Fall 1999

Women Sportswriters Confront New Issues

No longer focused on locker room access, work and family challenges prevail.

By Claire Smith
The sports world, which likes its entertainment untainted by real-world issues, seldom accepts progress without a prod. Its participants, frighteningly disconnected from the world around them, too often don’t even realize the currents, issues and changing times roiling society.

This is why I had to smile at the way in which a handful of black baseball players wrestled with baseball’s record of intolerance after Al Campanis exposed the game’s dirty little mindset on race in 1987. Campanis, then the General Manager of the Dodgers, shocked the sports world by opining on national television that blacks lacked “the necessities” to hold certain management positions much the way they lacked buoyancy, ergo no black Johnnie Weismullers.

The ’87 season that was to serve as a placid but benign celebration of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier was awash with controversy from day one. This much I knew as I stood in a major-league baseball stadium waiting to begin my sixth year covering the New York Yankees for The Hartford Courant.

Dave Winfield, the Yankees’ all-star right fielder and future Hall of Famer, called to me prior to the season opener. Whispering conspiratorially, Winfield—an African-American—informed me that he and the other black players on the team had been discussing the Campanis incident when they reached what apparently was a startling conclusion. The players realized, Winfield said, that not only was I a woman, but African-American as well! The newly discovered distinction would assuredly earn for me a greater degree of cooperation from “the brothers,” not to mention a scoop or two, Winfield declared with great solemnity and solidarity.

I had to smile. For the first time ever, being African-American had finally overshadowed my other lonely outpost: standing sentry as one of the few women reporters to work in the major-league press boxes. In 1987, there were precious few women covering major-league baseball; you could count them on one hand. When I left the national baseball beat in 1998, my departure brought the number of women holding that job to zero. However, women in increasing numbers do cover Olympic sports, college athletics, tennis and men’s and women’s basketball.

I have never claimed to be in the first wave of either African-Americans or women to cover professional team sports in America. Wendell Smith, Sam Lacy and other members of traditionally African-American news organizations started the long, torturously slow journey from the colored sections of the bleachers to the press boxes the moment Robinson took the lead on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As for women, the walls came tumbling down in the 1970’s when the courts agreed with the contention that professional sports teams had no right to deny women journalists equal access. Pioneer reporters such as Mary Garber had covered sports for decades while handicapped by arcane rules limiting their contact with male athletes. Syndicated columnist Elinor Kaine and Melissa Ludtke of Sports Illustrated were the first to successfully argue for their right to walk through locker room doors in order to fully do their jobs. Tracy Dodds, Diane K. Shah, Jane Gross, Melanie Hauser, Mary Schmidt followed, trailblazers who, like Robinson, changed perceptions in the workplace and in life in extraordinary fashion just by insisting they be treated in ordinary but fair fashion.

Today, there are by some counts well over 500 women working in the once male-dominated worlds of sports media as well as for pro teams, leagues and sports-related industries, though still relatively few of these women are beat reporters covering major league teams. Each year hundreds attend the national convention of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM), which was founded in 1987.

The fact that women have come of age in these traditionally male industries isn’t so much seen in the fact that an organization such as AWSM exists, but rather that locker room access (and the attitudes and behavior of the athletes) is no longer the dominant subject at AWSM gatherings. The receding hot-button topic of the 1980’s has been replaced by issues such as juggling work and family responsibilities, managing finances, and attempting to secure quality of life in the midst of what this line of work demands.

The career path of a sportswriter usually means traveling with teams and spending more time in hotel rooms than at home. And for young women who enter this profession there can also be the culture shock of learning to socialize and coexist in a male-oriented world without losing their sense of self.

I found that insisting on the right to retire to one’s room on the road often saved my sanity, even when it came at the expense of scoops such as when I missed one of Billy Martin’s many late night barroom incidents. Just as I made it clear early on that I didn’t hang out in bars, later in my career I’ve made it obvious that my family life comes first.

Male beat writers with families usually have built-in child care in the form of a wife. Working mothers, especially those of us who are single, have two full-time jobs, both rewarding, both demanding. The job and the children continually pull in opposite directions, a tug-of-war without end. Many women leave the more arduous beats, if not the profession completely, because they can’t fight this battle any longer. Many of my peers chose a route similar to mine, striving to write a column or do magazine work—jobs with more downtime from travel and night games, the enemies of normal life and families.

AWSM’s forums give women a chance to explore such issues and accept without guilt career choices that others might not ever understand; my mother still wonders what went wrong because I left The New York Times for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Nothing went wrong. Everything went right, because I have more quality time with my 11-year-old son, something much more important than location of my byline at this stage of my life.

Unfortunately, the complex issues of today have not completely replaced the other lingering issue: life on the sports beat for women reporters. The difficulties first faced by the pioneer female reporters who were literally barred at the door still exist in some latent forms. Still, press boxes too often remain a mostly male bastion. There are still pockets of resistance among athletes despite the fact that leagues have long-established access policies that allow for designated interview times after cooling-off (read that disrobing) periods. Just this past spring, Reggie White, a former defensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that female journalists should not have access to the locker rooms of male athletes.

His article gained notoriety when it reached all the way to the National Basketball Association. New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward seemingly questioned the long-established policies of one of the most traditionally open-minded leagues when he passed out copies of White’s comments to his teammates. Ward later denied he was campaigning for a change in the NBA’s access policies. Rather, he said, he felt a need to discuss the issue during a players’ prayer meeting because, Ward said, as a Christian he felt uncomfortable dressing in front of any woman who was not his wife.

Ward, who has access to areas of locker rooms that are off-limits to reporters and is also the beneficiary of all those cooling-off post-game minutes, nonetheless fed a misconception as old as the issue of women in the locker-room debate. He attached a sexual connotation to journalism assignments. (Sleeping with sources is no more the goal than it should be an issue.) The day the first reporter left the press box to seek the raw emotions of athletes following victories or defeats, locker rooms ceased being just changing rooms and sanctuaries. Rather, clubhouses became a common ground where teams, players and the media conspire to sell a product, be it a game, a newspaper or a broadcast, by putting a human face on sports.

Women reporters, simply stated, want and demand the opportunity to report on human dimensions of sports just as their male counterparts do. But, do women reporters bring a different approach, whether covering the Washington Redskins or the White House? Is every affront gender-based or would that politician, pitcher or big-screen star be just as likely to blow off a male as he would a female reporter? Are there different rules for professional conduct then those that apply to “The Boys on the Bus?”

Any attempt to supply absolute answers to such questions flirts with stereotyping, something that should be anathema to women who have had to fight such prejudices from the moment we stepped into the clubhouse.

That said, two subtle differences have always fascinated me: the greater cooperation received from minority athletes and the good working relationships that are often found among reporters and the athletes’ wives.

When I first began covering baseball I always assumed that the good rapport with the Dave Winfields of the sport might be because I was black. Too many women of all hues have since pointed out this greater degree of cooperation, leading me to suspect that this has less to do with my race. No one could really explain this feeling until the former football great, Ronnie Lott, addressed the issue at the first AWSM convention. Many black athletes commiserated with the female reporters who covered them, Lott said, because blacks understood what it was like to walk into a room and be instantly hated.

As for the wives of athletes, Gretchen Randolph, wife of former Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph, once dispelled the notion that players’ wives were all resentful of the women who covered their husbands’ teams. Rather, she said, she found more understanding for the players’ family and for herself among women. Men, she said, would call at all hours, often without apology, whereas women reporters who called would often inquire as to whether they were disrupting dinner or apologize about the lateness of the hour. Most important, Gretchen said, were the questions about how she and her children were faring, an indication that they mattered to the reporter. Gretchen Randolph’s explanation said a lot about self-worth and how others influence it.

Just as girls growing up today can envision themselves as world champion soccer stars so, too, more and more aspire to sports writing jobs that were not imagined as possible by previous generations of women. But even as they dream, the realities of this job—the travel, the constant deadlines, the unpredictable hours, and workplace demands—continue to challenge this second tier of women pioneers. These issues might not make headlines, as locker room access did, but they are the same challenges women confront today in all professions. In fact, what is somewhat comforting is that unlike the 1970’s, when our male colleagues didn’t wrestle with the issues we did, nowadays many of the men are searching for some of the same answers that we are in trying to balance family life with professional obligations.

Claire Smith, the mother of one son, joined The Philadelphia Inquirer as a sports columnist in 1998 after covering major-league baseball for 17 years for The Hartford Courant and The New York Times.

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