Sports Journalism and the double X factor

Charlotte was bustling around the green room at the Hockey Night in Canada studio when it happened. As a program assistant at HNIC, it was part of her job to help prepare the group of male sports reporters, but this time was different.  As the men discussed a recent trade between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins, the longtime Leafs fan offered her opinion.

“I said it was a smart move for the team, and threw out some stats to make my case.” That’s when everyone stopped talking, she says, and stared at her in astonishment.  “Just because I have boobs,” adds Charlotte, (who is new to the industry and asked for her name to be withheld), “doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on!”

Sadly, such stories are familiar for many female sportscasters. While there is little data on the gender composition of newsroom sports departments, a 2005 survey from Ball State University found that only 7 per cent of local sports anchors and 10 per cent of local sports reporters were female. Indeed, most would be hard-pressed to peg the number any higher. But why are the numbers so low? Is sports journalism a hostile environment for women?

Certainly, the threat of sexual harassment is very real. A 1998 study into the job satisfaction of 89 U.S.-based female sports reporters, found almost half of the participants reported being sexually harassed at work, most often by athletes.

Charlotte was just a budding sports writer when she had one of her worst reporting experience. She was interviewing a football team’s quarterback when she noticed a group of players making sexual gestures toward her and yelling sexist slurs. “I felt violated,” she says.

Even at the professional sports level, horror stories abound. In 2009, ESPN’s Erin Andrews was standing on the sidelines shuffling through her notes when a linebacker came up behind her and started gyrating. And Suzy Kolber, a seasoned NFL reporter on ESPN, was interviewing former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath when he suddenly told her he wanted to kiss her.

The possibility of sexual harassment is enough to convince many female journalists, including me, to abandon their dreams of becoming a sports reporter. Charlotte, meanwhile, accepts sexual harassment as “par for the course,” but understands why many women switch from sports to news. “It’s tough on you,” she says.

Female sportscasters also face constant suspicions about their competence. Andy Rooney, a commentator on 60 Minutes, once said: “The only thing that really bugs me about television’s coverage is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” The statement was widely criticized, but it reflects an entrenched reluctance to accept female sportscasters.

Lee Boyadgen, a sports reporter at Rogers TV, agrees that female sports reporters aren’t granted the same respect as their male counterparts. She recounts how, while covering a high-profile hockey tournament, the players acted as if she wasn’t there: “They thought they didn’t have to answer my questions because I’m a woman.”

Charlotte became so frustrated with the doubting looks from sources that she joined a hockey team. She figured being involved in a sport would earn her some credibility. It’s not clear whether the tactic is working, but Charlotte is sure about one thing: as a woman, “You have to work your way up from below zero in this industry.”

A 2003 study by Smucker, Whisenant and Pederson found that while women can enter sports journalism with relative ease, promotions are sparse. That means many women are stuck in entry-level positions, like sideline reporting, while their male colleagues climb the ranks. In my opinion, this lack of opportunity suggests the industry is still very unwelcoming to women. It also helps explain why the average career span for female sportscasters is only 10 years.

Men are constantly offered leading roles in almost all of the major male sporting events. For example, they have a near monopoly on the two most highly coveted positions in sports broadcasting: play-by-play and colour commentary. To Charlotte that’s just not fair. “The men get to do the meat of the broadcasts,” she says. “And the women are expected to just moderate it and report on it.”

Charlotte believes that changing the culture of sports journalism starts with the networks. Hiring more women and giving them more opportunities for advancement will make women less of a novelty. This will prove to athletes, coaches and fans that women have the know-how to cover sports, and will make reporters less of a target for sexual harassment. Networks must question the attitude that sports are “for men, by men and about men.” In other words, they need to give women a sporting chance.

Paige Ellis is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University specializing in broadcast. She completed her undergrad degree in Honours English and Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2009, and graduated with an academic gold medal. She is currently interning at CBC News Network and has worked at the Kincardine News and the Bayshore Broadcasting Corporation. Find her online at