By Juliette Terzieff
Friday, September 15, 2006
Orlando, Fla., is a relative hotbed of female sports journalism, with women accounting for one-quarter of broadcasters' sports staff. Female journalists talk about working in a pocket of the industry that has made an effort to hire more women.
ORLANDO, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)--In few places have female sports journalists been able to burst into the locker room as they have here.
At the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, the city's largest circulation daily, women are 25 percent of the sports staff. Three women work as sports anchors on local television stations, amounting to 25 percent of that niche.
In both cases, the Orlando numbers are more than double the national average, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The institute's June report on more than 300 newspapers found that women make up an average of 13 percent of sports departments--sports editors, assistant editors, columnists and reporters--even though 40 percent of high school and university athletes are women. The national study, commissioned by the Associated Press Sports Editors, was the first of its kind.
Sentinel sports columnist Jemele Hill says Orlando may be more hospitable to female sports journalists because the area hosts few professional sports teams; when it comes to professional sports the city is home only to the National Basketball Association's Orlando Magic.
"News outlets can feel more comfortable breaking new ground when there isn't the intensity involved with a large concentration of professional teams," says Hill, the only black female sports columnist at a major U.S. newspaper found in the study. "Media needs to be creative, innovative, in that environment and to achieve that, you need diversity."
Richard Lapchick, who has prepared racial and gender report cards for college and professional sports leagues for 20 years and is co-author of the study of sports departments, said that local media have taken into account Orlando's diverse make-up when staffing their newsrooms.
"Orlando media decided a while ago to represent the diversity of the area and that's what needs to happen across the country," says Lapchick. "Sports is a culture that has been white male-dominated for decades and when it comes time to hire people the prevalence of the old boys' network shows itself."
Lapchick commended Associated Press Sports Editors, a group that represents most of the major U.S. dailies, for commissioning the study and "turning the mirror on themselves, which is a very positive first step towards addressing the issue."
Among the newspapers surveyed for the study, 90 percent have men as sports editors.
Broadcast journalism isn't faring any better. A 2002 study by the Washington-based Radio-Television News Directors Association and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., found that women were 8 percent of reporters and anchors.
"When you look at female athletes who are out there getting it done, accomplishing as much as the men, then at some point female sports reporters have to stop being a novelty, stop being questioned," says Denise Cullen, the 36-year-old sports anchor for Central Florida News Channel 13 and a 10-year veteran of sports broadcasting.
Female sports journalists cheered in August as one of their own, veteran journalist Lesley Visser, became the first woman to receive the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award.
As the first female NFL beat reporter, while working with the Boston Globe in the 1970s, Visser interviewed players in the parking lot because women were not allowed into the press box. Visser went on to become the first female sportscaster to carry the Olympic torch and, during the 1998-99 season, the first assigned to Monday Night Football, then broadcast on ABC.
In a recent column Hill called Visser an inspiration. "When you're a young girl that loves sports, people tend to look at you like a wayward experiment at Area 51," she said, referring to the government's mythical alien research facility in the Nevada desert. "Watching your stellar career as a broadcaster gave me hope that there was a place for women in sports journalism."
For Hill, who spent her childhood playing softball, collecting baseball cards and religiously reading the sports page every morning, there was never any doubt sports would be an important part of her life.
"The year the Detroit Tigers won the World Series I was 9, and it was the best summer of my life," says the 30-year-old Hill, who says her pioneering role at the Orlando Sentinel has sometimes made her a target for racist and sexist attacks.
"This job has put a bull's-eye on my back being black, female and young . . . Every day I am one of those three to somebody," says Hill, who admits to many sleepless nights following her acceptance of the Sentinel position in February 2005.
When Hill wrote this past summer about the similarity of doping charges leveled against Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and baseball star Barry Bonds, she remarked perhaps the larger benefit of the doubt being given to Armstrong might have something to do with his color. While the remark appeared in the second to last paragraph of the story, readers seized on it filling her voice and e-mail with vitriolic tirades. Many of the messages contained allegations that because Hill is a woman she "had a problem" with sports stars; others faulted her for promoting a "black" agenda.
For most newspapers male sports readers outnumber females by more than 2-to-1, according to Mediamark, a national multimedia audience research outfit. While more young girls are involved in sports than ever before, the Internet and television are more likely their outlets than newspapers.
"There's a high level of scrutiny associated, very little room for error. At the same time, there is a certain pressure of breaking new ground and the social responsibility of getting it right," says Hill.
Less than two years into the big leagues Hill has created a name for herself through such endeavors as "Riding With," a summertime series in which she interviewed players including the Buffalo Bills' Willis McGahee and the Orlando Predators' Doug Miller while riding in their private vehicles.
The series struck a chord with readers and Hill was inundated with hundreds of overwhelmingly favorable e-mails and letters.
"It's extremely important for women in sports to keep breaking new ground, reaching out," says Cullen, the TV sports anchor. "Progress is being made, but there are still those out there who don't like it and we have to keep fighting to get respect."
Cullen says being a female sports journalist today still means facing constant questions from male sports fans, and to a lesser extent, male colleagues and athletes.
"When I began my career I had to prove myself in a way that male counterparts didn't have to," says Cullen. "And I still get guys asking me to name the first Super Bowl champions."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the Lo