After Cam Newton’s snickering response to a question by Charlotte Observer Panthers reporter Jourdan Rodrigue on Wednesday, I reached out to a former colleague to get some perspective.
Newton’s dismissive comment about Rodrigue’s football question reminded me that sports writers have two workplaces:
The locker room. And the newsroom.
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For women who cover sports, there is a long history of clashes with athletes, some far worse than what occurred this week in Charlotte. Former Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson, for example, accused three New England Patriots players of sexually abusive behavior in 1990. The team and all three players were eventually fined by the NFL for what the league termed conduct degrading to a female reporter that included verbal abuse and taunting.
The problems in the second workplace are harder to digest: For some women who cover sports, dealing with life in the office can be harder than out in the field.
Johnette Howard – who has worked as a national sports columnist at ESPN, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize at Newsday and wrote for the Washington Post – says being female in many sports departments can be a challenge. When we talked about Cam Newton’s comments, she said she’s often had more fruitful conversations with athletes than with co-workers and editors.
Howard, 57, says being a minority or a woman in the mostly white, overwhelmingly male world of sports journalism means being overlooked and undervalued.
Diversity “isn’t appreciated as something that’s wanted,” she said.
The sports department has sometimes been a place where it has not been safe to speak up, she said. A place where concerns over problems with athletes are too often met with this advice: It’s part of the job. Deal with it.
Jeff Rosen, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors, which represents most sports editors in the country, put out a statement Thursday that strongly asked for a formal apology from Newton for his remarks to Rodrigue. (Newton did issue an apology later that day.)
But in the 2014 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report compiled by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, though racial diversity received mostly B’s for sports hiring practices, hiring for gender diversity in sports departments received an F in every job category.
Full disclosure: The assistant sports editor at The News & Observer is a woman, but all eight sports reporters who work for The N&O and Durham Herald-Sun are men.
When I became a sports editor in 1995 at another newspaper, I was surprised by the the disdain many male sports reporters and editors seemed to hold for women covering sports.
Howard assured me that I wasn’t imagining this then and that it hasn’t completely changed now.
She told a story about how an editor once removed a breaking news update from her column and gave it to a male reporter instead. When she protested, he said he did not believe “she had the story,” yet used her reporting when it was published under the other reporter’s byline.
“No matter how much you achieve, there is always another one of them (male reporters) coming over the hill,” Howard says of how vulnerable female sports reporters can feel about their jobs.
Regardless of how this Cam Newton thing plays out, this is not just about athletes. It’s not new, and unfortunately, it’s growing very old.
Steve Ruinsky is sports editor of The News & Observer.