Women Sportswriters Confront New Issues

By Smith, Claire | Nieman Reports, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Women Sportswriters Confront New Issues


Smith, Claire, Nieman Reports


No longer focused on locker room access, work and family challenges prevail.

The sports world, which likes its entertainment untainted by real-world issues, seldom accepts progress without a prod. Its participants, frighteningly disconnected from the world around them, too often don't even realize the currents, issues and changing times roiling society.

This is why I had to smile at the way in which a handful of black baseball players wrestled with baseball's record of intolerance after Al Campanis exposed the game's dirty little mindset on race in 1987. Campanis, then the General Manager of the Dodgers, shocked the sports world by opining on national television that blacks lacked "the necessities" to hold certain management positions much the way they lacked buoyancy, ergo no black Johnnie Weismullers.

The '87 season that was to serve as a placid but benign celebration of Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier was awash with controversy from day one. This much I knew as I stood in a major-league baseball stadium waiting to begin my sixth year covering the New York Yankees for The Hartford Courant.

Dave Winfield, the Yankees' all-star right fielder and future Hall of Famer, called to me prior to the season opener. Whispering conspiratorially, Winfield--an African-American--informed me that he and the other black players on the team had been discussing the Campanis incident when they reached what apparently was a startling conclusion. The players realized, Winfield said, that not only was I a woman, but African-American as well! The newly discovered distinction would assuredly earn for me a greater degree of cooperation from "the brothers," not to mention a scoop or two, Winfield declared with great solemnity and solidarity.

I had to smile. For the first time ever, being African-American had finally overshadowed my other lonely outpost: standing sentry as one of the few women reporters to work in the major-league press boxes. In 1987, there were precious few women covering major-league baseball; you could count them on one hand. When I left the national baseball beat in 1998, my departure brought the number of women holding that job to zero. However, women in increasing numbers do cover Olympic sports, college athletics, tennis and men's and women's basketball.

I have never claimed to be in the first wave of either African-Americans or women to cover professional team sports in America. Wendell Smith, Sam Lacy and other members of traditionally African-American news organizations started the long, torturously slow journey from the colored sections of the bleachers to the press boxes the moment Robinson took the lead on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As for women, the walls came tumbling down in the 1970's when the courts agreed with the contention that professional sports teams had no right to deny women journalists equal access. Pioneer reporters such as Mary Garber had covered sports for decades while handicapped by arcane rules limiting their contact with male athletes. Syndicated columnist Elinor Kaine and Melissa Ludtke of Sports Illustrated were the first to successfully argue for their right to walk through locker room doors in order to fully do their jobs. Tracy Dodds, Diane K. Shah, Jane Gross, Melanie Hauser, Mary Schmidt followed, trailblazers who, like Robinson, changed perceptions in the workplace and in life in extraordinary fashion just by insisting they be treated in ordinary but fair fashion.

Today, there are by some counts well over 500 women working in the once male-dominated worlds of sports media as well as for pro teams, leagues and sports-related industries, though still relatively few of these women are beat reporters covering major league teams. Each year hundreds attend the national convention of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM), which was founded in 1987.

The fact that women have come of age in these traditionally male industries isn't so much seen in the fact that an organization such as AWSM exists, but rather that locker room access (and the attitudes and behavior of the athletes) is no longer the dominant subject at AWSM gatherings. …

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