The boys’ club nature of sports journalism contributes to some serious blind spots in its coverage.
Being a woman who writes about sports puts me in some elite company: Just 10 percent of all sports columnists last year were women, according to the latest report from the Women's Media Center. And while I'm honored to count myself part of that talented tenth, it's long past time to fix this extreme imbalance.
Of course, the disparity is not limited to sports journalism—though women make up 73 percent of journalism and communications graduates, they represent just 22 percent of radio journalists, 40.5 percent of newspaper employees, and 21 percent of Sunday political show commentators. But even amid all the terrible news about whose voices are being heard, the statistics on sportswriters stand out.
And in fact, the problem posed by a lack of women sports journalists is fundamentally different from the oft-cited reason the media at large needs gender diversity. We generally assume that we need women journalists because they can do a better job of writing about half of the human population. And while it’s certainly crucial that we staff women to tell women’s stories, the rationale is not all that applicable in big-time athletics, which are played and coached exclusively by men. (The lack of coverage for women's sports is important too, but they remain a niche activity compared to mens' pro and Division I college competition.) In other words, the sports world doesn't need women to write about women; it needs women to write about men.
For decades, men on the field and in the newsroom have effectively derailed this discussion. Too often, the role of women in sports journalism is reduced to the tired debate over whether women should be in pro locker rooms. This has not been a salient issue since 1979, when a federal judge mandated equal access in the workplace, yet columnists and commentators see fit to beat that dead horse once a year or so. A quick Google search shows that not a single sportswriter has weighed in on the sports angle of the Women's Media Center report.
That oversight reveals a broader problem with modern sports journalism: Its writers are frequently afraid of or simply uninterested in tackling the major societal issues posed by a multi-billion-dollar industry made up of celebrity male athletes and ultra-rich male businessmen. Sports reporters were wholly unprepared to report on the child rape scandal at Penn State, which led to a press conference in which the first question posed by a journalist centered on the football team's upcoming game. The debate over the NBA lockout failed to capture the paternalism employed by commissioner David Stern in the negotiations. Most recently, the biggest feel-good sports story in recent memory, Jeremy Lin's surprising dominance of professional basketball, has been overshadowed by racism from pro sports commentators.
Women are by no means inherently better suited to think critically than their male counterparts. But the boys’ club nature of the field contributes to some serious blind spots in its coverage. A diverse pack of reporters is necessary to cover all the bases, and to hold the sports world—and one another—accountable. The biggest sports story of 2011—the Penn State scandal—was broken not by one of the football team's many dedicated sportswriters, but rather by a 24-year-old crime reporter for a small local newspaper. Sara Ganim had no relationships with the coaches and athletic department officials who allowed Jerry Sandusky to continue raping children unchecked, and that outside perspective may have been key in pursuing a story that devastated the team and its fan base.
The popular narrative around watching—and by extension, covering—sports involves broing down with the guys and seizing the opportunity to "fart, burp, drink, eat gross food, bust balls and say inappropriate things” away from women, according to Bill Simmons's treatise on why women shouldn't play fantasy football. Including women in fantasy leagues, he concluded, would turn men into "chicks.”
Sexist arguments like that one beg for a female perspective, but the boys’ club mentality goes deeper than a simple gender divide. Sports coverage is one of few forms of journalism in which reporters and columnists are assumed to be fans. Because fewer women than men are avid sports fans (about a third of regular football viewers are female, according to Nielsen data), editors have a convenient excuse not to hire women. But there are plenty of smart women writers who would jump at the chance to write about the issues raised by sports even if they don't play fantasy. Journalists hired to write about local politics or education aren't assumed to be experts in zoning law or teaching theory; they learn the beat as they go. In fact, outsiders could lend a much-needed critical eye to the extraordinarily influential cultural phenomenon of sports. The only thing stopping them is the fact that those jobs don't exist.
It’s time for sports editors to look outside their regular lineups. Go out and recruit smart women journalists, even if they haven't been obsessing over stats since they were 5. Offer them the chance to cover not just the action on the field, but the ramifications off it. Show them their perspective is valued, not as a token, but as a required part of the conversation. Promote them within your own organization and to other powerful people in the business. The stakes are too high for sports journalism to be content to cover the burps.