Keep Writing, Ladies
Women sportswriters are always going to be gasping for air. It’s not because women don’t understand sports the way that men do or any of that testosterone-as-an-elixir hogwash. The reason is as simple as it is comical: For every triumph that a woman sportswriter accomplishes—Selena Roberts landing a columnist gig at Sports Illustrated; Jackie MacMullan and Jemele Hill talking sports with the guys on ESPN—another woman becomes ten times more famous for looking good in a sweater.
This is what female sportswriters have to contend with, a world where Erin Andrews’ perky, polished blondeness and ability to ask passable questions to football coaches makes her a national celebrity. It’s a world that gives attractive race care driver Danica Patrick loads of attention even though she’s never really won anything significant. Before that, it was tennis player Anna Kournikova getting press (including the cover of Sports Illustrated) simply for being a statuesque blond.
For female sportswriters, it must be unbelievably frustrating. You’re at the top of your game covering a male-dominated establishment, but some of the most popular women (including your competitors—before they were recast as TV sports starlets, Lesley Visser and Rachel Nichols were sports reporters at major papers) garner tremendous success based on a set of requirements that don’t appear to have anything to do with job skills.
It used to be worse, as it was for the female athletes these writers covered or found living in obscurity. Though it was published in 1994, A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women (edited by Ron Rapoport) offers a bracing perspective: The acceptance of women in any facet of sports is a relatively new concept. As Billie Jean King tells Ann Killion in one selection, “It’s all about perception. Everyone is supposed to be the girl next door.” I’d amend it by adding, “Or primed for a Maxim shoot.” Unless you're a lucky hybrid of sex appeal and athleticism like the Williams sisters, in the world of professional sports it’s still better to look like Chris Evert than Martina Navratilova. Or is it? Has it ever been?
When Roberta Gibb became the first woman to ever run a marathon at the Boston Marathon in 1966, the subsequent headlines resembled something from The Onion: “Blonde Wife, 23, Runs Marathon,” “Girl Shows Marathon’s Best Form.” Former tennis sensation Gussie Moran became known for wearing lace panties while playing at Wimbledon in 1949, which cast her as a reluctant sex symbol. All she wanted was to be stylish. “You know, I was really never anything to write home about,” Moran tells Melissa Isaacson. “I was a plain girl . . . Then people would see me, and I’d hear them say, ‘I’ve seen better looking waitresses at the hot dog stand.’ ”
Even the sports themselves weren’t a refuge. Women’s basketball used to be played six-on-six with the girls only allowed three dribbles before passing. “You don’t learn to dribble if you aren’t allowed to dribble,” writes Jacqui Banaszynski in “Girls Basketball: Tears of Grief and Pride.” “You don’t get fast and strong if you’re not allowed to run. You don’t learn to take the pressure unless you stand at the line.” Contributor Elizabeth M. Cosin was told by her high school gym teacher that girls shouldn’t play baseball because sliding causes breast cancer. Female writers also paid a price for following their passion. While at Sports Illustrated, J.E. Vader was subjected to constant sexual harassment. “I felt fully prepared should I ever decide to pursue a career in Washington, D.C.,” she quips in her column on SI's swimsuit issue.
The book’s value also comes in remembering the forgotten women who played crucial roles in sports history, such as former Oakland A’s executive Sharon Jones, an African American, who called out Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for her racist dialogue, and Zola Budd, the runner whose collision with Mary Decker Slaney led to one of the most unforgettable images in Olympic history. We get reintroduced to icons like jockey Julie Krone and Manon Rheaume, the goalie who tried out for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. We’re also forced to remember things—Mike Tyson’s rape case, Jennifer Capriati’s early promise before her fall from grace—we’d rather forget.
It’s an inspirational, illuminating book, but one that becomes burdensome. A few selections aren’t worthy of being anthologized, while most of what’s in A Kind of Grace usually falls under two categories: “Overcoming Adversity” and “Hey, We Discovered Someone.” The stories soon blur into the same formula: sweeping introduction, tale of woe/struggle, and a conclusion of redemption/brighter future. There needs to be more good, old-fashioned reporting such as Linda Robertson’s piece on the unforgiving world of female gymnastics or Johnette Howard’s article on how male coaches feel excluded from female college basketball. Also, I would have loved more game-related stories and columns. That’s how you see a sportswriter’s worth: Can a story about a 1982 basketball game remain fresh and exciting years later?
A Kind of Grace represents a well-deserved victory lap for women in sports journalism, but I wonder if they’ll have to run another race. Newspapers are dying by the day. The Internet and cable television are making sports reporting less reliant on the written word. Any girl can dream of writing, but not every girl can dream of being a shapely, attractive sideline reporter. Thank god. Any pretty face can tell us a score, but a special kind of talent is required to make us care about the stories behind it. The future will tell us if A Kind of Grace becomes an inspiration or a relic. All I have to say is, keep writing, ladies. Please keep writing.
Books mentioned in this column: