Women as sports analysts? Yes, we can
Years ago, when I was a young, single gal in Los Angeles, I was set up on a blind date. I was promised this guy would be perfect for me -- an Ivy League graduate, tall, funny, ambitious and into sports. Less than five minutes into the date, upon hearing I was an associate producer for a national nightly highlight show, he blurted out, "You're probably going to hate me for saying this, but I can't stand hearing women talk about football."
I bit my tongue, hoping somehow he'd save himself.
"I mean, even if a woman does know what she's talking about when it comes to football, which is rare, I still can't stand hearing a female voice talk about it."
Needless to say, there was no second date.Women have been reporting on sports for decades, yet there are still too many sports fans and, even worse, decision-makers, who believe women are incapable of performing some of the industry's highest-profile jobs.
While I was disappointed to see a cute, eligible guy spoiled by such antiquated views, it was more upsetting to know Doofus McGee wasn't alone in his thinking. Women have been reporting on sports for decades, yet there are still too many sports fans and, even worse, decision-makers, who believe women are incapable of performing some of the industry's highest-profile jobs.
Sideline reporting, reading highlights at an anchor desk, co-hosting a studio show -- people have come to expect and accept seeing women do these jobs. But it's still a rarity to see a woman host a sports-talk radio show or do play-by-play or color commentary for a men's pro game.
When it comes down to it, it's about being seen and not (really) heard.
The stereotypical male sports viewer is OK getting postgame scores and sideline updates from a woman -- he gets to admire her appearance while she provides some info he may or may not be listening to. But a radio host or a play-by-play announcer is rarely, if ever, seen on camera. The job is just about what's being said; all that matters is the content provided.
For some people, like my date so many years ago, hearing a woman talk sports is a reason to hit the "mute" button.
About a year after I joined ESPN 1000 in Chicago as the first daily female voice in more than a decade, a co-worker's relative said he fumed when I was hired. He said he complained every time he heard my voice for the first few months, until eventually he started actually listening and realized he liked my analysis. Usually people aren't as honest as he was. Unwilling to come right out and admit their biases against women, they instead come up with excuses to back up their disdain for a given broadcaster. Here are a few:
1. She is inherently incapable
Just a few weeks ago a prominent Atlanta sports radio host, Steak Shapiro, who boasts 20-plus years of experience in broadcasting, tweeted about the sports jobs he thinks women are qualified to do.
People a little agitated by my statement today that "Men simply don't want women as full time sports talk radio hosts. Fair or unfair?— Steak Shapiro (@SteakShapiro) February 26, 2013
When I say women hosting sports talk, mean taking calls on own on variety of topics 4 hours, there are lots of women great in our format.— Steak Shapiro (@SteakShapiro) February 26, 2013
Women tremendous writers, @JackieMacB my fav all time, sidelines @LauraOkmin and @JennBrown the best, but taking calls and driving shows?— Steak Shapiro (@SteakShapiro) February 26, 2013
@lindacohn is the best I've heard at it, Anita Marks total credibility, @MichelleDBeadle super talent, just tough full time job for ladies.— Steak Shapiro (@SteakShapiro) February 26, 2013
(If we're gonna generalize about gender, talking nonstop for hours and chatting on the phone is right in a woman's wheelhouse. But I digress.)
Is the crux of Shapiro's belief that women shouldn't be full-time sports radio hosts that somehow a woman's gender renders her incapable of loving, watching, learning about, debating and discussing sports like men do? Does he believe the chromosomal makeup of a person decides his or her ability to talk about people who make a living kicking, throwing, shooting or catching a ball?
There is nothing in the DNA of a woman that prevents her from understanding the Cover 2 or knowing which guy on the hometown squad should be batting cleanup. Your neighbor Bill who has never watched a football or baseball game in his life is not, in fact, more qualified to host a sports radio show than a sports-crazed woman with years of experience in the industry.
2. She isn't qualified to comment
Sunday night, I tweeted about how much I enjoy Doris Burke calling Bulls games for ESPN, pointing out that my long, circuitous path to sports writing and reporting may have been significantly shorter had there been more barrier-breaking women like Burke when I was younger.
While many people agreed Burke is a singular talent, others said they simply don't want to hear a woman call an NBA game, no matter her ability. Reasons ranged from "just cuz" to "she's not qualified."
@SarahSpain nothing against women but IMO she isnt good and they should not call mens sports #sidelinereportingonly— Kevin Winters (@k_dub30) February 26, 2013
@SarahSpain IMO Doris Burke is the worst commentator. I have the sound off. Talks way too much and no cred.— Mark Smith (@coachsmitty77) February 26, 2013
The questioning of "credentials" often comes into play when people criticize female analysts covering a men's game. The same rules don't seem to apply to men.
Burke played college ball at Providence College, where she was named the school's female athlete of the year and inducted into its hall of fame. She has been calling games for more than 23 years now -- women's college hoops since 1990, men's college hoops since 1996, the WNBA since 1997 and the NBA since 2000.
Unlike Burke, the following prominent, well-respected, male NBA play-by-play announcers never played a minute of college basketball: Marv Albert, Dick Stockton, Bob Costas, Mike Breen, Dan Shulman and Al Michaels.
3. She never played in the league
Some assert women should be allowed to call women's sports, but not men's. This argument depends on three major assumptions, none of which is true.
One, the game of basketball is fundamentally different when played by men. This is clearly false, as the game, whether played mostly below or above the rim, remains rooted in the same principles. Any differences in strategy that result from the size or speed of male players can be understood simply by watching enough games and breaking down tape.
Two, the best women players aren't physically capable of playing alongside the best men, so they won't be able to understand the game they're calling. This brings us back to the issue of "credentials." Just because Costas can't throw down a windmill jam (I assume) doesn't mean he can't comment on one.
Three, female broadcasters have never been in an NBA locker room with their teammates, so they can't possibly get into the heads of the players. Right back to where we were before: Many of the most beloved male announcers went straight from their high school paper to their college radio station to a television booth. Maybe there was a butt slap or two along the way from an especially enthusiastic editor, but I don't think that makes them uniquely qualified to dissect the goings-on in the Knicks' locker room.
4. She is butting in on bro time
Sports is a man's world and women shouldn't be butting in.
Get over it. Men have no more right to claim possession of sports than women do fashion and chick flicks. Marc Jacobs designs dresses and Nicholas Sparks penned "The Notebook"; a woman can call a damn basketball game.
Progress takes time
The overwhelming majority of people seem to believe sideline reporting is an appropriate job for a woman, likely because they've become accustomed to seeing women in that role. Women like Robin Roberts, Gayle Gardner, Andrea Kremer and Linda Cohn helped pave the way for women in the mostly male-dominated sports television world of the 1980s and '90s, turning heads when they first set out to report on sports. These days, sideline reporters are almost exclusively female, female studio hosts are commonplace and a female duo can anchor "SportsCenter" without anyone noticing. With women like Burke and Beth Mowins calling men's games and Anita Marks and Amy Lawrence hosting major-market and nationally syndicated radio shows, views may continue to gradually shift.
With any luck, the next generation of sports fans, which will grow up seeing and hearing women in every role, will be as nonchalant about a woman calling an NBA game as our current generation is about a woman doing sideline interviews at an NFL game.
Let's hope so.