Today, when Katie Couric is anchoring the CBS Evening News and women in authority are everywhere, from the Supreme Court to CEOs and police chiefs, it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about with women sports reporters.
In the early 1970’s, there was plenty of angst and even open hostility as women and girls, all over the United States, began challenging thousands of long-time legal and cultural barriers to opportunity -- from education and employment to credit and legal rights.
Sports was one key arena for change.
As a TV news reporter from 1973 to 1977, I covered the birth of equal sports opportunities in education for girls. But it wasn’t easy, and it took many courageous girls and women, insisting – school by school, team by team – on rights the 1972 Education Act said they should have, but often did not. I personally witnessed parents jeering at middle school girls trying out for the boys track team, because there was no team for girls. Title IX said the girls had a right to run, but some parents feared their sons might be psychologically damaged if a girl happened to beat them.
I saw brave, grade school girls trying out and making Little League baseball teams, despite hostile coaches. I’ll never forget the story of the coaches who, realizing it was illegal to keep qualified girls off the team, decided to require all their players to wear athletic cups.
With few organized sports opportunities for girls in our nation’s schools, women sports reporters were practically unheard of. Most worked for newspapers and many used gender-neutral bylines. Teams routinely refused women journalists the same locker room access that male reporters had to interview players before and after games. This put women at a significant competitive disadvantage. Finally, Sports Illustrated and reporter Melissa Ludtke sued the New York Yankees who had banned her from interviewing players during the 1977 World Series.
What was to be the precedent setting case was working its way through the courts when I was hired by the CBS affiliate, in December of 1978, to cover sports in Detroit, one of the top sports markets in the country. I told my father, a veteran sports broadcaster and former president of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association, “Dad, if I take this job, I have to go into the locker rooms.” Without hesitation, he responded, “Absolutely, you’ll have no credibility if you don’t.”
Gail Granik, who eventually went on to ESPN when the sports network was created, was also hired to do sports at the NBC affiliate at almost the same time. Initially, we were both denied access to nearly all of the professional and college team locker rooms, with the exception of the Detroit Express Soccer Team.
The breakthrough came just a few months later, in April 1979.
Just a few days before the opening of baseball season, the NY Circuit Court decision ruled that the New York Yankees were guilty of discrimination. It was a precedent setting decision that gave teams all over the country a choice: either open the locker room doors to all credentialed reporters, regardless of gender, or keep all reporters out.
Within days, professional teams all over the country began re-evaluating their policies.
But that was just the beginning. It is one thing for a policy to change; it is another thing entirely to stand up to individual teams, locker room guards, and the tension and sometimes open hostility often waiting on the other side of the doors for women journalists who dared to enter the inner sanctum. I had to expect to be tested by players and coaches who found cultural changed forced upon them. And I was. I like to describe the many incidents as “defining moments.” Even my father felt the pressure of some sports writers who feared his daughter would “ruin locker room access” for everyone.
My father’s role as the greatest possible mentor for a young woman sports broadcaster was pivotal during a very challenging time.
Gradually, the athletes got used to the guard giving them a 2-minute warning by calling out, “Anne’s coming in, get ready!” Some grabbed towels some didn’t. But they had the chance to make the choice. I was an unwelcome interloper. It was up to me to act professionally, do my job well, and let my on-air work speak for my own ability, and that of future women journalists, to cover sports well.
Football seemed to be the most difficult environment for women sports journalists. As late as 1990, a watershed moment for women sports journalists occurred with the New England Patriots. Lisa Olson, a Boston Herald reporter, was taunted and accosted by naked players making lewd comments and gestures. For all of my years covering the Detroit Lions, they absolutely refused to allow me to enter their locker room and insisted on bringing players to me in a small conference room. If my station, WJBK-TV, CBS Detroit, had chosen to legally challenge the ban, there is no doubt the Lions would have been forced to end the discriminatory policy.
Michigan State and University of Michigan football were also tough. It was not unusual for coaches to block my path, such as the U of M assistant coach who told me after one game, "Lady, your rights end where that door begins."
Laws can change overnight. But attitudes and social behavior take more time. That work is done, day by day, team by team, incident by incident. There were many defining moments that women sportscasters around the country faced as they pushed past one more barrier. Some of the most blatant sexist attacks made national headlines; many more occurred quietly as women sports journalists refused to go away.
Steadily, we earned our stripes and built credibility with players and fans. Today, growing numbers of women sports journalists and broadcasters are making their marks, although it remains very challenging turf.
For more history and perspective on how women are doing in the field today, here is a terrific article from the American Journalism Review.
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