Gender Equality in Sports Reporting is Still a Hail Mary

There aren’t many surprises expected for Fox’s Sunday broadcast of the 51st Super Bowl. Amidst a tumultuous political climate that brings new surprises and news updates daily, there’s one thing viewers can expect to see when they turn on their TVs this Sunday, and that’s tradition.

Certainly, there will be some new elements to the broadcastit will be the first Super Bowl that fans can watch in virtual reality, and Fox’s new Be the Player feature will allow audiences to see the field from players’ point of view. Not to mention, halftime performer Lady Gaga is certain to turn some heads.

But the analysis of the game itself (the pre-game show and play-by-play commentary) will be largely traditional, in that almost every single one of the Fox Sports commentators will be male.

Fox mainstays Troy Aikman and Joe Buck will be providing the color commentary in their fifth Super Bowl with the network, while Terry Bradshaw, Curt Menefee, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson and Michael Strahan will be on Fox NFL Sunday, the network’s pregame show. On the sidelines reporters Chris Myers and Erin Andrews, the lone female in the pack, will be back for their fourth and second time, respectively.

Such a starting lineup, so to speak, is nothing new. Fox’s male-dominated broadcast represents the sports industry’s struggle to include female journalists in prominent positions.

Since women first began taking roles as sports journalists in the 1960s, the progression of women in the field has been slow. A 2014 study by the Women in Media Center found that 90 percent of sports editors were men, despite the fact that women continually make up a significant portion of sports audiences.

This is not to say women are excluded from the field entirely; however, they often serve as sidekicks to their male counterparts. Rarely in sports broadcasting do women make it into the highly coveted “booth,” where announcers give play-by-play analysis of the game. In fact, in the NFL’s nearly 100 years of existence, only four women have ever had the honor of providing color commentary, and only one woman has done so during the regular season. Instead, female reporters are generally limited to sideline reporting as Andrews is this Sunday, which limits them to only two to three minute interviews with players and coaches.

Many argue that because the most popularly-watched sports like Football, Baseball and Basketball have male players, it only makes sense to have male commentators who are usually ex-players or ex-coaches. However, even outside of traditional professional sports leagues and in mixed-gender competitions, women still have a difficult time getting their foot in the booth. Take NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Olympics, for example – only 28 of NBC’s 128 reporters, commentators and analysts were female despite the fact that women outnumbered men in the U.S. Olympic delegation.

“Sports broadcasting is a super competitive market for women because a lot of it is based off your looks,” said Shannon Sankey, a University of Missouri’s journalism student studying “sports convergence,” a mixed degree of broadcasting, production, web producing and writing. “Networks can hire any woman to read off a TelePrompter, so a lot of it is superficial.”

Indeed, when it comes to sports broadcasting, looks tend to play a very large part in the marketing of female sideline reporters. Listicles about the “Hottest Female Sports Reporters” and profiles of journalists that emphasize their looks are still a large part of the culture around female sports reporters.

Some have said it was that superficial culture that got Andrews onto Fox’s main broadcast team in the first place. Back in 2014, Andrews, who had been with Fox for two years, replaced Pam Oliver, a sideline veteran who had been with the network for nearly 20 seasons. Oliver was then 53, while Andrews was 36. As Oliver wrote in an essay for Essence after the fact, “it’s not difficult to notice that the new on-air people there are all young, blond and ‘hot.’”

But sexism in sports journalism isn’t simply an issue of network executives trying to appeal to male viewers. The online harassment of journalists by sports fans is also a major issue, and was thrust into the spotlight last year with the #MorethanMean video released by Just Not Sports.

The video features men reading the online harassment directly to the reporters themselves.  

“I’ve certainly seen it happen to many female coworkers I’ve had,” said Nicki Jhabvala, The Denver Post’s Broncos reporter, who has also worked for Sports Illustrated. However, despite being one of the only females on the beat, Jhabvala says that she rarely runs up against such hostile sexism in her day to day interactions with the team and the other members of the press, which may signal a changing climate.

Candace Buckner, the Wizards reporter for the Washington Post concurs. “I’ve been lucky because I’m not part of the generation that had to fight and claw for respect. In the Wizards locker room, there are no jerks. It’s not an uncomfortable work space because we’re all [reporters] in there.”

While blatant sexism in the industry may now be a rare occurrence, it does still happen. In 2015, three female journalists were denied access to the Jaguar’s locker room for postgame interviews by an usher who was unsure if females were allowed in. Sexism can be rampant even in Universities’ sports journalism programs, where young female sports reporters can feel the brunt of an uneven field.

“I still get quizzed by the guys in my program,” says Sankey, the University of Missouri student. “You’re expected to know every detail of every team in every sport if you’re a girl.”

But, demographics have been shifting as generations change, and many female sports reporters are chiming in on how to change the culture. In the cases of Jhabvala and Buckner, both agree that the key to advancing women in the industry is simply hiring more of them.

“Especially someone like me who is an African American, and a woman, I’m always going to be a minority,” said Buckner, who is one of few full-time female beat reporters in the NBA. “But I definitely would like to see more women in editorial roles. Those are the decision makers, and getting a marketplace of opinions can be helpful.”

But for even the youngest of female sports reporters, the challenges faced to enter the field can sometimes offer a rallying cry for students like Sankey. Just like any journalist, “you still have to prove yourself.”

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