“You tell me that a woman can’t do something,” writer and artist Robin Herman said recently. “I will either tell you, yes, a woman can, or show you myself.”
Herman, the first woman sports writer at the New York Times, certainly demonstrated that when she began covering pro hockey for the newspaper in the early ’70s. She was part of a small, bold group of women who broke into the all-male club of sports writers — and then into ballparks and locker rooms where sports news was being made.
As ESPN marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX with a series of documentaries, the cameras turn to the reporters’ story in Let Them Wear Towels, a Nine for IX special premiering at 8 tonight with replays at 9 and 10 p.m. (Yes, opposite Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. If you can’t ignore that spectacle, crank up the DVR.)
Writers like Melissa Ludtke, Claire Smith, Jane Gross, Lesley Visser, Lawrie Mifflin, Michele Himmelberg, Christine Brennan and Herman changed sports reporting as their bylines appeared across the country. There had been earlier writers, like Mary Garber in the ’40s, but this group was part of the wave of changes spurred by the women’s rights movement.
And they were people who brought considerable skill sets. After she stopped covering sports, Herman worked in the Times’ metro department and later for the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune. Then, she said, she started the communications office of the Harvard School of Public Health, spending close to 14 years there before retiring last year. If, that is, you can be retired while still writing, blogging, tweeting — and pursuing a newer interest in pastels and colored-pencil drawings.
But acceptance came slowly for many of those writing pioneers. In some cases it took legal action to ensure that the women journalists had the same access as their male counterparts.
Uneven playing field
Although the environment is very different today, sexism remains in sports and sports reporting. After the 2013 Wimbledon finals, BBC anchor John Inverdale said that women’s singles champ Marion Bartoli was “never going to be a looker.”
In 1990, reporter Lisa Olson was harassed by New England Patriots players, then vilified by the team owner and fans for talking about it. Some things had not changed in 20 years, or in 40. When with the Boston Bruins, Don Cherry was the first coach in major professional sports to give a woman reporter — Herman — equal access to athletes after a game. But, now a Canadian broadcaster, Cherry said in April that his thinking had changed.
He tried to justify his stance as being respectful toward women, reportedly saying “I have seen things and I have heard of things that go on in the dressing room … [that] are disgusting, … You would not want your daughter or your sister in there. Believe me.”
Still, it does a reporter no good to be on a pedestal if he or she still can’t get the best information from there. Locker rooms might indeed be disgusting — as Let Them Wear Towels makes clear. But they’re also places where athletes talk and news is made.
Missing out on top jobs
And even today, Herman said in a recent telephone interview, broadcasting has women as producers and camera operators and some on-camera jobs — but not in the most prestigious and high-paying ones.
“That would include play-by-play and color commentary in the major sports,” she said. “If you’re watching an NFL game, for example, the women that you see are down on the field giving 10-second, 15-second comments about what just happened. But they’re not in the anchor booth, analyzing the plays, or doing the color commentary.”
“You’ll hear sports executives say that the audience may not be comfortable with a woman broadcasting sports. But that same argument was made decades ago about women broadcasting national news,” she said. But now that Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric have anchored network news, Herman said, “no one would ever make that argument.”
To be sure, women analysts appear on women’s sports — but, as was the case not long ago at Wimbledon, they will be sent on their way when the men’s games are played. “It was really irksome,” Herman said. “You can see male ex-players as commentators on the women’s game. There’s no reason whatsoever that women shouldn’t be doing the analysis on the men’s game.”
So the battles described in the Nine for IX documentaries, including Let Them Wear Towels, still need to be heard, and not only because the topic here is sports.
“It’s always important to know history in order to preserve gains, and learn from it,” Herman said in a recent telephone interview. “I think that women now in many professions face many of the same kinds of barriers that we faced — in a very literal sense, a closed door. … It takes different forms, but barriers remain. … [For] women in particular who are visible in the media because they are at big companies or work for media or entertainment outlets — their own progress, and how they perform, and what they have to say, and how they look, is still judged in a way that men’s performance is not.”
Breaking down barriers
Herman saw those different levels of judgment well before she became a sports writer. In 1969, she was in the first freshman class at Princeton University to include women. (Consumer advisory: I was in the same class.) Facing traditionally all-male activities, she said, “Our response was to say, why can’t we? We are students here. We are equal students here.”
In Let Them Wear Towels, she recalls how male reporters on the campus newspaper were given both a news and sports beat while she was given only a news assignment; she insisted on doing sports, too, and covered the rugby team.
Princeton also had several a cappella groups and Herman, who had sung in an award-winning choir in high school, went to a tryout for one. Told it was men-only, she reminded them “you’ve never had a girl try out.” After she sang, she said the response was, “You’re really good. If we were adding women to the group, we’d certainly take you. But we’re not.” An all-women group formed in 1971, but the first coed ensemble did not come until 1973.
As for the Times, Herman said she was a “very positive and enthusiastic [and] naive” 21-year-old when she went to work for the Times after graduation in 1973. “The biggest surprise was the attention and notoriety. I was concerned about being a good enough writer and reporter to meet the standards of the New York Times. … But then the job took on social significance. Enormous social significance, given the context of the times — small T,” she said. The impact was cumulative, starting with the problem of access: having to wait outside locker rooms to talk to players. “I was surprised by the vehemence with which coaches, managers and owners would literally block the entrance to the locker room and say that women can’t do this.”
Having been through that at Princeton, she said it struck a nerve — another declaration that “women can’t do this job. That was wrong. That was unfair. ... I had just spent four years proving that women could do as well as men. … Don’t tell me women can’t.”
The Times didn’t; in an email follow-up to the phone interview, she said she “got great support and camaraderie from NY Times editors and fellow reporters. No problem there at all.”
Blazing a path
For about five years, she loved the job. She traveled across the U.S. and Canada, tracking the course junior hockey players took, starting in places like a town just 400 miles from the North Pole “to know first-hand the life these rookies came from.” But the joy waned. “I had had enough of going round and round the same circuit. The stories would repeat themselves. The coaches would repeat themselves. I got to a point where I knew what they were going to say after the game. … It just wasn’t challenging or interesting to me at that point.”
But she, and Ludtke, and Mifflin, and Smith, and all the others, gave other women a chance to pursue their own interests and challenges — and to push past anyone telling them they can’t.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.