Alison Gordon is telling me a story. She is telling me of the time between 1979 and 1983 when she covered the Blue Jays for The Toronto Star, which made her the first female baseball writer in the major leagues. When you are a writer and cover a major league team for a daily, she says, you belong to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. And on Gordon’s membership card, right above where her name appeared, was the title “Mr.” “One late night,” remembers Gordon, “I was on a charter flight full of baseball writers—who all got pretty drunk, I must say—coming from Baltimore. I went up to the head of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, this ancient New York guy, and I said to him, ’When are you going to take the Mister off of my membership card.” He gripped both arms of his seat and said, ’Never!’”
Never. In 1981, when she first started in television, Teresea Hergert (now Kruze) thought she would never be able to work in sports journalism because women weren’t allowed. Now she is going into her 11th year reporting and seventh year anchoring sports for TSN. After graduating from Conestoga College 16 years ago, Brenda Irving was told, “Sorry, no women,” and thought it would never change. She has been covering sports since the late eighties and now reports for CBC Newsworld. While still in high school, Rosie DiManno recalls writing a letter to then Star sports editor Jim Proudfoot, expressing her desire to write about sports. At the time, it seemed an improbable goal.
Without a doubt, since Kruze, Irving and DiManno dreamed, women sports reporters have gained yards on the gender field: today, most television stations and newspapers have at least one full-time female sports reporter. But while many of the women in sports journalism believe they still have a long distance to go before being completely accepted in the sports industry as equals, others see sports journalism as an area where women are never going to be comfortable and where there is not much more they can—or should—do about it. Just because they’re all women doesn’t mean everyone is playing on the same team.
How many female sports journalists are there in Canada? Mariah B. Nelson, former professional baseball player, coach and award-winning author of The Stranger Women Get, the More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports, has estimated that less than 10 percent of sports reporters in North America are women, but no one seems to have broken out numbers for Canada. However, an informal survey of the 10 top Canadian dailies indicates that of the 116 sports reporting staff, 8.6 percent are women.
Alison Gordon doesn’t find this scarcity surprising. “There was one female sports-writer at the Star when I was there and there is still only one female sportswriter [Mary Ormsby], who does a column,” she says. Barb DiGiulio, a broadcaster at 640 The Fan, a Toronto all-sports radio station, is also pessimistic. “I think that there is still a lot of learning to be done. People have to get over the idea of man and woman and just look at their person as who they are.” However, Teresa Kruze feels that female sports reporters are accepted a lot more now than they were n the mid-eighties and that their status will continue to improve. “I equate where female sports journalists are right now with where female news broadcasters were in the seventies,” she says. “Now, you can’t watch a news program without there being a male and a female anchor, and most of the reporters are females. It’s going to take us a few years, but I find more and more women are coming into the industry.” Brenda Irving, sports reporter and anchor for CBC Newsworld, also believes women have scored some victories: “For the first time, a lot of women in sportscasting who have been doing it for a while know they’ve been hired because they are good, not because they are women.”
The odd thing is, most of the women now involved in sports reporting have been there for quite a while, women like Christie Blatchford, Mary Ormsby and Terri Leibel, who prides herself on having become the first woman to host a national sports program on TSN in 1984. So where are the rookies, the new female sports reporters! “I don’t think people are opening doors for them,” says DiGiulio. “I think they are having to push the doors open.” But she does acknowledge that the reception on the other side is a bit warmer than it once was. “The way the world is now, you can’t say, ’Well, that’s ridiculous, Miss, I don’t want you to be in sports.’”
Laura Mellanby, a supervising producer a CTV Sports, believes that opportunities for women interested in sports journalism do exist. CTV is open-minded, she says. “There are a lot of females working here, but I probably would not have received the same opportunities as TSN.” Nevertheless, she feels that the status of women and sports is changing: “In preceding years, it was not part of a Canadian female’s day-to-day culture to read the sports pages.” In addition, when Mellanby was growing up, “There were no on-air women in sports journalism.” Mary Ormsby, full-time sportswriter for the Star for 16 years, ascribes part of the problem to new female writers simply not being seasoned enough. “People have come in here and said, “I’m just out of university and I’d like to work for The Toronto Star,’” she says. “It’s like, ’Oh sure, just drop in.’ Maybe you should get a little bit better first.”
Still, it was because she was a “young chick” and it was a “hot time to have a young chick writing sports” that Christie Blatchford ended up in The Globe and Mail’s sports department between 1976 and 1979. Blatchford joined The Toronto Sun in 1982, and while she no longer does sports regularly there, she has covered every Olympics since the 1988 Calgary Games and reports on the Grey Cup and hockey playoffs if the Leafs are involved. She attributes the death of women to a lack of interest. “My sense is there’s not a huge number of women who want to become sportswriters who are beating down the doors and being denied because of systemic discrimination.” Then shouldn’t they be encouraged to develop an interest in sports? “Is the world going to be a better place if there are more women sportswriters? I don’t’ think so,” says Blatchford. “Nothing much has changed since I first did it in 1973, but I’m not sure that things should change.”
When women first started covering sports, resistance from their male colleagues and athletes certainly was common. Barb Ondrusek, an anchor and reporter for the CBC since 1990, remembers her experience covering the World Series in the early nineties. “I was the only woman in the press box. Every time I went to sit down, the male sportscasters would act like little kids and say. ’Sorry, my friend is coming and this seat is saved.’ I asked about three times and three times it was no. After that I thought, ’I’m going to stand, I’m not going to make a fool of myself begging for a seat.’”
Alison Gordon recalls how night editors would see mistakes in her copy and not correct them. “Early on, most of the people were on the side of the guys who didn’t get the job I did.” But there was also some support. She remembers her first road trip to Texas, where Blue Jays were playing. A few days earlier, in New York, a female reporter, had tried to go into the Texas Rangers’ dressing room to talk to a player. The manager had announced during spring training that their clubhouse was closed to all writers, but had not enforced this policy until the female reporter came along, two weeks into the season. Gordon was travelling with the Blue Jays, who were playing the Texas Rangers, and the world was waiting to see what would happen.
“When I went to the ballpark, there were all these cameras expecting me, and I was thinking, ’Texas, ugh, all these rednecks, this couldn’t be any worse.’ The first sportswriter I saw was a guy named Randy Galloway, who was wearing jeans and cowboy boots and spitting tobacco. I started my pregame stuff and he walked up to me and said, ’You Alison Gordon?’ and I said, ’Yes, I am.’ ’You plan on trying to get into the locker room after the game?’ ’It depends on the game and whether I need to get in there or not.’ He looked at me and said, ’Well, I just wanted to tell you as far as we’re all concerned, we’re on your side.’” The Rangers did win, and Gordon did get into the locker room with the support of the Texas colleagues, who also slammed the Rangers in three Texas dailies for their actions.
Unfortunately, Neanderthal behaviour is still common in the sports world. “I think there’s a chauvinism in sports that is apparent to anyone who is around it, especially when women reporters might be dealing with male athletes,” says Roy MacGregor, sportswriter for The Ottawa Citizen. “There is a level of immaturity—whether it’s verbal or not being given access to the areas that male journalists are, or whether it is a psychological barrier that goes up.” But when they get past that barrier, women journalists often get more out of an athlete than a male reporter can, and the result is, some believe, better journalism. “I will ask questions that other reporters don’t because they think people will see them as a wimp,” says Barb Ondrusek. MacGregor agrees: “Women journalists have brought so much more of a professional attitude toward sports journalism and have made male sports journalist better journalist and that needed to be done—still needs to be done.” Brenda Irving identifies another advantage women may have. “A lot of men get defensive when other men are around,” she says. “And sometimes they are in awe of the athlete. Women don’t care.”
What they do care about is being taken seriously by the public—and sometimes that is hard. As Teresa Kruze recalls, “I was told by my boss when I began at TSN than my credibility relied on my being 100 percent correct all the time. He said if I made a factual or statistical error, my credibility would be immediately out the window. A man would be forgiven for that because he was just having an off day. A woman will not be forgiven for anything.” Barb DiGiulio compares it with being in a fishbowl: “You’re watched an listened to so much more carefully. In the beginning I felt that people were waiting for me to make mistakes, and as soon as I made one, the phone would ring 10 times.” Mike Day, supervising producer of news and information at TSN, has a different explanation for the close scrutiny. “Statistically or proportionally or however you want to put it, more men have an interest in or a love for lots of different sports and athletes, and as a result they have a bit of an edge in that they come to the table with more knowledge. But I’ve worked with a few women,” Day concedes, “who know every bit as much about sports as men and it shows.”
The credibility problem may be one reason why some women sports journalists are still stuck in the pink ghetto of synchronized swimming, gymnastics and other “soft” sports. “The safe palce you can put a young woman is where she can’t cause too much damage and cover the crap that no one else wants to cover,” says Mary Ormsby, explaining the attitude behind such assigning practices. Teresa Kruze has experienced this at TSN: “There have been times where I felt they haven’t given me professional big-name sports to cover. “I’m given women’s hockey, not men’s, I’m given sports like lawn bowling, whereas my male counterparts are getting the big-name sports.” Roy MacGregor thinks the problem may be more about seniority than credibility. “We’re talking demographics here, and since these additions [of women sports reporters] were made late—they should have been made a lot earlier—guess who gets the worse beat or the least significant beat?”
So are Teresa Kruze, Barb Ondrusek and other female sportscasters mere tokens? In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a female sports journalist was certainly a novelty. “Token” was even the word Alison Gordon chose for her computer password when she was reporting for the Star. Today, Laura Robinson, a former Olympic-class bicycle racer and now a freelance sportswriter whose work has appeared in the Globe and Toronto’s NOW magazine, thinks that tokenism is still a problem. She strongly believes that many female broadcasters, particularly the ones who do nothing but read scores, function as cheerleaders, not journalists. “If you’re going to recite scores, then there’s limited talent involved,” Robinson says. “Most of the time that is what female sportscasters are doing, and then they banter back and forth with the weatherman.” Damien Cox, a sportswriter for the Star since 1989, agrees that talent is something hard to find within sports journalism in general, and believes it may be even more difficult when it comes to women reporters. “Mary Ormsby is to a certain degree an exception,” he says. “She is supremely qualified and we need more people like her. Some of the women in sports journalism don’t measure up to the same degree of excellence and in that area women have a long way to go. There are some that are already there, but we need more.”
But are female sports reporters really in demand in the industry? Globe sports columnist Stephen Brunt thinks so. “there are not enough females in the system to fill the demand,” he says. “If there were two equally qualified people for a position, a man and a woman, the woman would be hired.” Brunt also believes that “most of the real old-school dinosaurs are gone” and that “the world of sports journalism has changed dramatically in the last five years.”
Why, then, is the number of women applying for positions in sports journalism not higher? Are women intimidated? Or are they simply just not interested? If they are not interested, then why should the rules of the boys’ club change? “There are at least as many women in the Sun newsroom—working reporters editors—at any given time and there’s not sexism problem,” says Christie Blatchford. “But the numbers aren’t the same in sports. When the numbers are the same, then the world will change. Until then, it’s not going to and I don’t think the numbers are ever going to catch up, so then I would say to you, why the fuck should the sports world change to suit half a dozen women? It probably shouldn’t.”
Veterans like Alison Gordon believe the sports world will never change. But if women are interested in working in sports journalism, even if they are considered what Mary Ormsby calls “strange animals,” shouldn’t the option exist? It does hold that women working on the sports side still have many hurdles to get over. But perhaps their greatest hurdle is fear. “I don’t know what people are afraid of,” says Ormsby. “Having women in their sports department is not a bad thing. People have to get that through their heads. It is not a bad thing for sports.”