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Women and Sports Media: Where do females fit?

Sports and women have a historically shaky past. Prior to the 1890s, women weren’t allowed to ride bikes because medical experts perpetuated the idea that it was too dangerous for a woman’s health. But that didn’t curb the interest of women in the world of sports.

The bicycle boom in the late 19th century paved the way for women to gain more freedom in their dress and in their rights, and it was essentially sports and women’s first date.

Women and sports started going steady in the 1970s with the signing of Title IX, an amendment that requires equal educational opportunities for men and women and resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of women participating in sports. Now the pair is at the stage in the relationship where it’s time to move in together: women in sports media.

Women were originally shut out of locker rooms, and therefore not given the opportunity to establish their credibility as sports journalists. In 1979, the Yankees were convicted of discrimination for this fact. Once allowed in locker rooms, it didn’t get much better. Paola Boivin was tormented in the St. Louis Cardinals locker room in 1985, but the investigation found no truth to her statements, despite many witnesses.

The relationship has been rocky for women and sports, and there is still a ways to go. As a reporter for the flagship radio station for the Ohio State Buckeyes and Columbus Blue Jackets, 97.1 The Fan, Lori Schmidt, an Ohio University alum, is on the frontlines every day.

Photo: buckeye50.com

“We’re still underrepresented enough that what one woman does is viewed as reflecting on all of us,” Schmidt said. “Imagine if reporter John Doe made a mistake. Would there be any single member of the audience who thought, ‘Oh, that’s just because men don’t know sports.’ Or ‘They just put him on air because he has good hair and abs of steel.’”

It’s difficult for treatment and expectations to be equal when there is still underrepresentation. If there is differential treatment, it’s also harder to make changes. As Schmidt points out, if a woman is the sole female in the sports department, it’s impossible to show a pattern of discrimination by an employer.

According to a study done by the Associated Press Sports Editors in 2012, women make up 14.6 percent of sports newsrooms. This was low enough that APSE gave sports journalism an F rating for gender diversity.

The low number of women at sports stations is credited to what Schmidt feels is a bigger problem.

“There are many higher ups in the industry who won’t hire or promote a woman simply because they’ve never seen a woman do the job before,” Schmidt said. “In other words, before there was no belief in a woman’s capabilities. Today, there’s simply no ‘script’ for how to use a female sports journalist.”

Schmidt believes that discrimination is less overt today than in the past, but this hasn’t sheltered her from overt offenses. She began sports journalism in high school, where she did the televised morning sports announcements.

“One teacher asked his class as a bonus question on an exam to name ‘The Voice of Tiger Sports,’” Schmidt explained. “Everyone got it right, with one exception: There was one student who named the guy who had filled in for me… once, explaining that girls can’t do sports.”

This kind of reaction didn’t necessarily stop in high school.

“When covering the NHL draft in Columbus, I was asked by a reporter from New York if I knew anything about hockey,” Schmidt said. “By that time, I’d covered the Blue Jackets for six years. Bottom line? I’m fairly confident he wouldn’t have asked a male reporter the same question in that situation.”

But the lack of women in the newsroom and presence of subtle discrimination shouldn’t be mistaken for stagnant progress. There are still more women in sports newsrooms today than ever before. CBS Sports announced that it will be starting a new all-female show “We Need to Talk.”

The implications from this show are promising but the limitations unmistakable. The title jokes off of a potentially sexist concept; “We Need To Talk” plays off the idea of women nagging men.

The controversy around women and sports journalism hasn’t impacted the outlook of younger generations. Morgan Overby is a broadcast journalism student at Ohio and is passionate about sports. She has nothing but enthusiasm for the state of women in the industry.

“I have role models and idols who I can look up to, not only in broadcast journalism, but also in print,” Overby said. “I don’t think that’s something young women like myself could have said 15-20 years ago. “

An NFL fan can’t turn on Sunday games without seeing women. Having valid role models is something that should not be overlooked. Growing up with no one like oneself in a profession can be extremely discouraging. These women are making strides for not only the presence of women in sports but the expectations as well. Journalists such as Rachel Nichols, Jemele Hill and Tracy Wolfson are just an example of some of the sports mainstays with a thorough knowledge and solid reputation.

Overby works for WOUB Public Media at Ohio. She is responsible for hosting and producing the Bobcat Sports Showcase, a weekly program featuring short video segments on various Ohio sports. This means Overby must not only be knowledgeable of all Ohio sports, but she must also manage and organize a team of men and women.

She thinks all of these women are proof of the changing dynamic of sports journalism not only because of the increased number, but also because of sheer talent.

“I work alongside a lot of women and I can honestly say there is not one who is thought of as ‘just the pretty face,’” Overby said. “There are even some who are more knowledgeable about sports than some of the guys, and I don’t think they would be afraid to admit that.”

A large part of the development for women in the realm of sport is due to Title IX. Title IX was passed in 1972 by Richard Nixon and wasn’t intended to directly impact sport. The legislation itself never says anything about sports, athletics and recreation. The original intention pertained to educational activities.

Regardless of its intention, the impact has been undeniable. According to ESPN W, before the amendment in 1971-72, there were 294,015 women in sport, and by 2009-10, there were 3,172,637. This was largely due to the fact that athletic programs, because of the amendment, are required to have the number of female and male athletes be directly proportional to the students enrolled in the school. Women’s increased involvement in sport without a doubt paved the way for women to break into the employment side as well.

While the inequality still present in the locker room has resulted in some overt offenses for Schmidt, not all differential treatment has meant been discrimination.

“Jim Tressel used to give me the last question at every press conference, because ‘Mom taught me a woman’s always going to have the last word,’” Schmidt said.

Schmidt also has Twitter followers that defend her with their kind words.

“I might not have received the same tweets if my name was say, Larry Schmidt,” Schmidt said.

In order to make progress, Schmidt thinks genuine work ethic needs to be the difference maker.

“The very best way to convince the audience that women have a legitimate role in sports is to do your job well,” she said.  

As an up and coming journalist, Overby feels the same.

“I think the only real way for women to break down those barriers is to do really great work that just can’t be ignored,” she explained.  “If that happens, I think women will start being considered for much more ‘serious’ roles.”

With any relationship, there are going to be ups and downs. Women have made tremendous progress since the days of corsets, but there is still a ways to go until sports and women can look towards marriage. Acceptance of transition will be key, but no good things were ever born without a little change.


Photo: indiewire.com

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