“Now why isn’t that woman in a kitchen somewhere baking brownies?”
When Allison Williams of ESPN interviewed the head coach of a college football team one night, those were the first words spoken by anyone in the room for at least 20 minutes.
And they were spoken by a woman.
Saying sports media is a male-dominated business is a drastic understatement. Not only are the writers, journalists and broadcasters overwhelmingly male but the players, coaches and front office staff are as well. On any given night, it’s very possible that a female reporter would be the only one of her “kind” she’d come into contact with from the moment the event starts to the time she got in her car to go home.
“I’ve noticed that I’m the only girl sports reporter here in Nashville,” Kara Hammer of WKRN News 2 said. “When I look around right now, I’m the only girl in any locker room representing the four local stations.”
Hammer, 30, is a graduate of the University of Wyoming and bounced around quite a bit after college before landing in Music City. But don’t let that be construed as a negative. In her travels, she learned a ton about the business, working every sport from football to basketball to rodeo. Over the years, however, she’s felt the gender barrier first-hand.
Unfortunately, routine things like talking to a player because someone’s simply trying to do their job can be judged from a distance. But what about trying to go above and beyond for said job?
“If you’re a guy and we’re out covering a story together, you can walk up to a player and say ‘Hey, can I have your phone number? I’m going to call you later.’” Hammer said. “I feel like, when I walk up to a player, I can’t say ‘Hey, can I have your phone number? I’m going to call you later.’ Do I want the number for other reasons? No. I want the number so, if I have a story, I can text them and they can help me out.”
“I’ve done football sidelines,” she said with trepidation. “I’ve heard every kind of derogatory remark. And my career isn’t based in football so I can’t imagine what Allie LaForce or Sam Ponder have dealt with. They want fans behind you, right? It’s a great shot. But you can hear everything. And I mean everything from ‘Hey honey!’ to some highly inappropriate things. I’m sure those women who have been around a while get really good at blocking those things out. But, for me, it’s my biggest challenge.”
And those are the fans who are willing to shout out something in person. The digital age we live in now fosters a whole faction of cowards who find it real easy to hide behind a screen and a keyboard.
“People can basically send you a text, it’s just called Twitter,” Rowley said. “With my job, I can’t ignore Twitter. I’m not allowed to. So, yes, you can ignore the messages… but you still see them. It’s the mental battle I still struggle with all the time.”
Getting worked up, she continued.
“It’s really interesting to me that people actually think they can hit ‘send’ but also think that what they’re sending won’t affect someone for the next 24 hours. Or the next 48 hours. Or the next week. Yet it happens every day.”
Hammer not only agrees but says the comments aren’t always sexual in nature. That a lot of them actually come from an interesting section of the audience.
“You know who I get more hate mail from? Women.” she said. “One time, I wore a grey sweater that was short sleeved and was told it was ‘too tight.’ She then asked me if I had just left the gym in that shirt.”
Fashion choices? True constructive criticism, indeed. </sarcasm>
“I’ve literally had a woman contact me on all three social media platforms – to make sure I saw it, I guess — saying that she was disappointed because the shade of blue I was wearing was closer to St. Louis blue than it was to Predator blue,” Rowley recalled. “It just blows my mind. Forget how much time and effort I put into every question. If you don’t like my opinion, fine. But the piece of fabric on my back shouldn’t say anything about me as a reporter.”
When you already feel like you’re on an island due to the lack of women in your profession, unnecessary negativity must make the island feel even smaller than usual. After all, people in your own demographic should be able to understand and relate. That can be hard to accept. So what’s the therapy method?
“I call my mom and dad and I read them every comment,” Hammer admitted with a smile. “That’s how I deal with it. That’s why my dad is the greatest human being alive. He always says ‘Just worry about Kara.’”
The lack of respect comes from a lot of different factors but one of the main ones seems to be assumed resume. A man on TV or in radio is given the benefit of the doubt. He most likely grew up around baseball or football and wanted a job as close to a locker room as possible. But what about a woman? How did she get there? What could she possibly know?
“People think women don’t know sports,” Teresa Walker, Tennessee Sports Editor for the Associated Press, said. “I used to be challenged by my own brother who would call and quiz me with ‘How many points did Michael Jordan have last night?’ And it was like ‘Seriously?’”
Walker is a University of Tennessee graduate who celebrated her 27th anniversary with the AP this past December. She’s been covering the Titans since they moved from Houston to Nashville and the Predators since their inception. Along with the growth of the NFL and NHL in Middle Tennessee over the years, she’s also witnessed the growth of gender tolerance in her profession. With that unique perspective though, comes stories from the front lines.
“I was talking to a high school football coach one time and, after we were done, he said ‘You ask good questions for a girl,’” Walker recalled. “It stunned me to the point where I couldn’t muster a comeback until later which was ‘Well, you give good answers for a coach.’ I really wish I could go back in time and say that.”
As in life, for every negative, there’s a positive. The key – also as in life – is to embrace the positive.
“Society is starting to evolve more to where a woman is a lot more accepted,” Rowley said. “It’s nowhere near what it used to be. Even when I started my career six years ago, it’s much more accepted now to see a woman on television talking about sports.”
“I see more women in higher positions,” she said with pride. “Jenny Dial Creech is a columnist with the Houston Chronicle. One of my bosses, Noreen Gillespie, is Deputy Sports Editor for the Associated Press. And I worked for many many years under Terry Taylor as a sports editor for the Associated Press. So I see more of that than I used to. That said, I work in the state of Tennessee and I can count on one hand the number of women working sports for a newspaper or TV organization in this state. Autumn Allison up in Clarksville, Lauren Moore in Maryville, Kara Hammer here in Nashville.”
Another symbol that the times are a-changin’ is someone’s immediate recall when asked to name a female in sports journalism. As Rowley points out, that answer has changed as of late.
“When I was breaking into the business, they would say ‘who’s going to be the next Erin Andrews?’ as if there could only be one,” she said. “It’s not like that anymore. Now there’s Sam Ponder and Allie LaForce and Kathryn Tappen. Those women stand out on their own platform and there’s not just one woman people associate with sports.”
Most people decide in college what they want to do for a career. Others find their calling during childhood.
“My daycare was whatever sport was going on at Ohio Dominican University where my mom coached,” Rowley said of her sporting DNA. “My nanny was one of the women’s basketball players. And I remember looking forward to Saturday’s when I was a kid because I got to watch football with my Dad and eat Rooster’s Wings.”
Hammer’s story, on the other hand, was born through a chance meeting.
“We used to have a professional women’s basketball team in Denver,” Hammer recalled. “I was probably 8 or 9 and we were at the grocery store King Soopers. I recognized this lady I saw in an aisle so I had my mom follow her out to the car while I was riding in the cart. I asked her ‘Sorry. Are you Debbie Black? I come to your games.’ And you could see it on her face. She said she had never been recognized out in public before and she was so excited that some little girl was coming to her games. She opened her trunk, gave me a basketball and signed it for me.”
Having a parent who’s a coach and meeting an athlete out in public are just two examples of sparking the flame. Unfortunately, a regular assumption by viewers is that a woman only got the job because she’s attractive or, perhaps even, because she used her assets to land the gig.
“There are a million pretty faces lined up down the block,” Rowley said. “But, if you don’t know what you’re talking about… Sure, you may get a job. But you won’t last.”
It’s important to realize that knowledge and work ethic are still the most important factors in the sports broadcasting field.
“We don’t just put on makeup and stand out there,” Hammer added. “A lot of hard work goes into what we do. There has to be a commitment to the work. The girls you do see who are extremely beautiful but maybe aren’t as talented or driven, they may not last as long as the girls who know their [expletive].”
Know your [expletive]. That’s the foundation. The audience needs to, without hesitation, believe the person they’re watching, reading or listening to. They don’t have to agree with their opinion but they do have to believe them. A sports reporter must learn about each sport, understand personalities inside each locker room, respect the marketable storylines and have the ability to convey all of that in an abbreviated amount of time, via a TV hit or radio guest spot.
And that’s regardless of gender.
“I probably know as much about rodeo as I do about college basketball,” Hammer said. “There was a time where I could tell you the top 15, the money they’ve collected, their rankings and what rodeos they’d won. I’d get these sports guys who would come in from the city who had never covered a rodeo. I had to take them out and teach them.”
A rare moment in which a woman got the opportunity to take her male counterpart under her wing and educate him about a sport.
The pressure doesn’t just come from the viewer or the listener. Unfortunately, it’s also an uphill battle from the inside.
“Earlier in my career, a male colleague was on the 50-yard line so I walked out to the 50-yard line,” Hammer said. “If that’s where we’re watching practice from then that’s where I’m going to go. So I walked out there. He immediately put his arm around me and walked me off the field. Why? Why can’t I be on the field?”
Now, in fairness, is there an element of the “pretty face” stereotype? Of course. But that’s media, right? Assuming candidates are equally qualified, an attractive person – man or woman – will get a job over a non-attractive person more often than not. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only qualification. Hard work has to go along with whatever else they have going on.
“People sometimes don’t understand that a lot of the network girls they see have started in local markets,” Hammer said. “Take Kris Budden who sidelines on ESPN. I look up to her a lot. She was in Knoxville for six years. Knoxville. That’s market 62. You know she carried her own camera and tripod over there.”
“I don’t think it’s possible – at all – to just be a pretty face in this industry,” Rowley said. “You will not survive.”
Despite the uphill battle, Hammer, Rowley and Walker actively encourage young girls to embrace their sports dreams.
“Young girls often think it’s unattainable,” Rowley said. “It’s not unattainable. I did it. I didn’t even know I wanted to do it until I was 23. A lot of people think ‘Oh, I’ll get a break.’ Yeah, you’ll get a break but you’ll work your butt off to get it. So be ready.”
“Intern, intern, intern,” Hammer advised. “Put yourself out there. Take risks. Have a support system. Don’t burn bridges. Make friends with people in your first job because those are the people you’re going to run into down the road. And don’t be afraid to not make any money because, when you start out, you won’t.”
“Never be afraid to start at the bottom,” Walker added. “If somebody says they need you to go cover a high school game or they need you to go cover a scrimmage, don’t turn your nose down at it. Grab the opportunity and do it to the best of your ability. Treat everything as if it were the Super Bowl of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. It may not be the person you know that gets you a job but they may recommend you to someone else. Even if they don’t know you, they might work with someone who does.”
Walker is a mother of one and knows the challenges of working in the industry and having a family. But she also knows that shouldn’t deter a young girl wanting a career in sports.
“It’s tough working nights and weekends period but when you’re a woman trying to have a personal life?” she said. “I’m lucky. I got married before I got [assigned] the NFL team or the NHL team. My husband is very supportive of what I do. It’s tough for a woman to find somebody who can understand that balance and let us chase our dreams.”
And, man or woman, it all starts with a dream.
“We never had great seats growing up and I’d always think ‘I’m going to be down there one day,’” Hammer said. “It always felt so far away. Or I would really want to go to something we couldn’t get tickets for or couldn’t afford. So I’d always say ‘I’m going to work in sports so I can be there one day.’”
And now she is.
And you can be too.