In 1979, Alison Gordon went on her first road trip as a journalist covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star. The Jays had been good to her, the first woman to follow and report on the baseball team, but she wasn’t sure how other teams would react. At Arlington Stadium, during a game against the Texas Rangers, Gordon’s eyes were fixed on three Texas writers who she knew would be aiming to get the same story as she was. They all wore blue jeans and cowboy boots; one was chewing tobacco.

She thought to herself, “Oh, God. This is going to be a nightmare.” The reporters approached her, asking first if she was Alison Gordon. Then the inevitable:

“Are you planning on going into the locker room?” one of them asked.

“If the story’s there,” she replied.

“Well, I just wanted you to know that we’re right behind you.”

This display of solidaritycame as a welcome surprise, given that women sports journalists had only just earned the right to enter men’s locker rooms. Before 1978, women doing sports reporting faced a huge obstacle: they were generally restricted from entering the players’ locker rooms after games.

The turning point came after an incident in which a Sports Illustrated reporter, Melissa Ludtke, was denied access to the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series games. She was used to being kept out of locker rooms, but this was different-it wasn’t just informal discrimination at play; the baseball commissioner intervened to bar her. (Some flimsy reasons offered were that the players’ wives had not been consulted and their children would be ridiculed in school.) Ludtke’s editor saw the incident as an opportunity to try to solve what was then seen as a growing problem, given the number of women in the field not able to get the same story as their male counterparts. When talks with the commissioner’s office broke down, Ludtke and Time, Inc., the magazine’s publisher, launched a lawsuit against Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball for Major League Baseball, and Leland MacPhail, president of the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs.

This lawsuit was part of a broader struggle for women’s equality. A decade earlier, the second wave of the women’s movement emerged in Canada and beyond to challenge conventional gender roles and sexual stereo-types. Women demanded equal pay for equal work, increased opportunity for workplace advancement, paid maternity leave and the elimination of sexual harassment and exploitation. Early victories by women’s rights groups paved the way for groundbreaking discrimination suits, such as the one brought against baseball in the United States in the late 1970s.

Ludtke and Time, Inc. won the case on September 25, 1978, requiring the Yankees to find another way to maintain privacy. From this point on, accredited female sports reporters were allowed in male locker rooms for the purpose of interviewing athletes after games. The legal victory in the U.S. laid the groundwork for a cultural shift north of the border as well.

Sexism and discrimination didn’t end there, though. In a way, it was only the beginning. Over the next decade, women on the sports beat were commonly subjected to harassment from athletes reluctant to take down the “No Girls Allowed” sign. As of 2009, women are still the minority when it comes to sports reporting-according to the organization Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE), women hold just over 10 percent of all sports-related journalism jobs-but there is a new level of acceptance, despite the fact that sports journalism is still largely a boys’ club. So, what does it mean to be a woman in the still male-dominated world of sports reporting three decades after the locker room door swung open?

Mary Ormsby, veteran sports reporter for the Toronto Star, has seen it all. She began her career soon after graduating from Ohio State University in 1981. She didn’t plan to pursue sports writing, but fell into that path after her teacher received a panicked call one night from the Dayton Daily News and recommended Ormsby. A sports intern had suddenly bailed, leaving the Ohio paper in dire need of a replacement, and it specifically wanted to hire a minority to promote diversity. Having always loved sports, Ormsby took the offer and interned there over her first summer out of college. She was subsequently hired at the Toronto Sun on the sports beat before moving on to the Star, where she became one of Canada’s most respected sports journalists. Over the past 25 years, she has worked as a reporter, columnist and assistant sports editor.

Ormsby, now 49, began her career when women were new to the locker room and subject to varying levels of acceptance. The discrimination against women sports reporters in the early days was sometimes brutal. At 27, Ormsby was one of the first women to report from the locker room of a Canadian Football League team, and she experienced this harsh reality first hand.

In 1987, following a Toronto Argonauts preseason game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, harassment in the dressing room of the visiting team got way out of hand. Ormsby recounted her worst experience of abuse to the RRJ in 1988: “I came downstairs, and as soon as I walked into the Ticats dressing room, it exploded,” she said. “Players were calling me a fucking slut, fucking cunt, fucking whore, and were performing mock rapes and masturbating themselves. The whole thing went on for 12 or 13 minutes.”

She managed to conduct her interviews and file her story, but she was livid, and ended up writing a personal column in the Star exposing what had happened. She wrote, “The assimilation of women into the intimacy of the dressing room has progressed so far that incidents of boorish, verbal abuse from athletes that used to be the norm are now the exception. And the exceptions seem to belong exclusively to certain Canadian Football League clubs, whose behaviour is right out of the Stone Age. Wake up, this is 1987!” She was so distraught that in her piece she also called on the CFL’s league office to help put such behaviour to an end.

These types of situations just don’t happen anymore, says Ormsby, making it strange for her to even think that this form of harassment once existed. “One day, it just sort of stopped,” she says. Call it evolution. New facilities were built with the privacy of athletes in mind, and players and coaches were taught by those in their public relations departments that the locker room was an extension of a professional line of business for both the athletes and the journalists. With more and more women entering the sports reporting field, their presence among the half-naked athletes after games became normalized. By the time the National Basketball Association and the Raptors arrived in Toronto in 1995, everyone understood how reporters were supposed to be treated. “I give the athletes credit, too,” Ormsby says. “Each generation coming in was better equipped to deal with the changing face of journalism. They realized that everyone has a job to do and no one is there to get their jollies.”

Sunaya Sapurji, a colleague of Ormsby’s at the Star, is grateful for the trailblazing of women such as Gordon, Ludtke and, of course, Ormsby. “It’s made my job easier,” says Sapurji, who has spent the past nine years covering the Ontario Hockey League. Though she has been met with hostility, she’s grown a thick skin. “There have been no instances where I’ve been really upset or somebody has said something offensive to me. I’ve been lucky. I can’t even imagine what Mary’s had to deal with.” Women entering the field nowadays face more standard challenges than those who came before things like long hours, evening and weekend work and job scarcity top the list of worries. But while journalism schools are now graduating far more women than men, and newsrooms are often pretty evenly split, the field of sports journalism is still overwhelmingly male. A study conducted last year by the APSE found that 94 percent of sports columnists and 91 percent of sports reporters of its 378 newspaper and website members are men.

The exception is in broadcast, where there seem to be increasingly more women on air. The common belief is that women reading sports on TV are little more than pretty faces who may or may not know anything about the subject. But in reality, the job of a sports reporter working in print doesn’t differ from sportscasting all that much. The demands of each medium are different, of course-print journalists don’t need to know how to put together highlight packs (a series of significant moments of the most recent sporting events), for example. However, both jobs require the journalist to closely follow the same information and stay on top of it all. And of course, both types of reporters are constantly working toward strict deadlines.

Considering the obstacles female sportscasters have run into, which are comparable to the discrimination women in print journalism have experienced, there is no denying the similarities between the two jobs. Nikki Reyes, host of two shows at The Score, a national sports television network, says her biggest challenge when first getting started in the business was having to convince colleagues, athletes and coaches that she was actually a sports fan, something a man would never have to do. “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal to have women in sports,” she says. “I don’t know why people look at women as having less credibility.”

Barb DiGiulio has been working as a midday sportscaster for The Fan 590 since 1991 and for 680 News in Toronto since 1993. She says on a few occasions people called her at work to say, “Do you realize the only reason you have your job is because you’re a woman?” as if to suggest her station needed a token woman on the air. “When The Fan gave me the job, it was a novelty for them to try out a woman in sports,” DiGiulio says, “but if it hadn’t worked out I wouldn’t still be doing it.”

Where discrimination may have once been a plausible explanation for why there were so few women in sports journalism, today there’s near consensus among sports-journalism professionals that lack of interest is the largest factor in explaining the small number of women in print reporting positions. The fact is that not a lot of women journalists are interested in making a career of sports.

Toronto Star sports editor Mike Simpson says it’s rare to find women who want to go into sports reporting. “It’s always been a male-dominated field and that’s not for lack of trying,” he says. And the hours certainly don’t help. “Any woman with a brain is not going to want to work nights and weekends, and that’s what sports is,” says Ormsby.

The culture of a sports desk has also been off-putting to women, notes Malcolm Kelly, who, after working as a sports reporter on and off for 27 years, is heading up a new sports journalism program at Centennial College in Toronto. Sports departments once looked like frat houses, he says, with sponge balls flying around everywhere-something that is also changing, though it’s hard to say the same about the sex of the athletes being covered. “If hockey had the popularity that it does now except that it happened to be a women’s game,” says Kelly, “and Wayne Gretzky was actually Wanda Gretzky, I think you would see a lot more women sportswriters.”

But low interest doesn’t mean there’s no interest, and although they are still the minority, women are entering the field in growing numbers and are passionate about the work. Of the 25 students enrolled in Centennial College’s sports journalism program, which launched in January, four are women. Kelly’s goal is to provide his students with as full a toolbox as possible when it comes to sports reporting. “If they are in a battle with somebody else for a sports job, whether they’re male or female, they will have a very good chance of getting it because they have been well trained,” he says.

And they’re going to need it. With newspapers downsizing, it’s a difficult time for reporters, as the departments are small and there is relatively low turnover. “Reporters have tended, at the major papers, once they got a job, just to stay there,” says Globe sports editor Tom Maloney, adding that it’s not until those who started working in sports departments 20 or 30 years ago retire that there will be more room for new talent.

Of course, female sports reporters are just as good at their jobs as men and will be competing for those positions when and if they come up. Dave Fuller, sports editor at the Toronto Sun, says some of the best sports journalists in Canada are, and have been, women. He cites Rosie DiManno and Jane O’Hara as examples, as well as columnist Christie Blatchford, who covered sports early on in her career. And Simpson argues that there’s no distinction between a story written by a man and one written by a woman. He says, “If it tells the story, then I’m happy.”

Julie Scott, assistant sports editor at The Canadian Press, agrees that gender isn’t a crucial factor in evaluating how a reporter does his or her job. The same goes for supervisory positions. “I don’t think my perspective is unique because I’m female,” she says. “It’s more the way we are, our personalities and how we approach the job.” Scott, who is one of few women in a senior sports position, believes that with the increase of women in sports journalism, it is inevitable that more will advance.

But some women who are just starting out question the possibilities for promotion. “I do wonder about the potential to move up,” says Kristyn Wallace, a new broadcast associate at Rogers Sportsnet, which operates four cable sports channels plus one HD channel and an interactive website. “I think that’s the ultimate test to really know if people see you as someone who’s good at their job.”

In fact, a study titled “An Investigation of Job Satisfaction and Female Sports Journalists,” published in the journal Sex Roles in 2003, indicates that out of just six facets of job satisfaction-people and co-workers, promotional opportunities, supervision, work, pay and the job in general-the only area with which the women surveyed noted dissatisfaction was opportunity for promotion.

Nonetheless, being promoted isn’t what’s on Wallace’s mind just yet. She’s still working on being accepted, as she’s the only full-time woman on her team. “I think that people expect that you know less about sports than a guy would,” she says. “There is a definite feeling of having to prove yourself.”

Some women sports journalists feel they have an advantage when it comes to doing their jobs. Toronto Starcolumnist Rosie DiManno, who does regular sports writing, feels that way. “I’m able to ask questions that a lot of male reporters would feel shy about asking. This just comes from being female,” DiManno says. In her experience, athletes feel more comfortable talking to her about their feelings and emotions than they would with male reporters. She adds that they also speak more freely about their families. “I sometimes feel that I have an easier time tapping into the genuineness of their emotions.” With this power, perhaps women’s stories are different from those of men-not in the written aspect of the stories they produce, but in the questions they ask and, thus, the answers they receive.

DiManno entered the field when there weren’t even women’s washrooms in press boxes. As a child, she was interested in the world of sports-even though she says she was too clumsy to ever play them. When in high school, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Star asking if there might ever come a time when women could work as sports reporters. He replied, saying he wasn’t against the idea, but that he didn’t think it could ever work simply because women weren’t allowed in men’s dressing rooms, making it difficult to get the story. Ironically, he was the editor who hired her only a few years later. Now, although DiManno writes columns for several departments at the Toronto Star, she still covers sports frequently. “It’s entertaining, there’s built-in drama, there are great storylines and narratives and people hardly ever die,” she says.

Hayley Mick, of The Globe and Mail, may be the next DiManno. The 30-year old is currently a reporter on the life beat, but is trying to work her way into doing sports reporting as well. She has been given the opportunity to cover snowboarding at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which is sort of a lucky break. She considers herself to have been in the right place at the right time because a memo circulated by Globe executive editor, Neil Campbell, asked for reporters interested in covering the games. She applied for the job and got it.

For Mick, after being at the Globe for three years, but a journalist for five, and having always loved sports, this seems like a dream come true. And to her, jumping from news to sports is not a concern in the slightest bit. “I think it’s a lot of the same skills, just a different subject. I cover news, and covering a game is a news event. And then you create a narrative. I think the skills are quite transferable,” she says.

Since the big sports assignment is not until next year, right now, to prepare, she’s getting to know the sport and the athletes by attending and reporting on their events and smaller-scale competitions. Mick says she would love this opportunity to lead to a full-time position on the sports beat.

Three decades ago, it was unusual for a woman to have those aspirations. For every pioneer such as Ormsby or DiManno, there were many women who didn’t try or who didn’t stick it out. Gordon left her job as a baseball reporter by choice after five years because she didn’t see it as a career. “It was too tough being the only woman on the road. I wouldn’t have a conversation with another woman for weeks on end,” she says. In locker rooms, there was often the suggestion that her presence there was somehow dirty-“pecker checker” was a favourite taunt of some coaches.

The job of sports journalist for a woman today may still be far from perfect, but there has been a dramatic improvement. Mick has no reservations about trying to realize her goal of becoming a sports journalist, and she will find it a much more hospitable environment than it was for those who came before her. Without the stress of pioneering, she can make sports writing a lifelong career-no questions asked.

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About the author

Jordana Rapuch was the Head of Copy and Research for the Summer 2009 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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