Women in Sports Media: Breaking New Ground

Brave women are rising to new roles in the long male-dominated field of sports media, but it hasn’t come without struggles.

by Michael Collins

At a time when the accomplishments of women taking on never before held sports media roles should be celebrated, we still at times find ourselves fighting the same age-old battles seen in other aspects of culture and politics.

If you’re a woman trying to make a name for yourself as a sports broadcaster or journalist, it’s best to be prepared for some resistance – not based on what you can or can’t do on the job – but simply based on your gender.

Sports, simply by the nature of the topic, has long been a male-dominated field, whether it be the athletes themselves, coaches or even the people covering sports. While incredible strides have been made in the way of promoting female athletics and coaches, female broadcasters and journalists are just scratching the surface.

But women are taking on new roles in the industry, and for those who follow any sport religiously, that’s a good thing.

When Samantha Ponder (pictured above) was named as the replacement on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown for longtime host Chris Berman, the surprise was felt by many who follow the most popular professional league in the United States. But those who have worked with and watched Ponder over the years know that ESPN made the right choice.

Ponder’s work on ESPN’s College GameDay has been exceptional, and her rapport with fans, athletes and colleagues has always been given high praise.

Of course, there will always be some who feel women have no real place in sports media, outside of sideline or in-game reporters, but that sentiment is slowly being overcome by a group of talented and brave ladies.

The “go back to the kitchen” contingent may not encompass the majority of men who follow sports, but they do make themselves heard at times, particularly in direct contact with media members via social media channels.

How bad is it, and can it be changed? Several high-profile females in sports media shared their experiences and discussed their feelings about this struggle.

Bring on the Hate. It Only Makes Us Stronger

Bring on the Hate. It Only Makes Us Stronger

Sirius XM College Football Nation Host, Rachel Baribeau, Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rachel Baribeau, host of SiriusXM College Football Nation, has a lot of experience dealing with the battles women must face in sports media. An accomplished writer, radio host, public speaker and television reporter, there isn’t much Baribeau hasn’t tried (and done quite well) in her journey.

How many men in the industry can say they went through an actual training camp and were pummeled by football players until their bodies gave out on them? Baribeau can.

Baribeau, who has worked in practically every medium of sports broadcasting, agrees the deck can be stacked against women trying to break into the industry, and although things have undergone significant change, it’s still a man’s world.

“I’ve always heard the saying that a woman has to be twice as much on her game, do twice as much and be twice as good to be respected half as much,” Baribeau told us. “And I know that if we [women] make a mistake, we are held to a different degree than if a man makes a mistake. That’s unfortunate, but it is our business.”

Working in sports talk radio, Baribeau says she receives more backlash when she makes a mistake on air because “they were already ready not to believe me anyway”, making it more difficult to change the minds of those who resist women in traditional male roles.

“There’s gonna be days when you want to curl up in a ball and cry your eyeballs out when you feel the whole world is attacking you.” – Rachel Baribeau, SiriusXM Radio

“One of the things I love doing is changing people’s minds” the Auburn University graduate told us. “I love having somebody listen to me on the radio and say something nasty to me on Twitter, and I’ll end up retweeting them and saying something nice, and down the road they end up becoming a fan.”

But does the catching more flies with sugar mentality always work? Not quite, but the unwarranted vitriol doesn’t discourage Baribeau from forging ahead.

“If [hatred] discourages you from wanting to pursue the role, then you shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing anyway,” she emphatically stated. “I mentor young women – I’ve mentored 30 in three years across the country – and what I tell them all, and I tell their parents is listen, it’s going to be hard…there’s gonna be days when you want to curl up in a ball and cry your eyeballs out when you feel the whole world is attacking you.

“Ultimately what it does to me is it makes me want to turn the haters around, it makes me want to change their mind, it makes me want to be better. But I wouldn’t be being honest with you if I told you it didn’t hurt.”

Baribeau says it’s the anonymity of mediums like Twitter that allow certain a certain fringe group of people who don’t enjoy women broadcasters to say some pretty hurtful things without recourse.

“I think, what it is, the biggest product is anonymity,” Baribeau said. “They’re a ‘keyboard hero’, is what I like to call them. They’re big and strong and they’re bad, and they can call you all those names and no one will ever find out.

“They’re the curmudgeons of the earth and they’re probably in their mom’s basement in their whitey-tighties right now.”

Baribeau simply avoids engaging with these anonymous Twitter-eggs and, instead, interacts with fans who engage in more constructive conversations, and support her mission of, as she calls it, #ChangingTheNarrative about how athletes and coaches view women.

Speaking at universities all over the country, Baribeau talks to members of athletic programs about domestic abuse, violence towards women and other issues facing college athletes today. Her Changing the Narrative presentations have made a huge impact at some of the biggest programs in the nation.

You can listen our entire interview with Rachel Baribeau here

In Case You Hadn't Noticed...

In Case You Hadn't Noticed...

ESPN reporters Suzy Kolber talks with analysts Matt Hasselbeck, Randy Moss, and Charles Woodson, Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Women in visible and key roles in sports media is not necessarily a new thing. Females have been slowly climbing their way into places of great importance in the industry for some time.

ESPN reporter Suzy Kolber has stealthily transformed herself from a part-time ESPN2 anchor into one of the premier NFL analysts in the country. Kolber’s colleague Beth Mowin is constantly finding her way into bigger assignments in calling live college football games, and this year an NFL game, and there may not be a finer basketball mind anywhere than ESPN’s Doris Burke.

But yet the beat goes on from those who oppose women in the industry, especially those who tackle areas of the industry rarely trod upon by women, such as ESPN reporter Julie Stewart-Binks, who has made a career out of covering soccer and ice hockey.

“[Hockey] is a hotbed of masculinity, and the locker room is a very different type of place – especially when no media is allowed in – and it really thickened my skin,” Stewart-Binks told us.

ESPN and Fox Sports sideline reporter Julie Stewart-Binks, Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

“Not to say I allow any type of harassment or anything to that regards, but I learned early on…everyone has like a tolerance level where you have blinders on and you have earmuffs on to a certain point.

“You don’t want it to affect your daily life in that every ounce of sexism you receive or hatred you receive is going to personally affect your job, but you don’t want to expect it.”

When asked if the playing fields were even close to level, Stewart-Binks gave us an all too-familiar answer.

“You have to prove yourself, regardless,” Stewart-Binks said. “You come in and you’re just trying to get experience and it’s already and uphill battle. But being a female, everybody already assumes – and it is changing – that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

“When you walk into a room, you’re already on a different playing field than any ‘dude’, regardless of what they do walking into that room, and you have to acknowledge that.”

The long-time Fox Soccer correspondent agrees that men in this industry are already ahead of the game, which is why it’s so difficult for women to be taken seriously by fans and even by colleagues.

So why aren’t more women speaking up about the inequalities and the sexism encountered on the road to success? Stewart-Binks says it’s all about perception.

“The only thing that’s a drawback is that when and if you decide to raise your voice on an issue, it’s a negative towards you – because you’re looked at as a whistleblower who can’t handle the culture or the environment.

“I do feel as though today’s world is more open to people being able to voice their problems. Maybe five or ten years ago it was sort of ‘Oh you’re a problem’ if you raised your voice, but I think now it’s much more common.”

In her struggles, Stewart-Binks did find that not all male followers were trolls or out to destroy her career. In covering the male-blanketed sports which she did, there was also a group of male fans who she said had her back when small-mindedness reared its ugly head.

She agrees that as important as it may be for females to support each other in this industry – both as fans and colleagues – it’s equally important to have a network of supportive males.

You can listen to the entire interview with Julie Stewart-Binks here

The Psychology Behind the Hate

The Psychology Behind the Hate

NBC Sports broadcaster Michele Tafoya, Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The question now begs, why is the reaction to seeing women in high-profile sports media still so negative by many? Have men still not yet moved past the fact that women can be just as in-tune with sports (sometimes more) than they?

Speaking with Dr. Kristin Dieffenbach of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, those questions – and others – were posed.

“It’s such a fascinating question, because what you’re highlighting was something that Sally Jenkins, back in 1991, wrote in a Sports Illustrated article, ‘Who Let Them In?’ it was called” Dieffenbach told us. “So this is not a new topic, and the questions and things that you’re noting, we’ve been talking about for going over 25 years now, so it’s actually amazing that we’re still circling around the same thing.”

We asked Dr. Dieffenbach why it seemed that, in the culture of sports, the roles of sideline reporters and human interest storytellers for women were fine, but to see them in higher profile positions was fairly taboo.

“There have been a large number of studies done about women stepping into male-dominated spaces, and the types of things that we are culturally comfortable with them doing and that they are allowed to do,” Dieffenbach answered.

“You hit on something very key, in that, women are allowed in for very particular roles and certain ‘comfortable’ roles.

When discussing why women were seemingly pigeonholed into certain roles for so long, the explanation Dr. Dieffenbach gave was the crux of why this has been such a struggle. Men look at sports as their own escape – a kind of cerebral version of the Little Rascals “He-Man Woman-Haters Club”, and when women invade that escape, the reaction is going to be defensive.

“I think some of it is a little bit of fear and anxiety of when your status quo or your sociocentric thinking of where you came from – how you framed your world and world was framed for you by your experiences, your upbringing, your religion and all those things – is challenged, and you don’t know how to handle that challenge, there’s a fear.

“Even if you don’t articulate it as I’m afraid, there’s that ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t comfortable…I don’t know what to do here, I don’t know what my place is, so I’d better make sure none of that taints us. If I can stop that by that kind of hate speech, that kind of vitriol, then maybe I’m protecting my space a little better.'”

How bad can it get? Radio host Julie DiCaro and ESPN reporter Sarah Spain put that to the test, as seen at Jezebel.com.

Surprisingly, it’s not just misogynistic men who are flexing their muscle to protect their personal space and engage in trolling women in the industry. According to Dr. Dieffenbach, sometimes men who know better and who would normally never take part in such behavior do so “just for the thrill of it” or just for the sheer sake of knowing they could anonymously get away with it.

We asked Dr. Dieffenbach if there was a way around this behavior beyond just waiting out a generation who will seemingly never budge on their position about women in sports. Her response was quite intense.

“I don’t believe in waiting anything out, I’m probably the least patient person you’ll meet. I certainly think over time things will change and things will evolve. My son sees the role that I play in sport and the things that I do, and for him it’s completely normal. It’s not a question of gender.

“Because of some of the pioneering by women who do these things, you’ll see more and more people think it’s just not an issue. But…if you wait for the changes to happen,  its so slow and takes such a long time that it actually will then allow for people who to perpetuate it and make it take longer.”

You can listen to the entire interview with Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach here

Working Towards Positive Change

Working Towards Positive Change

Fox NFL Reporter Laura Okmin, Photo Courtesy Fox Sports Media PressPass

There may be no job more visible and more high-pressured for a man or a woman in sports than live reporting on an NFL team.

Fox NFL reporter Laura Okmin understands that struggle all too well, and until recently, she was reluctant to talk about her personal battles in how she was perceived while entering into the world of sports media as a young woman.

Okmin opened up not only about her feelings, but about how she has gone about trying to make change happen and to build a support network for young women entering into a career in sports media.

As the founder of GALvanize – a company who puts together workshops, bootcamps and coaching for young women in the industry – Okmin takes her role as a mentor very seriously.

“I found myself at a crossroad. I was mentoring all these beautiful young women…at the biggest platforms,” Okmin mused during our interview. “I was mentoring them and being sent them at NFL games and at the Olympics – these huge events that I was really thankful I had years and years to get to and to get ready for.

“I started seeing these young women that were sent to me who were hired, and I would say [to them] every single time they were on the field or at the Olympics ‘How many times have you done this?’, and without exception the answer was ‘I’ve never done this’, and that killed me.

“I really started thinking gosh, how lucky am I that I wasn’t thrown into a position when I was 22 or when I was 24 years old that I wasn’t ready for and couldn’t handle. I started thinking I had really two options. I could get bitter and I could become a stereotype of an aging woman getting angry or getting bitter about the next generation, or I could kind of do something about it, and I really wanted to help.”

GALvanize was formed by Okmin to not only train, but to empower young women entering into the industry to be prepared for the sexism and hard knocks they were likely to face during the course of their careers.

When you bring a group of energetic, passionate young ladies together and put them through rigorous tests, both on paper and in practical use, the results are fantastic on all fronts – both with colleagues and in public perception – as Okmin can attest.

“The NFL bootcamps are amazing, and they’re the bootcamps that everybody loves because they’re going to NFL teams, and I love that,” Okmin chuckled. “But its such a tiny part of it. I do bootcamps with other organizations – with USA Hockey, with the women’s national team and with the L.A. Sparks, the WNBA team – and I do a lot of bootcamps where we just bring in guests, but we don’t go anywhere.”

And make no mistake, Okmin’s bootcamps aren’t about looking good on camera or how to properly wear your hair during an outdoor event. She opens sessions with real-time knowledge and stories that these women will need to help carry them through.

“I can tell you that day one, nobody’s on camera and nobody’s at an NFL team,” Okmin said. “We’re working on everything you really need…which is, we work on confidence, and we work on work ethic, and we work on preparation – we work a ton on preparation – and a lot more on confidence.”

Dealing with situations these women will be forced to face and talking about the relationships they’ll need to cultivate are the types of trappings they will need to take with them on the road to successful careers.

“That’s tricky as a woman,” Okmin stated. “That’s really tricky as a young woman, getting thrown into a man’s world, and not just with the teams, but also with the people you work with.”

And what is Okmin’s aim in developing these bootcamps and mentoring groups for young women?

“What I want to do is change how they feel about themselves, how they feel about other women in this business, and I want them supporting themselves first and supporting each other. If we can fix that, the other stuff hopefully will happen.”

You can listen to the entire interview with Laura Okmin here.

All the women we spoke to agreed on that one point. Change is happening and will happen, and the women who are moving into these visible and powerful roles are blazing a path for a new generation of females in this industry.

Organizations like Okmin’s GALvanize and speakers like Baribeau who spread a much-needed message are going a long way to help.

As all the women we interviewed indicated, a strong network of men who support them is just as important. These strong and talented women need to be supported by men who don’t sit back and laugh at insults directed at women in the media, but who take action to make sure anyone reading a comment thread or series of tweets knows – these women are incredibly good at what they do and don’t deserve to be looked down upon.

It’s been a long time coming for many of these women, and finding a voice in an industry dominated so long by men hasn’t been easy, but it’s certainly been worth it.

We may never be able to stop the trolling or the “mean tweets”, but developing a more accepting culture of women in these roles and having a more supportive network around them will at least keep the hate at bay.

 

Michael Collins Editorial Director

Michael Collins is an Atlanta sports humorist, columnist, former radio host and local team apologist. He is a member of the FWAA, the FanSided college sports editorial director, and national columnist. His words of wisdom - "A facepalm is not an endorsement"