Playing from behind

The trials and tribulations of being a female sportswriter were highlighted by last week's Samantha Stevenson-Julius Erving story.

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Ever since women started covering sports in appreciable numbers in the late 1970s, they have fought an unending battle to be taken seriously. First, there were the complaints that they didn’t know enough about their beat to do their job. Then there was the squawking about allowing women into rooms filled with naked men. And finally, there were the whispers that women sportswriters were more interested in going out with athletes than writing about them.

So last week’s news that Samantha Stevenson had conceived a child with basketball great Julius Erving while she was a sportswriter covering his team, the Philadelphia 76ers, was anything but fun and titillating for most women sportswriters. To them it seemed more like a disaster.

“That was the No. 1 thing people said: ‘Oh, women in the locker room, all you want to do is see guys naked and date them,’” says Diane Pucin, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition who was in Wimbledon last week. “We’ve all fought for so long against that perception that we’re all just voyeurs and trying to get dates with athletes. And there are still people who think that’s the case. All it takes to bring that back is for one person to have done that, even if it was 20 years ago.”

Women are more of a presence each year at the Associated Press sports editors annual awards, and more of a presence as columnists and on the all-important professional sports beats. But women sportswriters still face unique difficulties — ones highlighted by Samantha Stevenson’s irresistibly dishy tale.

Pucin, a 20-year veteran of sports reporting, said she got no sense from Stevenson’s recent words or actions that she was concerned that her actions had set back women’s sportswriting. Yet, especially given the respect and high profile enjoyed by the man who fathered her child, such a consequence may be inevitable.

“It’s kind of like a movie reviewer ending up having Kevin Costner’s baby,” said San Francisco Examiner sports columnist Gwen Knapp, one of fewer than a dozen full-time women sports columnists in the country at a major paper. “Or if a male reviewer ended up having a child with Demi Moore. It’s hard for me to imagine. It’s not like we all sat down and said, ‘Sportswriting or Hooters?’ Hooters wasn’t an option, at least not for me. When I used to hear these stories about wives feeling threatened by us, I would look at myself and other women who covered sports and I would say, ‘It’s not like we’re hideous, but you’ve got nothing to worry about.’”

Then again, it’s not as if male sportswriters covering top women athletes fend off marriage proposals. Note-pad toting professional observers don’t generally send many sex-appeal meters spinning. But any time people see each other day in and day out, mutual attraction will sometimes assert itself — and women sportswriters can find themselves in awkward positions. Male writers and ballplayers socialize on the road occasionally, but a woman has to avoid random social contact unless she wants to encourage nasty rumors. Even so, she’s liable to find herself getting late-night phone messages in her hotel room from a ballplayer mumbling about finding “attractive women attractive” and about a man having certain needs. As Pucin put it: “Guys will be guys, they’ll try. It’s not always comfortable. You feel like, ‘If I turn him down, will he still talk to me?’ And you don’t want to make a big deal out of it, because that doesn’t help you either. You just kind of look at it as being asked out on a date you don’t want to go out on, and that’s where it ends.”

Then there are the culture-of-baseball difficulties. Scouts love to talk baseball, and many reporters milk scouts for rumors and gossip and, very occasionally, useful tidbits that end up being news. But scouts are older men who have spent their life in the game, men who feel much more comfortable talking to other men than to women. A woman reporter can get past that reluctance, but it will take work. The same goes for a woman reporter dealing with many other team officials. And, of course, the carefree hanging around in the clubhouse that is a prerequisite to building such relationships is much more difficult for a woman, who will find herself accused of checking out men if she doesn’t have a specific interview to do. “I don’t like to stand in there and not talk to somebody,” said Cheryl Rosenberg, who covers the Anaheim Angels for the Orange Count Register. “If I come in early and am waiting for a player, I’ll go talk to another player so I’m not just standing there. That can be really tough in a visiting clubhouse if they don’t know you and you’re a woman. It’s as uncomfortable for me as it is for them.

“You never want to use it as an excuse, but sometimes I think to myself, I could be a better reporter, I could be a harder worker, I could know the game better and still I will always be a little more on the outside because of being a woman, and in the same breath I would say that I don’t want to use that as an excuse … I think the attitudes of the players to some extent have changed. I think they’re so used to seeing women around, and a lot of them were raised by mothers who worked, or they have sisters who work and are more career-oriented, and I think that’s made a big difference.”

That may be true. These days, you don’t hear many stories like Jennifer Frey’s. Frey, a former sportswriter for the New York Times and Washington Post who now writes for the Post’s Style section, remembers being a Detroit Free Press intern back in 1990. She tried to talk to pitcher Jack Morris in the Tigers clubhouse, three days after having interviewed him once before. “‘I don’t talk to women when I’m naked unless they’re on top of me or I’m on top of them,’” he told her. “I was brand new,” Frey recalls. “My reaction was to stand there shocked.”

Women also face awkward choices with male sportswriters, many of whom seem to go overboard in adopting the attitudes of athletes. They talk loudly and often in the press box about “road beef” and, of course, “slump-busters,” an inside-baseball term if there ever was one that one big-league manager recently explained this way: “A slump-buster is 250 pounds or more, so you don’t even know if you’re in there.”

It’s a boys-being-boys world, no doubt about it. “There’s that whole thing we have to put with, like guys in the press box with binoculars checking out a woman with really big tits,” said Rosenberg. “I don’t want to sound like I’m uptight, but what other job would you have where you went to your workplace and that was considered appropriate? Because people spend so much time in the locker room, they have a locker room mentality, and I don’t mean just the players. I mean sportswriters, too.”

It’s not just a question of having to look the other way. Like Washington reporters, for whom the line between gossip and a hot tip can be murky territory, sportswriters need each other. Most top reporters call each other several times a week to exchange tips, or sometimes to work together on a story. As a San Francisco Chronicle beat writer covering the Oakland A’s, for example, I got a nice story one time by calling my counterpart at the New York Times and giving him a tasty morsel of information to run by George Steinbrenner for comment.

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But it can be tough for women to work these connections. Two years ago, I went to the NHL All-Star Game in Vancouver for CBS Sports. I was out with some fellow sportswriters, we had some beers, and a small group of us returned to someone’s room at the event hotel, eager to raid the minibar. An overweight, middle-aged Canadian reporter who had invited himself along sidled up behind one young woman and clamped his hands firmly on her breasts, then moved in on another young woman and inserted his tongue in her ear. The two women sportswriters took the disgusting violations in stride, but both were shaken up. And yet, that’s the sort of thing women who cover sports and throw themselves into the job, the way of life, will sooner or later encounter.

Media commentary on the Stevenson-Dr. J controversy mostly consisted of tut-tutting the intrusive role of the media, an approach a bit reminiscent of eating Tums after devouring a seven-course meal. Washington Post media arbiter Howard Kurtz hit the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel for digging up the birth certificate, opining that reporter Charles Bricker “clearly resented” the “flamboyant” Stevenson.

Certainly, Samantha Stevenson didn’t make any friends with her controversial remarks about racism and aggressive lesbianism on the tennis tour.
And sportswriter Pucin thinks that Stevenson herself has come close to crossing over an ethical line. “If she was just a writer for a magazine, that would be one thing,” said Pucin. “But two weeks earlier she had written an article about the father of another player for the New York Times. I can’t imagine that the New York Times lets other writers write about a topic where they have a conflict of interest. It’s a little bothersome that the New York Times, which seems to pride itself on its high ethical standards, has not been troubled by this.” Pucin also found it disturbing that Stevenson, as the mother of a professional tennis player, had access to areas off-limits to other journalists.

As much as women who cover sports are appalled by a confirmed report of a reporter sleeping with an athlete, they also don’t want to get back into the tiresome women in the locker room debate one more time. There has been some progress, after all. The furor and tut-tutting has died down, and — considering how spoiled and over-sexed most professional athletes are — the number of high-profile incidents involving sexist or sexual transgressions against women in the locker room has been small. The notorious incident when members of the New England Patriots converged on reporter Lisa Olson in the late 1980s and waved their members at her, suggesting this would somehow please her, seems like ancient history, as does the mid-’80s incident when rock-headed slugger Dave Kingman sent Sacramento Bee beat writer Susan Fornoff a rat for a present. (Olson is now a New York Daily News columnist, her career having prospered even though she was forced into exile in Australia for several years.)

But turnover remains high among women sportswriters. That’s partly because fewer women are apt to devote their entire lives to sports, both because women are more sane than men and because women are more likely to take time off for family reasons. That’s what Frey, the former Times and Post sportswriter, did, and that’s part of why she ended up in the style section.

However, the petty depredations of being a woman covering sports are also a factor in driving women away from the job. The Dr. J news can only add to the background noise of innuendo and misunderstanding all women working in sports face. That’s bad for sportswriting, which needs to have women out there, offering a perspective that’s sometimes different from that of their mostly middle-aged, white male counterparts. For example, Frey was a New York Mets beat writer for the Times back in 1992 when the club’s manager, Dallas Green, cracked to a group of reporters that losing was getting so frustrating, it made him want to go home and beat his wife. Frey was not shocked to hear a man in baseball talking that way. She understood Green was making a (bad) joke. But she was not about to pretend she hadn’t heard. She wrote about Green’s crack for the Times, prompting a simmering controversy and expressions of outrage from the National Organization of Women and others.

“I found out the next day I was the only one who reported that,” Frey recalled. “And that’s a direct reflection of the fact I was the only female in that room. I saw it through my eyes and I felt it was important he be held accountable for what he said. In fact, NOW staged a protest against him and he told me, ‘I should have known better to think I could get away with saying that in front of you.’

“He wasn’t mad. He was joking, everyone knew that, but I was the only one who thought it was inappropriate to make a joke about wife-beating, especially given all the amazing statistics about men beating their wives on Super Bowl Sunday and the link generally between sports and violence.” But as much as women in sportswriting have wanted to believe they represented a vanguard, some women are starting to wonder if the testosterone-rich world of sports will ever support more than a limited female presence, especially when it comes to print reporters.

“You’re definitely taken less seriously, there’s no doubt about it,” said Susan Slusser, who covers the Oakland A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle.
A decade has passed since I wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review in which various women sportswriters talked about how things were changing. The women in the article mostly believed it was only a matter of time before women were much more established in sportswriting, not just covering the Olympics or colleges, but also as pro-team beat writers and (most importantly) columnists.

“You should be able to maintain a certain amount of dignity in your life,” I was told by Kristin Huckshorn, then a San Jose Mercury News reporter. “Too often you can’t.”

Huckshorn’s whereabouts now? She’s in Japan, having long since given up sportswriting. Joan Ryan has something of a national name for her writing on sports, especially on figure skaters and gymnasts and their unhealthy fixation on weight. But she no longer writes sports for the San Francisco Chronicle, a move she explained in advance a decade ago. “If you ask me, ‘Do you see yourself being a sportswriter in 10 years?’ the answer is ‘No,’” she said. Even Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist you either love to love or love to hate, did a stint writing about sports for the Washington Star, and moved on to new challenges. If talented women like Huckshorn, Ryan and Dowd all made lifetime careers out of covering sports, a critical mass might be attained that would truly alter the status quo. But belief in that magical goal has slipped over the years.

“My theory is that in the beginning there was a sense that yes, it was going to be difficult, yes there was going to be discrimination, and yes, you were going to deal with a lot of BS, but you would be a pioneer and you would help make it easier for the next generation,” said Frey. “But you get to a point now where there are a lot of smart, talented women saying this isn’t changing, this is bullshit, it’s just not worth it.”

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