Why you should care
Why do women have to work so hard to prove their expertise in sports journalism when most of their male counterparts didn’t play big-time ball either?
It started with a tweet — a simple, if sassy, missive sent from L.A. Memorial Coliseum before the Los Angeles Rams hosted the Houston Texans in a preseason game.
I’d like to do an investigative piece on the percentage of male sportswriters who actually played the sports they cover, and at what level, and then share the link to it any time I see a man tell a female sportswriter she isn’t qualified to do her job.— Michelle Bruton (@MichelleBruton) August 25, 2018
The responses were scattered at first and then poured in furiously, draining both my battery pack and my phone in an afternoon. In all, 22,500 people engaged with the tweet by Tuesday — all feeling some type of way, but not the same way.
Female users, in particular, reacted to the idea that women can’t be experts in, say, baseball or football, because they haven’t played those sports at a high level. Trouble is, most male journalists haven’t played the sports they cover at a high level either, and yet they are more easily taken as experts. Why do women have to work so hard to be taken as seriously as colleagues who have the same training and the same level of experience — or less?
The tweet struck a nerve with dozens of other users, many who identify or present as male. “One thing a guy doesn’t do is go on Twitter and whine about it when another guy tells him he’s not qualified,” one huffed.
“I prefer my sports writers and sports broadcasters to be male; I don’t know why but I do,” another confessed.
“I don’t support the sexism, but I benefit as a fan. The pressure it puts on women to be exceptional at their profession means I get really good coverage,” a different user added.
But it was this response that best summed up the attitude in question:
“IMHO, no reporter (either male or female) know [sic] the true nuances of the sport unless you’ve played it first hand. You can do stats until you’re blue in the face and it’s just not the same as someone who’s ‘been there.’”
It’s not just readers getting Mad Online; we face this in our daily work. Consider Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s infamous reply to a news conference question last year: “To hear a female talk about routes is funny.”
Must a reporter be married to write for the weddings section? Have all political reporters run for office? Of course not. Yet in sports, particularly, this attitude that experience equals expertise is pervasive.
Nicole M. LaVoi, a sports psychologist and sociologist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in gender equity in sports, says that 86–96 percent of all sports journalists are men. This, of course, is a problem in itself. But even for the 14 percent of sports media figures (that’s being generous) who are women, failing to own a career stat sheet casts a shadow over their reporting accomplishments.
What they owe their readership is a commitment to excellence and fairness — not an ability to hit dingers.
Take Chelsea Janes, who covers the Nationals for The Washington Post. Janes is a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who played varsity softball at Yale and earned her master’s in journalism at Stanford. She’s a double threat of hands-on experience and training. And yet because she did not play baseball, she is one of many female reporters flooded with comments on social media claiming she’s not qualified to do her job.
All the while, prominent male journalists like ESPN’s Buster Olney (baseball) and Zach Lowe (basketball) never played seriously. But the criticism can cut both ways. Ex-athletes who cover the game — typically from the TV booth — often are accused of lacking objectivity and speaking in clichés.
But sports reporters should be allowed to simply be reporters. What they owe their readership is a commitment to excellence and fairness — not an ability to hit dingers.
How many sports reporters, male and female, actually played the sports they now cover? I’m designing a study to find out exactly that. A straw poll on Twitter revealed 21 percent of respondents expect women to have played the sports they cover, while only 15 percent expect the same of men. And 7 percent of those polled felt a female journalist could not cover men’s sports as well as a man. Disagree? Let us know in the comments below.
No reporter worth his or her salt needs to have played a single moment of organized sports to cover them well. It’s time to move past the tired, sexist notion that female sports journalists should be held to a higher standard than their male counterparts.