Revisiting Sexual Harassment of Female Sports Reporters and Media Members
In August 2015, I wrote a piece that chronicled sexual harassment toward female sports reporters, hoping to provide some insight as to how often this happens to women in sports media. This week I decided this week to re-run the piece (with additional reporting below) given the nationwide conversation about sexual harassment and assault, as well as the near-daily stories about alleged and confirmed sexual predation.
Here is the 2015 piece:
There was the Major League Baseball player who dropped his pants in the locker room and called out her name, so she’d turn around and see his penis hanging out. Then there was the player who started flirting with her at the venue before he graduated to calling her room on the road, repeatedly asking her to “come down and watch a movie in his room.” She said no, of course, but the player in question wouldn’t speak with her for months after she declined his advances.
But the worst part was the rumors. At one point there was an NHL player who pulled her aside to say that one of his teammates was telling everyone on the team she covered that they had slept together.
“There was no paper trail, just my word against his, and since I was fighting an unknown enemy, I couldn’t even defend myself,” said the female television sports reporter, who has worked at the network level.
If you think such stories are uncommon, think again. Most women who work in the sports media have similar stories to tell.
When a female sports reporter who works for a major East Coast outlet was new to the business, an MLB team employee asked for her phone number, which he said was for another media outlet that wanted to have her on one of their shows. Turned out, it was for a starter on the team. She didn't know this until the player started calling and texting her, asking her to send photos and to talk to him before games. She tried to explain the boundaries, but he kept contacting her regularly, despite her pleas to him and to the team employee who had passed on her number. It finally ended when he got hurt with a season-ending injury and left town.
“I've been invited to hotel rooms while on the road more times than I can count,” said one East Coast-based female sports reporter who has worked for newspapers and websites. “One agent was fixated on me giving him a number of how many penises I had seen in locker rooms through the years and how they compared. I eventually stopped calling him, which meant that sometimes I was unable to get information I needed. I also recall trying to build a relationship with a team executive who I was pretty sure was a source for other reporters. We were supposed to meet up for a drink during a big work event, but he kept changing the subject away from work to my personal life and whether or not I was dating anyone. When he put his hand on my back, that was my cue to leave. I stopped trying to communicate with him, which was a professional disadvantage since he was most likely helping my competitors.”
Then there’s the female sports reporter based in a major market who has been asked out repeatedly by coaches, agents and players of various sports. Once, an NFL player told her that it was cool she was married because so was he. There was also the time a source offered to let her sleep in his hotel room during a championship game. Then there was the time the Division I basketball coach hit on her.
While covering hockey, one West Coast-based sports television reporter recalled a player skating by during a practice to say, “Nice lip gloss, it'll look good on my c--- tonight.” There were the GMs over the years who told the woman that females should not be sports reporters. When traveling on the road with pro teams, the reporter said she had players knocking on her door at 4 a.m. “Lots of the time it all starts on Twitter,” she said. “I follow athletes for information, they follow me back, they message me, continue to message me, etc. I've had a lot of good interactions on Twitter with athletes, professional relationships, but lots take them too far. They call at 5 a.m. They Snapchat inappropriate things. On the road, I make sure to not even make eye contact with players or even really talk to them unless I'm doing an interview. You block everything out or else you become a ‘whistle blower’ and no one wants to have you around.”
And on and on and on it goes.
Those who read this column likely have no idea how often such harassment happens to females who work in the sports media. Last week, after Norwood Teague resigned as athletic director at the University of Minnesota following two university employees accusing him of sexual harassment, Amelia Rayno, who covers the Minnesota men’s basketball team for Minneapolis's Star Tribune, wrote a first-person piece on Teague’s behavior toward her. Bravo to Rayno for giving light to the issue. She declined to speak further on the topic to SI.com, opting for the piece to speak for itself.
The women in this story asked for anonymity, and it was granted. Why grant it? Because in the real world, there are repercussions, among colleagues, employers and especially with the teams they cover, for naming names.
Many women in the sports media are the only female reporters in a locker room (or one of a few) or at a press conference. All the women quoted in this story, and the other female sports media people with whom I spoke for it, have excellent journalism reputations.
What about taking legal action against those who create a hostile work environment?
“The problem with any of those suits, and I once considered one, is that proving it is so difficult and the repercussions in the business could be fatal,” a prominent reporter told me. “Who is going to hire a reporter who sues her employer or a team?”
In a well-done roundtable compiled by Kami Mattioli of the Sporting News, USA Today college sports reporter Nicole Auerbach offered a cautionary note for those in her field: “I have noticed that female reporters will often share stories of inappropriate behavior with other female reporters as a sort of warning—be careful of this guy, try this line if you're in a similar situation, etc.” Auerbach said. “Having other women in the industry to rely on and reach out to about various experiences is vital.”
To that end, Rayno had reached out to ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, one of the nation’s top college basketball reporters, for advice about how to proceed regarding her allegations of Teague’s harassment. O'Neil, Rayno said, advised her to immediately alert her editors.
I asked Jennifer Overman, the president of the Association for Women in Sports Media and an ESPN news editor, what she would have advised in the same situation.
The first and probably most important thing to do is to make your employer aware of what is going on,” Overman said. “Share any information you have—text messages, voicemails, emails, etc.—and keep copies for your own records. Even if you’re not entirely sure you’re reading a situation correctly, do not wait until it escalates or becomes a bigger problem. Do not try to handle it on your own, or ignore it, because it’s an important beat or a new job or you don’t want to be perceived in some sort of negative way. Maintain your professionalism with all involved and remember that harassment is never acceptable, whether this is your first job or your 10th.”
Something many women have told me, and something I’ve witnessed myself, is athletes flashing female reporters in the locker room and men in the sports field sending female reporters photos of themselves in various states of undress. Then there are the “grabbers” during live shots for women who appear on sports television. I could also write multiple columns on what women in the sports media deal with on social media.
“It doesn’t happen often, but I have had my breasts and butt squeezed, the old ‘hand at the small my back’ that slides down and/or across, a stolen kiss on the cheek, etc.,” said one female sports anchor in an East Coast market. “While it all seems innocent enough, it can be really uncomfortable, particularly the subtle touching. It makes you feel like you are not even human, but instead an object for someone else to ogle or fondle.”
On the issue of what responsibility a media entity such as the Star Tribune has for creating a safe workplace environment for female reporters, including when the harassment comes from an outside source, Marcia L. McCormick, a professor of law and director of the Wefel Center for Employment Law at Saint Louis University, said that a media company is like any other employer in that it is governed by state and federal law that prohibits employment discrimination.
“Maintaining a workplace free from harassment on the basis of sex for both men and women is part of that legal responsibility,” McCormick said. “The level of responsibility depends on the context in which the harassing conduct occurs. An employer is more responsible for the conduct of its managers and supervisors. It is less responsible for the conduct of those outside the employer’s control, like a source in the context of a reporter.”
McCormick said one way in which Rayno’s case is especially challenging is that it involves a female reporter in a male-dominated field.
“Reactions of some people to this story will be that the media entities should protect female reporters in ways we don't worry about when it comes to male reporters.” she said. “And that protection may take the form of not assigning them to beats that might expose them to men who might act in sexually provocative ways. The possibility of harassment has been used to limit opportunities for women to cover men's sports, which means fewer opportunities in general for women to be sports reporters, or reporters of any other predominantly male field.”
I asked McCormick how strong a case Rayno would have, if she indeed had one, against her employer on that grounds that her employer should have pursued action against Teague independent of what its employee did.
“Given the information currently available, it is not likely that Rayno would have a good case against the Star Tribune for discrimination,” McCormick said. “The Star Tribune only had to act reasonably, and not perfectly, to protect Rayno from Teague's harassment. Although there may have been some action the Star Tribune could have taken against Teague, perhaps by notifying the university of his conduct, it's hard to see a way it could do so without endangering Rayno from some sort of retaliation or backlash. The details of what happened, which the Star Tribune would probably have to reveal, would likely have revealed her identity. And a choice to do so might, in fact, make the Star Tribune liable if its action caused Teague to escalate his harassment or if its action caused others to harass or retaliate against Rayno for coming forward. The Star Tribune's independent action could have made Rayno's working environment worse.
“Where an employer provides no alternative, or no real alternative to the employee pursuing the claims on her own, the employer probably isn't acting reasonably to prevent or end the harassment," McCormick continued. “But giving an employee a real choice is likely going to be seen as reasonable. Again, this may seem like it doesn't protect female reporters enough, but supporting them to make decisions that will protect them and allow them to progress in their careers is a positive way to promote sex equality.”
Along with informing those above that the piece would be re-published today, I contacted multiple women working in the business to get a snapshot of what this issue is like for them in 2017.
From a longtime NFL writer:
“I count myself as one of the “lucky” ones who hasn’t been fondled or groped while doing her job. But I have had to turn down repeated advances from certain players, coaches, agents, etc.—some of whom still struggle to “get the hint.” The player who wants to know what I’m doing this weekend because he’s hurt and not traveling with the team; the agent who mentions he’s staying at the same hotel and “is a night owl” so I can “stop by any time;” the player or coach who assumes because he hooked up with a female reporter in another market, the same naturally would apply to me; the exec who loses patience because I’m “no fun” and “only want to talk about work.”
One of the most frustrating things about my job is knowing that there’s information to be had—for the right price. In our industry, male reporters swap information left and right: Give a nugget to this agent, he’ll tell you a tidbit about this GM; share a rumor with this head coach over here, and he might give you a scoop about his team. But that bartering system can often be a slippery slope for us, as women. “What’s in it for me?” That’s the response I’ve gotten from certain players, coaches, agents, execs, etc., when I’m simply trying to do my job. Whether it’s said in person, or via text, that line often is delivered with a smile or a wink. The implication is always clear, always just beneath the surface. One of the most challenging things for me has been negotiating boundaries as a female sportswriter and accepting that there are some scoops I just won’t get and some professional relationships I just won’t have because I don’t want to deal with certain people in the industry. Isn’t that something? As competitive and as driven as I am, there have actually been moments in my career where I had to be OK with taking an “L” on a story because it wasn’t worth dealing with the nonsense.
“The one thing that always comes up in cases of sexual harassment is believability. Do we believe this woman/these women? And given the assumptions made of female sportswriters—that we all sleep with high-level execs, work our way around locker rooms and clubhouses and send nude pics to players—who will believe us? My fear is the backlash that would follow any female sportswriter who called out a player, head coach or GM for his behavior. Because the minute you do, you would become a pariah in the locker room. The sad thing is, you’d have to weigh the cost of speaking up. Will it do more damage to my career? Will anyone believe me anyway? The shame of it is, sometimes it’s just easier for us to try to ignore the person or the behavior and go on with our lives. Our jobs are hard enough as it is.”
From Amelia Rayno, who is now a food, travel and features reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“I guess if anything, I would just add that while those incidents weren’t the reason I left sports—I absolutely love what I do now—they certainly colored my experience. It’s amazing how much something like that sticks with a person. As the stories of women enduring similar treatment and much, much worse in all industries have piled up in a public way in 2017, it’s been both surprisingly painful and oddly refreshing—to hear the anguish of my sisters and remember my own, but also to see hope of a cultural reckoning.”
From a longtime regional sports television reporter:
“I find myself doing this a lot lately. Was that sexual harassment referring back to something I went through—a subject hitting on me, an agent or executive DM-ing me on Twitter and talking about personal things that were not appropriate. The last year or so I have looked back and I think I’ve been sexually harassed. At the time I just thought it came with the territory and I had to deal with it professionally, either me fending them off or shutting them down or blocking people on my phone or Twitter. It’s been a battle in my mind the last two years reading about what other women are coming out with. Here is one story I will share. There was a minority owner of a pro sports team and I met him through a player. I should mention this always happens on the road. I don’t get these texts when I am home with my husband. There is a pattern. They are very aware when you are not home. I am personable and I want people to like me so I always give them the benefit of the doubt no matter who they are. Sometimes I would pick this person’s brain about his players and the team. It was interesting. I was trying to learn stuff. I was thinking big picture for my career about improving. Then it went down a salacious road, with that person sending me a picture of his private parts. I was in my car when I received it. I wasn’t driving and texting but I looked down at my phone and was so shook by it, I ended up getting side swiped. Later on I was on the road and he texted me about how his wife was pregnant and he needed sex. This person was relentless. Looking back, Could I have reported him? Who would I have reported him to? My bosses? His team? Well, then I never cover that team again.”
From the female sports reporter above who works for a major East Coast outlet:
“The only thing I wanted to add is that despite everything that is happening right now, women in sports are staying silent (so far). Why is this? What does it say about our industry and the pervasive fear of speaking out? I’m not sure any other field is so thoroughly dominated by men, from the athletes we cover to the people in power of hiring and firing. While a number of us have shared stories on social media and under the #MeToo movement, sports and sports media are unscathed by this scandal. In my opinion that’s not because harassment doesn’t exist, it’s because women who work in this business are terrified to talk. It doesn’t help that ESPN is about to layoff a number of people again. If you talk with both men and women in sports journalism, most of us feel lucky to have a job. No one wants to jeopardize their employment.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. ESPN management is requiring all of its editorial talent, from people who appear on-air to those who write for the company’s many outlets, to attend a two-hour presentation at the company’s Bristol headquarters on Dec. 13.
The topics at the presentation will include the company’s current priorities, the recent changes to the social media policy, how political and social issues should be handled by editorial staffers and upcoming initiatives. Clearly, the timing is intentional with layoffs coming to ESPN this week as well as an endless cycle of negative news. The company told staffers that all employees are required to attend the presentation in-person (not an insignificant expense given ESPN has people based all over the country) and if talent cannot attend the meeting due to a work conflict, they must work with their supervisor to confirm the legitimacy of the excuse. Said one ESPN staffer: “I imagine it will be like Dorothy walking outside after the twister to see what’s still standing.”
1a. Great reporting by John Ourand of the Sports Business Daily on the UFC trying to get a media rights deal that averages $450 million per year (a huge increase over the rights fee Fox currently pays, which has been $120 million per year) but finding trouble getting that kind of figure. The UFC’s seven-year deal with Fox ends next year. While Ourand reported that both sides would like to continue their deal, they are far apart in price. Ourand reported that Fox Sports President Eric Shanks told Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel and co-President Mark Shapiro that Fox was prepared to make an offer worth around $200 million per year.
As per the story, Turner Sports executives have shown the most interest in a potential deal beyond Fox and that the executives he spoke with said they expected the UFC to try and split some packages. But here was the thing I found most interesting about Ourand’s report. The WWE’s rights are up in the fall of 2019 and Ourand reported that WWE executives met with Fox executives in Los Angeles earlier this summer (WWE’s exclusive negotiating window with NBC doesn’t end until the spring of 2018, so the sides did not talk rights fees). If Fox opts not to re-up with the UFC, the WWE’s programming would be an easy fit into the FS1 lineup—especially given they don’t have nearly the Monday and Tuesday night live-game inventory that ESPN does.
1b. Rivalry weekend produced two of the three highest-rated college football games this season. CBS Sports’s coverage of Auburn-Alabama drew a 7.8 overnight rating, the highest-rated college football game to date on any network of the 2017 season and CBS’s highest-rated regular-season college football game since the 2013 Iron Bowl (excludes SEC Championship Games) which earned an 8.6 rating. That topped the 7.3 overnight for Sept. 2 ABC game between Alabama and Florida State (that ended up drawing 12.3 million viewers). The local rating in Birmingham was 53.8.
Fox drew a 6.9 overnight for Ohio State’s win over Michigan, the highest-rated regular season college football game to air on Fox. The network’s previous high was a 6.4 rating for Penn State-Ohio State on Oct. 28.
2. Episode 147 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, the lead analysts on NBC’s primetime figure skating coverage for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. In this podcast, Lipinski and Weir discuss how they define good sports broadcasting; their anxiety level over covering an event 60 miles from the demilitarized zone and the North Korean border; how and when they first met; why they think they have on-air chemistry; how their producer, Rob Hyland, works to make them better broadcasters; why the last thing they hear before going on air is, “Don’t suck;" why they love working with broadcaster Terry Gannon and their knowledge of his North Carolina State basketball career; potential subject topics for the "Tara and Johnny" podcast; the advantages and disadvantages of being married to a sports TV producer (as Lipinski is); what figure skating can do to restore some of its popularity; why Nathan Chen has a chance at an Olympic medal; and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.
3. Truly exceptional work by producer Charlie Bloom on Bill Johnston, who left his communications job with the Chargers after 38 seasons to care for his wife, Ramona who is battling Huntington's Disease:
3a. Last Wednesday’s ESPN broadcast of the Thunder-Warriors drew a 2.2 metered market rating, the highest-rated ESPN NBA regular-season telecast of the 2017-18 season, and the best regular-season rating (excluding Christmas) since April 13, 2016 when the Warriors set the NBA regular season wins record by defeating the Grizzlies, (2.7).
4. Non-sports pieces of note
• Eight women told Washington Post reporters Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain that Charlie Rose made unwanted sexual advances toward them
• From Pro Publica: Here Are the White House Visitor Records the Trump Administration Didn’t Want You to See
• Via Esquire’s Libby Copeland: Kate's still here
• From Vox’s Laura McGann: NYT White House correspondent Glenn Thrush’s history of bad judgment around young women journalists
• From New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman: “My office analyzed the public comments submitted to the FCC about #netneutrality—and found that 100,000s of Americans were likely impersonated to drown out the views of real people and businesses. This was akin to identity theft on a massive scale”
• By Adam Serwer of The Atlantic: The Nationalist's Delusion
• Frontline’s documentary on “Poor Kids” is another example of why they are the best broadcast-journalist outfit in the U.S.
• From Luke O’Brien of The Atlantic: The Making of an American Nazi
• Amazing work via Jennings Brown of Gizmodo: The last of the iron lungs
• From Katrin Bennholdnov: Where Brexit Hurts: The Nurses and Doctors Leaving London
• The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2017
• From Wired’s Brook Jarvis: How one woman’s digital life was weaponized against her
• Love this from Lori Aratani of the Washington Post on an 81-year-old flight attendant who has been flying since the Eisenhower administration
• L.A. Times reporter Richard Marosi on Mexico’s Housing Debacle
Sports pieces of note:
• Heartbreaking piece from NYT’s John Branch: A father's desperate attempt to save his son: ‘I Have No Idea How to Tell This Horror Story’
• Indianapolis Star sports columnist Gregg Doyel offered a personal story of depression and gratitude
• Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star asked some sports media people and American educators for reflection on Donald Trump’s public relationship with African-American sports figures
• SI’s Michael Rosenberg profiled Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges, a Player of the Year favorite and one of the most interesting figures in college basketball
• NYT’s Ben Shpigel on six men are members of an exclusive group. They played only one NFL game
• Yahoo sports columnist Jeff Passan, on Joe Morgan’s letter to MLB Hall of Fame voters
5. ESPN’s MLB Opening Day quadruple-header next March 29 includes 13 consecutive hours of Opening Day action with games at 12:30 p.m. ET (Cubs at Marlins), 3:30 p.m. (Astros at Rangers), 7 p.m. (Giants at Dodgers ), and 10 p.m. (Indians at Mariners).
5a. ESPN Films head Libby Geist said that the success of the Oscar-winning “O.J. Made In America” has changed the way her division looks at prospective films. Heading forward, do not be surprised to see other ESPN docs get extended treatment well beyond two hours running time. “I think it is question of go tell the story and we will determine the length later on,” Geist said. “We are much less formulaic than we use to be. We are giving filmmakers a longer leash to tell us what they think.”
5b. Howie Schwab, the longtime ESPNer who now works for Fox Sports as a bracketologist, has a new podcast.
5c. John Canzano of Oregon Live reported on Saturday night that former NBA on NBC broadcaster Steve “Snapper” Jones died at age 75. He was absolutely terrific working with Bill Walton and a beloved Portland broadcaster. Here’s the Blazers Edge on Jones