Underrepresentation of women in sports journalism
May 5, 2022
One of the most common questions female sports journalists get asked is: “What is it like to be a woman in sports?”
Many critics argue that analysts should be athletes who’ve played professionally. Based on this rationale, former female athletes should be broadcasting for fellow women’s sports. But this is not the case; coverage for female sports leagues, like the WNBA, is still dominated by men.
“I think that women should have priority to broadcast women’s sports,” said Lindsay Roth, a junior at Carlmont who’s an aspiring sports broadcaster. “Especially [former female athletes] should be given the opportunity to stay connected to the sport they love so much.”
The sports journalism industry suppresses female voices, which creates extreme underrepresentation.
History of women in sports journalism
“We’ve been living in a society where men are the dominant athletes, and that is shown off the field, too,” Roth said.
Progression for women in sports journalism didn’t start until the 1970s.
In the 1970s, media sessions were held in the team’s locker room for all sports except tennis. These locker rooms were men’s locker rooms where women were not allowed because they were seen as changing areas.
“It’s our view that it’s not a fair thing for our players,” said Bowie Kuhn, the former Major League Baseball commissioner, in an interview on GBH News. “This an area where they’re dressing [and] it’s an area where they’re entitled to some reasonable privacy.”
But access to the locker rooms was more than just about privacy.
“And to talk about nudity, if it had been an issue, I would have been allowed into the locker room before the games, in the pregame interviews, when the players were all in their uniforms,” said Melissa Ludtke, a former reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine, in an interview with GBH News. “But in fact, I was also banned then as well.”
The court case of Ludtke v. Kuhn altered the sports broadcasting landscape. Ludtke filed a civil rights action against Kuhn, American League President Leland MacPhail, and three New York city officials. The action fought to prevent the New York Yankees from enforcing a gender-based policy that prohibited female reporters from entering the team’s locker rooms.
Ludtke went on to win the case, and the court issued a ruling that forbade the enforcement of the gender-based policy surrounding locker rooms.
“It was a big deal because it indicated that the locker room is a workplace, and if male reporters can go in there, women reporters should be in there as well,” said Kerith Burke, a reporter who covers the Golden State Warriors for NBC Sports Bay Area.
The transition of women onto the screens hasn’t been easy. Since the beginning of sports broadcasting in the 20th century, the play-by-play announcers, color commentators, and sideline reporters have been almost all men.
Women made their first debut in sports broadcasting through sideline reporting.
“One of the rudest ways to put it is that it was an eye candy job,” Burke said. “Then when women had the opportunity, I think we showed we can really tell a story, and we can be the eyes and ears on a field or court.”
In 1984, Lesley Visser became the first female sideline reporter. She went on to be the first female color commentator on an NFL broadcast and the only sportscaster to be on broadcasts for the Final Four, the NBA Finals, the World Series, Triple Crown, Monday Night Football, the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Figure Skating Championships and the U.S. Open.
Disparities for women of color in sports journalism
For centuries, women of color have been faced with a battle for racial and gender equality. Especially female athletes of color, like Naomi Osaka and Sha’Carri Richardson, who’ve dealt with immense inequalities on the basis of their skin color.
“There still needs to be more opportunities for Black women, Latina women, Asian women, and all women of color,” Burke said.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) has conducted many studies on sports organizations’ efforts to encourage diversity and their success. One of their most recent studies is the 2021 Sports Media Racial and Gender Report Card: Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Racial and Gender Report Card. The report card includes information gathered from over 100 newspapers and websites covering sports.
According to TIDES, 14.4% of sports reporters are women, and of that 14.4%, around 28% are women of color. Females of color are highly underrepresented in this field, especially in relativity to the fact that women of color make up 50.8% of the female population in the United States.
“They’re dealing with the intersection of not just sexism, but racism as well,” Burke said.
In efforts to create more diversity, a policy named Affirmative Action was formed.
According to Cornell Law School, Affirmative Action creates better opportunities for underrepresented groups in society, including women and people of color. The policy is enforced on employers to ensure equal opportunity for recruitment, selection, advancement, and every other term and privilege associated with employment.
Despite its efforts, the implementation of Affirmative Action has been used as a punchline to denote the accomplishments of minorities in sports journalism.
“Stop embarrassing yourself and pretending to actually know anything about male sports,” wrote Charles Brown in an email to ESPN analyst Mina Kimes. “The only reason you’re at ESPN is due to affirmative action.”
Kimes is an award-winning Korean American journalist. She is a senior writer, podcast host, and television contributor for ESPN and is their only female NFL analyst. Her work has touched the lives of many Asian Americans and women of color alike.
“They’re excited to see themselves on TV and excited to see themselves represented in a way that’s different,” Kimes said on “With Friends Like These.”
Like Kimes, Jessica Mendoza is also inspiring the future generation of women. Mendoza is a Puerto Rican American broadcaster who is ESPN’s first female MLB analyst and the first woman to serve as an analyst for a nationally-televised MLB game.
Her hiring has been controversial, and her transition into color commentating for MLB games faced disapproval and negativity.
“Jessica Mendoza is the worst baseball announcer who has ever announced the game of baseball,” said Mike North on “Fox Sports Daybreak.” “If she was a man, she’d be [fired].”
Women of color, especially those who work in sports journalism, are met with criticism that often stems from their ethnicity or gender, which are aspects of themselves that they can’t control. Unlike their criticized male counterparts, who face backlash on their ability to analyze, commentate, and report on the game.
Future for women in sports journalism
Still, female sports journalists are breaking the glass ceiling, with numbers increasing steadily since 2018. More women are finding roles as sportswriters, in broadcasting booths, leadership positions, and more.
“I feel like it’s getting better for women,” Burke said. “I don’t look around a [media] room anymore and see that I’m the only one which is great.”
While the industry seems more tolerant, the journey to get there is still much more difficult than their male counterparts. In response, women have created a network in sports journalism to share stories, provide advice, learn from and help each other.
“There’s a cohort of women on the job, and I’ve discovered every single woman that I’ve met along my path has been supportive and helpful,” Burke said.
In 1987, the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) was founded to provide a network of support and an advocacy group for women in sports media. AWSM also offers a platform with scholarship and internship opportunities for students like Roth, who want to pursue a career in sports journalism.
Roth is an aspiring sports broadcaster who looks up to the talented women on the air today.
Qerim is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of the few female hosts on ESPN. She’s shown her audiences and the world that women can excel as sports journalists even on platforms dominated by men.
The future is bright for the next generation of women in sports journalism, and they have grown up watching remarkable, trailblazing journalists that have shown them the way.
“If we look at where women are today, we see a lot more of them in broadcasting than certainly in my day,” Ludtke said. “Now we see women off of the sidelines and going into the broadcast booths. That’s a big change.”