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This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It has been nearly 40 years since the first female reporter was allowed into a professional sports locker room. Today, every major cable and broadcast sports division has multiple female reporters and anchors on its roster. But if they have cracked sports TV’s glass ceiling — Rhonda Glenn was the first woman to anchor ESPN’s iconic SportsCenter franchise in 1981, and CBS Sports anchor Lesley Visser is the only woman enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — they still are a minority of the voices covering big-ticket TV sports: the NFL, MLB and NBA.
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“It didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t going to be allowed to that party,” says ESPN’s Hannah Storm, whose father was a commissioner of the American Basketball Association and GM of multiple teams including the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks. “When it wasn’t a school night, we were at the games.”
But Storm and her fellow trailblazers — in 1994, NBC executives made her the first woman to solo anchor a network sports show when they put her on MLB coverage, which would include three World Series — succeeded not because they aspired to be on TV, but because they loved the game.
“My first job was with the Boston Globe,” says Visser. “I was covering the lowest division of high school football and thought I was the luckiest person in America.”
When Mary Carillo — who won the 1977 French Open mixed doubles championship with her playing partner John McEnroe — segued from the court to the broadcasting booth in 1980, the United States Tennis Association would not allow her to cover men’s tennis, only the women’s matches. Says Carillo, “That was when I first realized that it might not be easy to be a woman in this profession.”
And it still isn’t.
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Rebecca Lowe — who in March joined NBC Sports from ESPN and in 2012 became the first woman to present the FA Cup Final from Wembley Stadium — has had hot dogs thrown at her by the U.K.’s infamous football hooligans.
“I’ve had my backside pinched, I’ve had people screaming at me and using terrible words,” says Lowe.
If blatant sexism no longer is tolerated in corporate America or sports media, indifference persists; women’s restrooms on the field are rare.
“Any woman who goes on the road with an NFL team or is on the sidelines will tell you that you’ll be putting on your mascara next to a urinal in the men’s bathroom [because there won’t be a women’s room on the field],” says Charissa Thompson, who will anchor Fox Sports 1’s signature nightly news and highlights show, Fox Sports Live.
The women who have become stars in the industry have two things in common: a passion for sports and a high tolerance for belligerence.
“We all have scar tissue,” says Visser. “I always tell the young women coming up, ‘You can have a long career, but you better have a tough skin.’ “
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Host, Fox College Saturday (Fox Sports 1)
I came along right when the Internet was blowing up, right when the sports blogs started. So I was baptized into this world where these sports blogs dubbed me the “Sideline Barbie,” the “Sideline Princess.” And I was not only worrying about the questions I was asking, but then I had men on these blogs critiquing what I was wearing. The sidelines aren’t as glamorous as everyone thinks. When halftime happens, you do the interview, and then you’ve got to grab a coach or a player. You don’t even have time to go to the bathroom. So I’m having a hot dog on the sideline, and people are taking photos and submitting them to the sports blogs. And it’s like, “How does she look eating a hot dog?” It wasn’t about my reporting, it was, “What is she wearing, who is she dating?”
Host, The Crossover (NBC Sports Network)
It’s definitely a business where if you’re self-conscious at all, you either grow a thick skin or at least fake like you have one. It’s stupid to make women feel awkward for doing a job that a dozen men are doing at the exact same time. But I don’t think anyone should be in the locker room. That’s where I stand. I did several years for the NBA. So I was in locker rooms. I would always make sure that my cameraman went first and that I looked down until he said it was OK to look up. There’s got to be a better way to grab players. I don’t think men should be in the locker room, either, because you certainly can’t [exclude] one and not the other. For people who have never been in a locker room … there’s nothing fun about it.
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Correspondent, NBC Sports, CBS Sports, HBO Sports, Tennis Channel
Al Trautwig and I were working together on USA Network [in the early 1980s]. And I was only there to do women’s tennis. It was the first night of the U.S. Open, and Chris Evert won her match in 42 minutes. So I was unemployed for the rest of the evening. But a guy I really loved watching, Yannick Noah, a Frenchman, was going to play next. So I hung around in the booth. And I started handing Al Trautwig notes about Yannick. I loved this guy; I knew his game well. And Al would read the note and just tuck it away. He wouldn’t use my stuff. And I handed him like a fistful of notes. And then I stopped because he wasn’t using any of them. And I’m thinking to myself, “Man, does this guy really think I don’t know anything about men’s tennis?” At night’s end, he grabbed all the notes and took me by the wrist and said, “Come with me.” He brought me to our executive producer, put the notes on his table and said: “Mary wrote these notes to me. But I didn’t use them because they should be coming out of her mouth.” And the next day, I got to call men’s tennis at the U.S. Open.
Commentator, reporter, ESPN
I can’t tell you why I was watching the NFL by myself as an 8-year-old, but I was. I grew up in Philly. My granddad was a huge Philly fan, but a big sports fan in general. So was my dad. But if nobody else in the house was watching football, I was. Monday Night Football was a highlight for me and Howard Cosell‘s Halftime Highlights was one of the highlights of my week. I had all the plastic helmets I collected from IHOP; they also had a cardboard cutout board you could place the helmets on. I wasn’t reading the box scores as an 8-year-old, but I would watch the highlights and place the helmets on the board based on how [the teams] had done. We never got rid of that, and it’s now framed in my workout room in my house. So [sports] was a part of me, it was in my soul. There’s was something about football — they looked like gladiators, the toughness of it — I just loved all of that. That feeling was apparent through my whole career. And that’s why I never felt out of place. It was where I wanted to be. It was natural for me. I would be at a press conference, there were 250 men and I was the only woman. I was in the front row and I asked the first question.
Host, Premier League (NBC Sports)
In this industry, some women aren’t always as encouraging as you’d like. Women are very competitive. We have to stop kidding ourselves that we’re all sisters. I saw an interview with Michelle Beadle not long ago, and she was asked a question about [her former ESPN colleague] Erin Andrews. And what was interesting was her sheer honesty about how they’re not friends. And I just found it fascinating because in England, there is no way you could be that honest. You couldn’t sit there and say: “Yeah, we just don’t get on. I don’t like her. She doesn’t like me.” If there were more women in this industry, I think that would be less [prevalent]. But because there are so few of us, it really is [competitive]. I was the first woman to present the FA Cup Final, and I’ll keep that for the rest of my life and tell my grandchildren. But I would love there to be a day when there is no more use of the phrase “the first woman to …” because women have done everything.
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Anchor, CNN, Turner Sports
An Oakland A’s player once sent former Sacramento Bee writer Susan Fornoff a live rat in a box to describe how he felt about her covering his team. These days, when there is discrimination, it’s subtler. It takes a little longer to prove yourself — you have to work a little harder, and the “assists” from the boys’ club aren’t there. For example: A male colleague of mine once called San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore “Al Gore” on TV. Everyone laughed; it was treated as what it was — a slip of the tongue. I am pretty sure if a woman had done that, there would have been several negative blog items the next day about how she clearly didn’t know football. And when a female sports journalist gets a great story, you can almost set your watch by how quickly whispers start that she must have slept with the player to get it. But that’s all manageable, and it fades the longer you’re in the business. I feel very lucky to do the job I do and have the opportunities I have; I’m aware that just a few decades ago, those opportunities didn’t exist. Plus, no one has ever sent me a rat. That’s a huge win right there.
Host, SportsCenter (ESPN)
I was in Charlotte, N.C., when they launched the NBA team there, the Charlotte Hornets. And the first guy to roll into town was Carolina native Michael Jordan. I was young and didn’t really like going into the locker room. But of course I did because I had to make deadline. And he treated me, the only woman covering the franchise, with such dignity. The fans weren’t as accepting. They sent me hate mail. But when Michael Jordan, a guy whom everybody looks up to, basically says I’m going to treat this young lady who is just doing her job with respect, well, he set the tone, I think, for the entire NBA. And another guy who was phenomenal to me was [Houston Oilers quarterback] Warren Moon. I think he understood what I was going through because he was a black quarterback at a time when there just weren’t black quarterbacks. He had to deal with a level of ignorance. And so he decided that he would conduct all of his interviews for all of the media outside the locker room at every game. And that’s what he did.
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Sideline reporter, Sunday Night Football (NBC Sports)
In 1995, when I was at CBS Sports, I went to Indiana to do a piece on [Indiana University coach] Bobby Knight and his son Pat Knight, who was then a senior [and had played on the team for four seasons]. I wanted to do a father-son what’s-it-been-like-coaching-your-son sort of piece. So Bobby keeps us waiting and waiting. Finally he came in. But he wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I was sitting directly across from him; there was a camera over my shoulder ready to shoot. So we started to chat, and he still wouldn’t look at me. And he said, “I understand you do radio.” And I did do radio in Minneapolis-St. Paul at that time. So I said, “Yes, I do.” And he said, “Is that all you do?” And I said, “No, obviously I do TV, that’s why I’m here.” And he said, “Well, are you any good at this?” And I said, “Well, coach, I like to think I’m good at it. That’s why I got this assignment to talk to you.” He said, “Because you know there are a lot of women who do this who stink at it.” And he’s still not looking at me! So I took a moment and said: “True. And there are a lot of men who do this who stink at it, too.” And he finally made eye contact and said, “We’re going to get along.” I broke through with Bobby Knight. Of course, it lasted all of a day.
Anchor, Fox Sports Live (Fox Sports 1)
My experience with women in this business has been nothing but amazing. I try to extend a hand and be as thoughtful to other women as the people before were to me. I used to see Erin [Andrews] at NFL games and other events, but we weren’t close. And then I got to ESPN. My very first day [in 2011], I remember walking from the parking lot in Bristol, Conn., past these little windows that I now know was a conference room. I was wearing my best pair of shoes; they were my first Christian Louboutins. And Erin must have seen me, because when I got into the lobby, she came running out and gave me a big hug and said, “I am so happy you are here!” Then she looked down at my shoes, and said, “Oh God, they’re going to hate you.” And she said, “We don’t wear shoes like that here.”
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Reporter, The NFL Today (CBS Sports)
I have four people whom I owe my four-decade career to. One was Vince Doria, who was my editor at the Boston Globe. It was 1974, I had won a Carnegie Foundation grant [for an internship at the newspaper]. But once the internship money evaporated, Vince Doria said not only are we going to hire this young 20-year-old, but we’re going to make her the first woman to cover the NFL at what was then a top sports section in the country. So then [CBS Sports executive producer] Ted Shaker comes and says, “OK, you know sports, Lesley, we’re going to put you on the network.” With nothing in between. No bumbling around Des Moines or Albuquerque. On CBS. And not only that, we’re going to make you the only woman to ever handle the Super Bowl trophy presentation. And everybody can say, “Well, heck, Lesley, your career has been rolling along for decades.” But being the first, I am now the oldest. Then I had [CBS Corp. CEO] Leslie Moonves, who oversaw all this for all these years. And now I have [CBS Sports chairman] Sean McManus, who re-ups my contract at 59 years old, gets behind me, still puts me on major events. It has always been men who have hired me, and they have continued to believe in me. That’s what gets forgotten. You don’t land on Normandy by yourself.
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