The challenges presented to women who work in sports media, as told by the women who face them.
Women in sports media come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. We all come from different backgrounds. We all fell in love with sports in different ways. Some of us have hot takes, some of us are straight reporters. Some of us are writers. Hosts. Analysts. Commentators. The one thing that we all have in common (besides the fact that we identify as women) is that we will all face discrimination at some point in our careers. Culturess reached out to a few women who work in sports media, to hear what their experiences have been like.
Michaela Schreiter, a blogger and the co-host of That’s What She Said on TSN 1200 in Ottawa, spoke to Culturess about the backlash she has dealt with:
“I spoke about John Gibbons’ “skirts” comments a few months ago on TSN 1200 (thanks in large part to Ian Mendes and Shawn Simpson, who felt this was an issue that needed to be addressed). Many listeners wrote into the show saying that we were being sensitive and taking his comments too seriously. This kind of language is so normalized and engrained in sports culture that most people don’t even notice it. We do our best to show them why it’s not okay, but changing people’s mindsets is no easy task, and it will take time. As a result, unintentional sexism is very common in conversations like this.”
It seems almost predictable that one might face pushback and sexism when addressing social change and normalized sexism within sports culture. But the vitriol that women face on a daily basis isn’t reserved for their social justice commentary. I once received a slew of rape threats just for tweeting that I believed that P.K. Subban should have made an NHL All-Star team.ESPN reporter Samantha Ponder commentates at media day at Phoenix Convention Center. Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
While these threats and horrible comments represent a very small minority of listeners and readers, the people on the hurling end of them can be quite vocal, and extremely loud. Especially online. Victoria Matiash is an NHL writer for ESPN.com:
“Sad, angry readers filling the comments section with chauvinist garbage immaterial to whatever I was writing about. From the artless “girls don’t know sports” to “how many men have you pleasured to get your job?”. Fortunately, I’ve worked with great people who encouraged me to plow through and ignore the idiots.”
But is ignoring the idiots really the answer? While a lot of trolls will give up when they don’t get a reaction from you, some will keep harassing to the point where it becomes unbearable. It’s very easy to tell someone who is being called the c-word and receiving rape threats on a daily basis to “ignore the trolls” but you can’t actually ignore them. You see what was said, and process it. It has made an impression. You can choose to move on from it, to try to forget about it, or to report it. You can’t completely ignore it, but you do choose what to make of it.
Andie Bennett is a sports anchor and reporter at CBC radio in Montreal. When she was going through a difficult period dealing with online harassment, someone she respects immensely in this business, Pierre McGuire, told her to only worry about the opinions of people she respects, something she still thinks about to this day, and mentioned during a Women in Media panel at Vanier College. It’s something that has stuck with me, and completely changed the way I handle the barrage of hatred that often comes with the territory of working in this industry.
It seems completely ludicrous that something as seemingly fun and frivolous as talking about sports could be met with so much animosity. We all got into this business because of our love of the game, whichever game that was, and our desire to get paid to watch and talk about that game. So why is it so hard? Sloane Martin is a play-by-play broadcaster, and sports radio reporter and anchor who has certainly faced resistance along the way:
“It’s more difficult for women in sports journalism because we can’t win. Each one of us could be the entire sports journalist package, and there’d still be some dude telling you he wouldn’t date you. And that’s what it comes down to: power dynamics. Women in sports journalism are inserting themselves into a field men have dominated for decades and then telling you what you should know. That unfortunately doesn’t sit right with a lot of people. No matter what women do – just existing – they are sexualized and that detracts from anything they say or accomplish.”
It seems like every woman I spoke to in sports media had at least one example of sexism that she faced somewhere along the way in her career. Stacey May Fowles is a columnist at The Globe and Mail, and has a book about baseball called Perfect Game coming out in March of 2017.
“I was once the lone woman on a four person sportswriting panel and an audience member asked me what it was like to be a female sports journalist. I got about two sentences in before another (male) panelist interrupted me and proceeded to answer on behalf of women sportswriters everywhere. I’ve never forgotten it. The story, is of course, hilarious, but it also acts as a great example of the climate we find ourselves in. Male voices dominate, even when we’re trying to articulate women’s experiences.”
Why do some (not all) men feel like sports is “their” domain? Does the ability to understand quarterback ratings lie somewhere within a penis?
“Despite the fact that women occupy about 30-40% of most sports audiences, men are still the target audience among leagues, networks and advertisers,” says Schreiter.
“The commercials we see within games are all targeted at men. The hosts are chosen with men in mind, not women. From all the way at the top, the target audience for any sports broadcast is often men. So naturally, women feel left out, and men often feel like it is not a place for women.”
Whenever I’ve inquired about this very topic on Twitter or on the radio, the response has overwhelmingly been some form of “I watch sports to get away from women”. I can’t even begin to describe how incredibly sad this makes me. As if men need an escape route from the women in their lives, or hate women so much that they don’t want to share their toys with them. In any case, immaturity seems to be at the root of all of this. Those immature little boys make up the minority of men, but they are loud, especially on social media.Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue is interviewed by ESPN sideline reporter Doris Burke. Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
When it comes to equal representation in sports media, we still have a long way to go. We see women on the sidelines at football games and in studios hosting panels where men yell and shout, and give their opinions on whether or not athletes should stand for national anthems. We see women sitting at anchor desks on sports stations. Very rarely, however, are the women we see in sports media from anything other than one homogeneous group (thin, pretty, white) and even more rarely do they offer up their opinion or analysis on the game they are covering.
Women are relegated to being mouthpieces for men to say what they want to say. But they’re there, so network head honchos can pat themselves on the back about equality, and claim to not have a problem whenever sexism in sports is brought up.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, though, as Matiash points out.
“We’re slowly busting out of this nonsense. The idea that the gender you’re born with should dictate your interests is – again, slowly – becoming outdated. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
How do we begin to tackle this seemingly insurmountable opposition that women face on a daily basis?
“I’d like to see more women in positions to give their opinion on sports, not just report them,” suggests Schreiter.
“Although it may set us up for even more scrutiny than we already receive, I think that if more people see women have educated opinions on sports as well, they will know that we have a place here. Not that women need to rely on men for help, but I also think men play a huge role in changing the inherent sexism that exists in sports. Eliminating sexist language has to begin with everyone, not just women.”
“If men in sports media stop using it, and treat their female counter parts as equals, that will hopefully trickle down to audiences and the public in general. Adam van Koeverden wrote a great piece on sexism in sports, and he perfectly outlined my point here. Men should get involved too. Working together is the best way to achieve equality.”