Diane Xavier usually got picked last in gym class as a kid. She never played sports in high school. Nor were her parents big sports fans. Her dream career moment? Presenting the Lombardi trophy to the Super Bowl championship team as a sports broadcaster for a major network. And in today’s climate of opportunity for women in sports media, her dream just might come true.
Xavier, 20, is currently a sophomore at Texas A&M University, where she studies journalism. The two television internships she has already finished will likely make her a desirable candidate for a sports job right out of college.
The young women from today’s crop of aspiring sportswriters perceive their gender will be solely an advantage with sports departments across the country continuing to try to improve gender and racial diversity. The number of women on newspaper sports staffs at the majority of the country’s papers is less than 20 percent, usually less than 10 percent at papers with circulations under 75,000, according to an independent survey of the industry.
“Several people in the business have told me if I’m good, it will help me because all other things being equal, papers are more likely to hire a female,” said Kathleen O’Brien, a Notre Dame undergraduate who had been considering covering international relations before she shifted to sports.
Tracy Greer and Diane Xavier have been told almost exactly the same thing. “I had a sports information director tell me that I would go far in this business for two reasons—I was competent, and I was female,” Greer said.
Xavier has two demographic qualifiers working for her: sex and race. As an Indian-Asian and a woman, “I have been told these two facts can help me move up a lot faster,” she said.
Sports editors across the country, from papers large and small, admit they are interested in adding women and non-Anglo males or females to their departments. A 1998 survey of the top-rated APSE sports sections by USA Today reporter Julie Ward revealed the ten papers with circulation under 50,000 had staffs that were 9.2 percent female. Papers in the 50,000-175,000 circulation range were 13.5 percent women, and those with circulations over 175,000 had 18.5 percent female staffs.
An independent survey of the industry carried out for this series revealed that papers with circulations under 100,000 had staff ratios just under the overall average, at 11.6 percent. However, the editors of those papers were far more likely to report problems with recruiting and retaining women.
“The pool of female candidates is more limited than male candidates. It’s the same with African-American or other minority groups. There are plenty of white, male candidates for sports writing jobs. We are making a strong effort, when we have openings, to make hires that will help diversify our staff,” said Eddie Wooten, sports editor of the Greensboro News-Record (circulation 88-112,000). “We’re always trying to recruit women for our staff,” said Don Reed, sports editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (circulation 300,000 – 500,000). “The field of candidates is small.”
What was once a ticket for a harder time in the industry seems to have turned into an advantage. Not only has Title IX empowered young women to believe they are entitled to jobs in the sports world, but it has helped educate them with sports activities of their own. Most survey respondents said a positive athletic experience in their childhoods had helped to motivate them to pursue a sports career.
Tracy Greer even talks about creating sports news in game metaphors that she picked up from her days playing baseball, softball, and soccer while growing up in New Mexico.
“I believe that certain people possess an ‘athlete’s mentality,’ and sometimes those people don’t always have the skills to back up their desires on the court or field, so working in athletics is the next best thing,” she said. “It’s not about being an armchair quarterback, either. It’s about being at the top of your game even when you’re producing the game.”
For others, like Xavier, being allowed to watch hours of sports television during childhood influenced her love of sports and career choice.
“Every Sunday since I was twelve I would watch NFL doubleheaders, ESPN NFL Game Night, and Monday Night Football,” she said.
“It wasn’t until I saw sports reporter Lesley Visser interview then-Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson during the NFC Championship game that made me decide what I want to do with my life.”
It took decades of hard work by women like Visser to make the career opportunities for these young women possible. However, many of the young women entering sports have already experienced locker room innuendo or sexualized attention directed their way.
They handle it differently than their predecessors might have twenty years ago. Now, there are female mentors in the field to talk to about such incidents.
Xavier had the opportunity to cover the Dallas Mavericks at sixteen, as part of a introductory journalism program for high school students.
“When I was in the locker room, I remember other male reporters, who were professionals in the business, pointing and giggling at me,” Xavier recalled. “I didn’t know why until I turned around and saw an NBA player in his underwear. When I tried to interview an athlete, who was trying to change, there was this other male reporter who was watching my eyes to see if I was looking. Right before entering the locker room, the security guard was making sexist remarks. He looked at me, and told the water boy ‘Check to see if any of the players have their clothes on.’”
Since that first troubling experience, Xavier has completed two major internships in Dallas and had no more problems. She was reassured by a colleague at one of her jobs who told her to ignore the sexualized attention.
To help young women meet the challenges of working in a career field where they are still a definite minority, the Association of Women in Sports Media (AWSM) has created a mentorship program for young sports writers, broadcasters, and radio employees.
“Every sports media field has hundreds of trained, qualified, and talented women,” said Alison Boyce, a sportswriter at the Detroit Free Press and coordinator of the mentorship program. AWSM started matching mentors with mentees in part to recruit and retain more women for sports jobs. Currently forty pairs of women are matched.
Even when a formal internship program isn’t in place, many young women say they’ve received help and support from more experienced women in the field, and those experiences make them more likely to stay in the profession.
“Females in the field tend to take other females under their wing,” said Lauryn Taubman. “Wherever I have worked, I have found a mentor.”
Taubman, a senior at Syracuse University, is a television production major and has worked for networks such as ESPN and USA.
Written by Leah Etling