Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Updated: August 7, 1:21 PM ET
Female reporters still fighting to earn proper respect
By Jemele Hill
As someone who has covered sports professionally for 11 years, I'd like to let you in on a little secret.
Other than a sewer, I can't think of a smellier, dirtier place than the locker room. Honestly, camels smell better.
But if you believe some folks -- specifically, a Midwestern columnist and a college football coach -- when women are in the locker room, we're imagining candles, rose petals and a four-poster bed while hoping some dashing male athlete will sweep us off our feet.
For years, women have fought hard to have the same access to locker rooms as men. So we can do our jobs.
Sadly, the gains female reporters have made were sabotaged last week after GateHouse News Service columnist Mike Nadel questioned the behavior and appearance of my ESPN colleague, Erin Andrews, in the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse and, separately, University of Miami coach Randy Shannon announced the Hurricanes' locker room will no longer be open after games because players were apprehensive of some female reporters from the student paper.
Nadel called Andrews out in a column for wearing racy clothing and being too chummy with players in the Cubs' clubhouse during the Milwaukee Brewers series last week. And this is how Shannon rationalized his decision to close the Canes' locker room: "Some young ladies are over in the locker room that they go to school with, that are, what you call, reporters also."
Professional leagues like the NBA, WNBA, NHL and NFL all have open locker rooms, but Miami was one of the few college programs that granted reporters access following games.
I find it hard to believe the same program that once was widely stereotyped as an outlaw operation is now cowering at the sight of women in the locker room.
Miami is being disingenuous. It's no secret that Shannon doesn't particularly enjoy the media-relations part of his job. Most coordinators love to talk to the media because the publicity helps them keep their names in the mix for future head coaching jobs, but when Shannon was the Canes' defensive coordinator, it seemed like he'd rather eat a sautéed chair than speak to the media.
Shannon is using women as a scapegoat. You would think that with the Canes going 5-7 last season and missing a bowl game, Shannon would want this once-premiere program covered as comprehensively as possible. Restricted access only hurts the team. Players want publicity, which also helps sway recruits.
The media needs locker room access because deadline constraints and the 24-hour news cycle have made it a necessity. After a game, a reporter may have only 20 minutes to gather quotes from players and file a story.
Theoretically, that story should give readers an accurate sense of what's going on with the team, and while the job can be done adequately without locker room access, that same reporter is far more likely to provide fans with a coveted insider's view if given that access.
Shannon and Nadel just energized old stereotypes about women in the locker room. As it is, female sportswriters have to work hard to be taken seriously by peers and fans.
I seriously doubt Nadel would have written his column if Andrews weren't attractive, which only means she has to work harder than most to gain professional respect. If you read Nadel's column, you would have thought Andrews came into the Cubs' clubhouse in a thong and stilettos. But her stylish sun dress was appropriate for a woman doing on-camera reporting.
Nadel complained that Cubs players were openly checking out Andrews, which would probably happen if she wore a burka and moon boots. Andrews can't control how players, coaches and fans respond to her looks. And maybe those players leering at Andrews should just grow up a little bit.
"At one point," Nadel wrote, "she placed her hand suggestively on Soriano's left bicep."
I'm not sure what to make of that, other than to say it sounds like something out of a Harlequin romance. I've been in plenty of locker rooms when male reporters -- both in TV and print -- have chitchatted, guffawed and small-talked with players before a game, and no one has dared call them unprofessional. In fact, some might call it building a rapport with sources. Sometimes a good way to disarm athletes and get them to relax is to talk with them when you don't need a quote. Asking players about their families and their interests outside of sports at least gives the impression you care about finding out who they really are. It's a technique I've used throughout my career. And while I can't recall the last time I grazed a bicep, I'm certain the contact was platonic.
"I'm no dummy," Andrews told me. "I know ESPN has millions of people that would love to take my job. I am replaceable. If the way I prepare and speak with athletes and managers were a problem, this would have been an issue before now."
Of course, there are female "journalists" who do fit Nadel's criticisms. Women with microphones and tape recorders aren't always saints. I've seen a few come to the locker room looking like they just stepped out of a Ludacris video. And I'm sure I wasn't the only female reporter who cringed after hearing that former Fox sports anchor Carolyn Hughes reportedly had an affair with Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe.
That kind of behavior is inexcusable, but it's certainly not commonplace in our profession. Most women I know are like Andrews -- professional, courteous, knowledgeable and determined to do a good job. We're not in the locker room to get dates, but information. Same as men.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.