who are respected for doing the same thing). But when it comes to whether or not female reporters still encounter issues in the locker room, Bernstein says their presence is no longer questioned in the locker room, or on TV in general (Personal Interview, October 2009).

KECI-Missoula Weekend Sports Anchor Kayla Anderson says she's had only positive feedback from the athletes and coaches that she reports on. She points out that gaining her viewers' respect comes from delivering error-free newscasts. And for Anderson—that means putting in a lot of extra effort.

"Women are more likely to be scrutinized if they mess up. Viewers are looking for you to mess up. So I come in three hours before my shift on weekends and put together my show. I'll do background information on the sports, and write that in ahead of time" (Personal Interview, November 2009).

Viv Bernstein believes women have come a long way since winning the fight to gain access into professional locker rooms. But she points out that today, female sports reporters face an entirely new problem—appearance. "Appearance matters for women in sports", Bernstein says. "It's harder for a woman who is unattractive to get ahead in this business. If you're just smart, that's not enough these days" (Personal Interview, October 2009). Bernstein believes this is one aspect of sports journalism where men and women are not evaluated equally. "It's a different bar for men—they're judged on what they do more than how they look."

Cindy Brunson

ESPN SportsCenter Anchor Cindy Brunson says anyone who is on television has to be attractive. "It's part of getting a 'look'. You need to have remote-control 'stopability', because these days, people have 900+channels to flip through. An attractive person will make them stop on that channel and put down the remote" (Personal Interview, November 2009).

Today, though, it is not enough for a female sports reporter to just be attractive; unlike a man, she must be talented, and sexually appealing. Bernstein explains that women who are attractive are likely to get interviews that others (less attractive women) wouldn't get. "If you're talented as a writer, it only puts you in a pool of other writers looking to get hired. The ones who make it are likeable, pretty, and talented—you have to be really good" (Personal Interview, November 2009).

Once attractive women get their foot in the door (into the sports world), how do they avoid being deemed a "sex symbol" by millions of sport viewers/fans? Anne Doyle says it's all about how you dress and handle yourself at your job. "You can be a very attractive woman and still handle yourself in a very professional way. Women who are deemed as sex symbols bring it on themselves" (Personal Interview, October 2009). Doyle says a prominent example of a female sports reporter who has crossed that line is Erin Andrews.

"You can't just go strutting around the way she does", Doyle says. "That means no cleavage, and no skin tight or form fitting clothes that draw attention to your body. Men are programmed to react to that. For her [Andrews], it's all on display. The need to have millions of men thinking about you in a sexy way—that's not about journalism. If you want to be treated as a professional journalist, you have to send those messages and dress that way" (Personal Interview, October 2009).

Cindy Brunson explains that what you put out there (as a sports journalist) is what you get back. "It's a fine line because you want to be attractive and appeal to an 18-year-old demographic, but you want to be taken seriously. You don't want to become an object—and that's something that she [Erin Andrews] flirted very dangerously with" (Personal Interview, November 2009). Brunson believes that Andrews is a victim of the world she lives and propagates in. (In reference to the peephole pictures taken of Andrews): "I think she has to take some responsibility in what happened. If she didn't wear the clothes she wears, she wouldn't be Erin Andrews. If she wasn't this big blonde bombshell, who would she be? If she truly thought she was a good sports reporter, she'd be much less focused on perpetuating a sexy image to millions of viewers."

Brunson admits that she is a "product" of ESPN and that the network has significant control over what she wears and how she looks. But Brunson also believes that today, ESPN has become much more conservative about what an acceptable wardrobe is for its' TV personalities. She recalls an instance where she wore an animal print dress during a taping of SportsCenter. Later that day, her bosses at ESPN asked her not to wear it on air again, claiming that it was too eye-catching. "I think ESPN (in the studio) does a very good job of policing and controlling—I have been told more what to wear this year than I have in the last 10 years" (Personal Interview, November 2009). Kayla Anderson feels that female sports journalists who work in smaller markets are less likely to wear distracting outfits on television. "At ESPN, they're allowed to wear cute outfits and tight sweaters, but at a station like KECI, we are expected to wear blazers. I think in the long run, that expectation helps me look more professional" (Personal Interview, November 2009). Anderson says that when it comes to being judged on her appearance, she faces the toughest critic of all—herself. "My struggle has always been liking the way I look on TV. I really had to experiment with what I liked, and what made me look the most professional."

Being judged on appearance

When it comes to being judged on appearance, professional female sports journalists are automatically put in the line of fire. Cindy Brunson recalls the challenge she faced when first starting out at ESPN. Brunson said she had to prove she was knowledgeable and knew how to do her job, despite how she looked. She says that today, ESPN has a very high standard of the amount of sports knowledge a potential employee should have.

"If you come into ESPN for an interview, and you don't know your stuff, there's no excuse. People think they can fluff their way through. They get an audition because they were attractive, but they were passed on because they didn't know their stuff" (Personal Interview, November 2009).

Kayla Anderson

Kayla Anderson recalls getting "grilled" during a job interview with ESPN:

"I felt like I was being administered a very difficult verbal exam. They asked me about everything! Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, NASCAR, women's sports, college sports, professional sports—everything! Needless to say, I didn't get the job. You definitely have to do your research before applying somewhere" (Personal Interview, November 2009).

But Anderson says that despite an intensive interview process at ESPN, she still spots "ditzy, pretty girls" reporting for the network. Anderson worries that these women only reinforce the idea that female sports journalists are nothing more than eye candy.

Society's obsession with appearance/sex appeal has had a negative effect on Bernstein's career, despite being a long-time sports journalist. Bernstein says that she's not going to get prettier in her older age, which makes her career opportunities limited. Bernstein does freelance work now, and with only one written article in the last few months, she believes her career is winding down. "Today, it's hard to get hired if you don't have the right look, even in print", she explains (Personal Interview, October 2009). Bernstein blames the internet for the overexposure of sports reporters (both broadcast and print). "Every time I write an article, it gets published online, along with my picture." Bernstein recalls e-mails people have sent her, calling her ugly (in reference to her online picture). "I'm human enough to hurt from that", she says remorsefully.

Bernstein feels bad for anyone trying to get into the business right now, because she says the industry is changing so rapidly. Cindy Brunson predicts that in as little as ten years, television is going to be nothing more than background noise (Personal Interview, November 2009). Anne Doyle is encouraging sports journalists to embrace the future. "I believe that we're on the verge of a tremendous explosion into leadership. We've made amazing strides" (Personal Interview, November 2009). Doyle shares her advice for up and rising female sports journalists. "The next big thing is to move into leadership, a very small percentage of women are in decision making spots" (Personal Interview, 2009). Brunson believes the next step for women is to do more play-by-play calls during live action sports.

But in order for either of these things to happen, Doyle says women cannot just squat on the shoulders of those who have made progress in the past.

"They need to stand and keep stretching, I'm counting on your generation to go further. If you're not good enough for the team, then someone will eliminate you, but if you never go for it, then you've eliminated yourself. Don't hold yourself back, because as a new generation of female sports journalists, you will have a new generation of girls watching you, too" (Personal Interview, October 2009).

Analysis and Conclusion

Laura Wilson

For decades, women have been harassed and criticized in their fight to be equal to men...in sports journalism. Women have come a long way since first gaining the right to access professional locker rooms in 1979. Early female sports journalist's success has opened the door for young female journalists today to pursue any career they want. Without their courage, female sports journalists may still be fighting for recognition and respect from their peers and their viewers. But it is clear that there is still work to be done by this new generation of female sports reporters. Women need to continue advancing themselves in their career to move into leadership positions and to open new doors for a younger generation of women.

Works Cited

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