“One of the most common phrases I’ve heard all my life is, like, ‘Wow, you really do know sports,” says Tara Sullivan, sports columnist for the Boston Globe. “I say to myself, ‘I’m a sports reporter. Yes, I know sports.’” Last Tuesday, to a lecture hall full of Boston College students, Sullivan, Trenni Kusnierek of NBC Sports Boston, and Maddie Meyer of Getty Images shared their experiences as women working in sports. The Sports After #MeToo panel, hosted by the communication department, facilitated conversation on the intersection of gender, sports, and journalism.
According to communication professor Michael Serazio, 91% of editors, 95% of anchors, and 99% of commentators in American sports media are male, meaning there are limited spots for females in the industry. It took some time for Sullivan, Kusnierek, and Meyer to realize that they could actually have a career in sports.
Kusnierek says she first really considered a career in sports when she was watching a Packers game with a friend during her freshman year of college. “I was complaining about something they were doing,” she says, “and he was like, ‘You know, you should be a sports reporter, they like let women do that now,’ and I was like 'Oh!'”
Sullivan also had a friend suggest she pursue a career in sports while discussing the Olympics with some guys on her floor in college. Looking back, she’s impressed “that somebody said something. They didn’t just make the assumption that I wouldn’t want to [work in sports] because I’m a woman.”
This would be just one of many assumptions made about women in sports media. “If you’re a guy they assume you know sports unless you prove you don’t,” Sullivan says. “If you’re a woman, they generally assume you don’t know sports unless you prove you do.”
Kusnierek explains that if a male makes a mistake in the industry, people tend to assume the editor didn’t catch it or he just got mixed up. If a woman makes the same mistake, though, it’s because she doesn’t know what she’s doing and doesn’t belong in that space.
“They think you’re taking something that belongs to them,” she says. As a result, they try to “bully you out of talking about something. It’s a tactic used to take away your voice.”
“Bringing in other perspectives, bringing in women, it’s hard for people to grapple with," Meyer adds.
Sullivan recalls the time she credited the wrong player with a home run and didn’t realize until after it had been printed. Her emails blew up, with some men telling her that she should be covering ballet. Meyer says that she doesn’t typically face as much backlash because she’s more behind the scenes, but Kusnierek, who’s extremely present on air and online, could go on forever with the verbal abuse she’s experienced.
“I just always wonder, like, have you ever thought what it’s like for my dad when he logs online? Have you ever thought what it’s like for my sister? Have you ever thought about that? What it’s like for potential boyfriends of mine that go online and see what these people write about me," Kusnierek questions. “You don’t have to like what I say, you don’t have to like what Tara writes, you don’t have to like Maddie’s picture, but do you have to call me a slut?”
Kusnierek asks the students in the audience to realize that “there’s an actual human being on the other side” the next time they go to say something online. “That person who missed a field goal has a wife and a kid. That reliever who blew the game, he’s got a dad and a mom and a grandma. That’s what bothers me. We no longer think about how our words affect other people, and that’s what bothers me about the bully tactics on these websites,” she says.
While Sullivan and Meyer haven’t experienced the same exact adversity, they’ve felt it in different ways. Meyer, for example, is one of six female photographers on a team of 100 people. She says that when she travels it’s usually just her and a big group of guys, which isn’t her ideal setup.
In her time with her male colleagues, though, Meyer has found the men receptive to her pushback on changing the perception of women in sports. When comments are made about women, Meyer has no problem telling them, “‘Hey, let’s stop and let me explain to you for a second what you’re saying about this and why that doesn’t work here, why you shouldn’t be saying that, why you shouldn’t talk about the players this way.” Like Meyer, Sullivan and Kusnierek agree it’s essential that people speak up when women are put down.
When asked how to change gender dynamics in the industry, Kusnierek says she thinks one of the easiest things is “for men and women to stop accepting it as it is.” When people encounter a woman in sports media “maybe listen to her and give her a chance.” She also believes that we should have more dialogue about the criticism these women receive and “how [these words] keep women silent and how they keep women from chasing after things. We have to make the environment more welcoming.”