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Disdain of Spain Falls Mainly on This Brain

women in sports reportingOne of the many amazing aspects of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is that it allows you to make enemies of people whom you have never met. I seem to have succeeded in that regard this week, and I thought that my experience might provide a valuable lesson for all of us.

The person in question? ESPNW writer and ESPN 1000 radio personality Sarah Spain, who is based in Chicago. The topic: women in sports broadcasting.

Before we proceed, let me reiterate that I have never met Sarah Spain and from everything that I have learned, she and her parents have much about which to be proud. She is an alumna of Cornell and a former college heptathlete. I don’t take issue with her bona fides, but only with the manner in which she presented her points in this story:

Spain’s primary point, if I may be so bold, is that men need to get over their misogynistic refusal to accept women as credible voices in sports media. She cites four common excuses that she has heard:

  1. “She is inherently incapable.”
  2. “She isn’t qualified to comment.” (which sounds a little like No. 1)
  3. “She never played in the league.” (which sounds a little like No. 2)
  4. “She is butting in on bro time.”

I agree with Spain. Even when men don’t specifically say why they do not like listening to a woman speak sports, much less watch a woman play sports, you can probably use one of the aforementioned (“four mentioned”) reasons to qualify their obstinance. And she even gets off a great line, in response to a male radio host who doubts that a female radio host could handle four hours of callers, when she writes, “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.”

My issue with Spain’s story is not her theme. It’s with two aspects of the story that are buried within. First, she opens her essay by describing a blind date whose metrics, as she writes, made him seem “perfect for me — an Ivy League graduate, tall, funny, ambitious and into sports.”

In other words, Spain was predisposed to like this potential suitor based on a set of traits that he possessed. She attributed those traits to the whole before meeting him. As Spain herself later informs us, his chauvinism and boorishness failed to win him a second date (I’d be surprised if they got much past drinks from the way she tells it).

In much the same way, men are predisposed to not accept women as sports media hosts. At least not on the whole. It is not fair, but then they are no more guilty of associating a set of traits with an individual’s actual character/ability than Spain was before her date.

We will come back to that.

My second problem with her story: Stop whining. The people who will support Spain for this story are the same people who are already on her side. You are attempting to write a persuasion article, but there is no better way to persuade men that you are worthy than to simply be worthy. Show me a person who says, “I’m funny, you know” and I’ll show you someone who’s not funny. You know?

Let’s be honest: Men are (often) jerks. There is a huge contingent of us who simply refuse to watch women’s basketball, and when you ask us why the answer is, “They can’t dunk.” As someone who has written a book on women’s college hoops, my reply is usually, “That’s exactly why you should be watching it.

In my experience as a sportswriter, I have come across, I believe, three types of males when it comes to interacting with female sports on-air personalities: 1) the hoary troglodyte, who loathes women and whose sexist rants against them often seem darkly personal. The image of such types is of a man who considers New Balance designer shoes and who has not seen his toes in a decade. The last woman he saw naked or scantily clad was likely dancing to Poison’s “Cherry Pie.” 2) The obsequious suck-up, who surrenders all objectivity when in the presence of a female reporter because he can’t believe she is actually speaking to him. It’s like watching an endless reel of “Freaks and Geeks.” 3) The silent majority, of which I like to think I am a member, who accept that almost every female on-air reporter is hard-working –most work harder than their male counterparts because they know that they are being scrutinized – while we remain somewhat skeptical as to why some of them were hired in the first place. I have a word to describe this third group: sane.

Again, let’s be clear. Looks and/or vanity are not only part of the female domain. Howard Cosell, arguably the most important sports broadcaster of the 20th century, wore a toupee. Bob Costas – I have this from the most solid of sources – has had work done on his eyes and most likely touches up that hair color some. As do Al Michaels and Dan Patrick. Jesse Palmer and David Pollack are smart enough, but they are also incredibly good-looking dudes. There may be other ex-college football players who could provide better insights, but they may also be balding and overweight.

Kirk Herbstreit is both hyper-intelligent, reasoned, and studly. Some people have it all.

The inherent problem for women as on-air sports reporters occurs at the intersection of beauty and talent. If I Google Jenn Brown or Lisa Dergan or Allie LaForce or Jill Arrington or Melanie Collins or Heidi Watney or Lisa Guerrero or – are you beginning to see part of the problem? – or if I even go back to the progenitor (progenitress?) of sports media babes, Phyllis George, I can find a photo of them either posing in a bikini for a photo shoot or competing in a beauty pageant, or both.

Earlier this week Miss LaForce, 24, who was her high school’s valedictorian, played Division I college basketball at Ohio and who has worked her way up the rungs via honest, hard work, tweeted to me that “women are FIRST sexualized by men, then taken seriously.”

Miss LaForce was also Miss Teen USA 2005 and the first photo of her that appears when you Google her name is her in a yellow bikini and high heels. So, yes, it’s a beauty pageant. But if you enter a pageant willingly and accept the attention and opportunities that come along with that, you better at least be willing to acknowledge that it was you who first opened the door for men to envision you first and foremost based on your sexuality.

In short, there is an awful lot of disingenuousness going on amongst the “Yes, we can” crowd in women’s sports broadcasting.

True story: Winter of 2001 and Playboy.com decides to stage a “Hottest Female Sports Reporter” contest. Many of the women who are involved complain publicly about being objectified and insist that their looks are just one aspect of who they are. Most remind us that they have no control over what Playboy.com is doing and that they resent the concept.

At the time I am the media writer at Sports Illustrated. I phone the Playboy.com editor who is staging the contest and he laughs about the complaints. Most of the women’s agents, he informs me, have sent him alternative photos of their clients for him to use so as to present them more impressively. He goes on to name which females did this.

I won’t name those women here, other than to note that when we planned to run this, a representative of one of the women phoned my editor to tell him that was a lie. I won’t tell you who that was other than to say that her name rhymes with “Summer Sanders.” Alas, I was traveling that day, my editor was unable to reach me in time for it to be verified, and this female bastion of credulity was spared.

The following day, too late for our issue, the Playboy.com editor faxed me a copy of the letter from this woman’s agent to him insisting that he use the photos he was sending. It was not a lie.

A couple of weeks ago, the top female sports broadcaster I know of, Mary Carillo, did a live stand-up from Pretoria in the wake of the Oscar Pistorius debacle. Carillo had spent a week with Pistorius in 2012 leading up to the Olympics. In the aftermath of the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, Carillo was reassessing her evaluation of the “Blade Runner.” Speaking to Matt Lauer on the Today Show, Carillo, who can switch from funny to poignant to poetic at the switch of a camera angle (perhaps because she herself is not one-dimensional), sounded a little bit…pissed off.

“I don’t like being spun,” she said.

In that moment, I loved her work even more than I already do.

I don’t like being spun. I don’t like that Katherine Webb can go from contacting A.J. McCarron on Twitter to girlfriend status to internet phenom to SI swimsuit model to “Splash” contestant to — who knows what’s next? – without anyone mentioning that all of this is based on the fact that the target demographic wants to (bleep) her. Sorry. That’s the truth.

I don’t begrudge her this moment. I don’t begrudge Jenn Sterger for cashing in on her internet celebrity, either. But there are solid female reporters in this business, women like Carillo and ESPN’s Kelli Naqi  and Linda Cohn who rose up through the ranks by de-sexualing themselves. By being judged solely on their work. And every time a woman enters their ranks armed with a Maxim photo shoot, all she does is compromise the overall perception of the group.

And, by the way, too many female sideline reporters in college sports – and you know who you are – flirt with coaches. That’s fine if it gets them to let their guards down some, but it’s unacceptable if it prevents you from doing your jobs.

A few years ago. ESPN’s Jenn Brown has a one-on-one sit-down with then Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. She asks him a tough question and Harbaugh just stares at her. Finally, he says, “Moving on…”

And she does. Let’s hope that Jenn Brown has learned from that moment. Let’s hope that the next time she finds herself in such a situation, that she challenges the person she is interviewing to answer the question. Because that’s her job.

If Jenn Brown had stood up to coach Harbaugh and said, “Sorry, that’s a valid question. Why won’t you answer it?” Well, that one moment would have gone so much further toward convincing me that women in sports deserve to be heard than a dozen columns such as the one Sarah Spain penned.

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