There was the Major League Baseball player who dropped his pants in the locker room and called out her name so she’d turn around and see his penis hanging out. Then there was the player who started flirting with her at the venue before graduating to calling her room on the road, repeatedly asking her to “come down and watch a movie in his room.” She said no, of course, but the player in question wouldn’t speak with her for months after she declined his advances.
But the worst part was the rumors. At one point there was an NHL player who pulled her aside to say that one of his teammates was telling everyone on the team she covered that they had slept together.
“There was no paper trail, just my word against his, and since I was fighting an unknown enemy, I couldn’t even defend myself,” said the female television sports reporter, who has worked at the network level.
If you think such stories are uncommon, think again. Most women who work in the sports media have similar stories to tell.
When a female sports reporter who works for a major east coast outlet was new to the business, an MLB team employee asked for her phone number, which he said was for another media outlet who wanted to have her on one of their shows. Turned out, it was for a starter on the team. She didn't know this until the player started calling and texting her, asking her to send photos and to talk to him before games. She tried to explain the boundaries, but he kept contacting her regularly, despite her pleas to him and to the team employee who had passed on her number. It finally ended when he got hurt with a season-ending injury and left town.
“I've been invited to hotel rooms while on the road more times than I can count,” said one east coast-based female sports reporter who has worked for newspapers and websites. “One agent was fixated on me giving him a number of how many penises I had seen in locker rooms through the years and how they compared. I eventually stopped calling him, which meant that sometimes I was unable to get information I needed. I also recall trying to build a relationship with a team executive who I was pretty sure was a source for other reporters. We were supposed to meet up for a drink during a big work event, but he kept changing the subject away from work to my personal life and whether or not I was dating anyone. When he put his hand on my back, that was my cue to leave. I stopped trying to communicate with him, which was a professional disadvantage since he was most likely helping my competitors.”
Then there’s the female sports reporter based in a major market who has been asked out repeatedly by coaches, agents and players of various sports. Once, an NFL player told her that it was cool she was married because so was he. There was also the time a source offered to let her sleep in his hotel room during a championship game. Then there was the time the Division I basketball coach hit on her.
While covering hockey, one west coast-based sports television reporter recalled a player skating by during a practice to say, “Nice lip gloss, it'll look good on my c--- tonight.” There were the GMs over the years who told the woman that females should not be sports reporters. When traveling on the road with pro teams, the reporter said she had players knocking on her door at 4 a.m.
“Lots of the time it all starts on Twitter,” she said. “I follow athletes for information, they follow me back, they message me, continue to message me, etc. I've had a lot of good interactions on Twitter with athletes, professional relationships, but lots take them too far. They call at 5 a.m. They Snapchat inappropriate things. On the road, I make sure to not even make eye contact with players or even really talk to them unless I'm doing an interview. You block everything out or else you become a ‘whistle blower’ and no one wants to have you around.”
And on and on and on it goes.
Those who read this column likely have no idea how often such harassment happens to females who work in the sports media. Last week, after Norwood Teague resigned as athletic director at the University of Minnesota following two university employees accusing him of sexual harassment, Amelia Rayno, who covers the Minnesota men’s basketball team for Minneapolis's Star Tribune, wrote a first-person piece on Teague’s behavior toward her. Bravo to Rayno for giving light to the issue. She declined to speak further on the topic to SI.com, opting for the piece speak for itself.
The women in this story asked for anonymity, and it was granted. Why grant it? Because in the real world, there are repercussions, among colleagues, employers and especially with the teams they cover, for naming names.
Many women in the sports media are the only female reporters in a locker room (or one of a few) or at a press conference. All the women quoted in this story, and the other female sports media people with whom I spoke for it, have excellent journalism reputations.
What about taking legal action against those who create a hostile work environment?
“The problem with any of those suits, and I once considered one, is that proving it is so difficult and the repercussions in the business could be fatal,” a prominent reporter told me. “Who is going to hire a reporter who sues her employer or a team?”
In a well-done roundtable last week compiled by Kami Mattioli of the Sporting News, USA Today college sports reporter Nicole Auerbach offered a cautionary note for those in her field: “I have noticed that female reporters will often share stories of inappropriate behavior with other female reporters as a sort of warning—be careful of this guy, try this line if you're in a similar situation, etc.” Auerbach said. “Having other women in the industry to rely on and reach out to about various experiences is vital.”
To that end, Rayno had reached out to ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, one of the nation’s top college basketball reporters, for advice about how to proceed regarding her allegations of Teague’s harassment. O'Neil, Rayno said, advised her to immediately alert her editors.
I asked Jennifer Overman, the president of the Association for Women in Sports Media and an ESPN news editor, what she would have advised in the same situation.
The first and probably most important thing to do is to make your employer aware of what is going on,” Overman said. “Share any information you have—text messages, voicemails, emails, etc.—and keep copies for your own records. Even if you’re not entirely sure you’re reading a situation correctly, do not wait until it escalates or becomes a bigger problem. Do not try to handle it on your own, or ignore it, because it’s an important beat or a new job or you don’t want to be perceived in some sort of negative way. Maintain your professionalism with all involved and remember that harassment is never acceptable, whether this is your first job or your 10th.”
Something many women have told me, and something I’ve witnessed myself, is athletes flashing female reporters in the locker room and men in the sports field sending female reporters photos of themselves in various states of undress. Then there are the “grabbers” during live shots for women who appear on sports television. I could also write multiple columns on what women in the sports media deal with on social media.
“It doesn’t happen often, but I have had my breasts and butt squeezed, the old ‘hand at the small my back’ that slides down and/or across, a stolen kiss on the cheek, etc.,” said one female sports anchor in an east coast market. “While it all seems innocent enough, it can be really uncomfortable, particularly the subtle touching. It makes you feel like you are not even human but instead an object for someone else to ogle or fondle.”
On the issue of what responsibility a media entity such as the Star Tribune has for creating a safe workplace environment for female reporters, including when the harassment comes from an outside source, Marcia L. McCormick, a professor of law and director of the Wefel Center for Employment Law at Saint Louis University, said that a media company is like any other employer in that it is governed by state and federal law that prohibits employment discrimination.
“Maintaining a workplace free from harassment on the basis of sex for both men and women is part of that legal responsibility,” McCormick said. “The level of responsibility depends on the context in which the harassing conduct occurs. An employer is more responsible for the conduct of its managers and supervisors. It is less responsible for the conduct of those outside the employer’s control, like a source in the context of a reporter.”
McCormick said one way in which Rayno’s case is especially challenging is that it involves a female reporter in a male-dominated field.
“Reactions of some people to this story will be that the media entities should protect female reporters in ways we don't worry about when it comes to male reporters.” she said. “And that protection may take the form of not assigning them to beats that might expose them to men who might act in sexually provocative ways. The possibility of harassment has been used to limit opportunities for women to cover men's sports, which means fewer opportunities in general for women to be sports reporters, or reporters of any other predominantly male field.”
I asked McCormick how strong a case Rayno would have, if she indeed had one, against her employer on that grounds that her employer should have pursued action against Teague independent of what its employee did.
“Given the information currently available, it is not likely that Rayno would have a good case against the Star Tribune for discrimination,” McCormick said. “The Star Tribune only had to act reasonably, and not perfectly, to protect Rayno from Teague's harassment. Although there may have been some action the Star Tribune could have taken against Teague, perhaps by notifying the university of his conduct, it's hard to see a way it could do so without endangering Rayno from some sort of retaliation or backlash. The details of what happened, which the Star Tribune would probably have to reveal, would likely have revealed her identity. And a choice to do so might, in fact, make the Star Tribune liable if its action caused Teague to escalate his harassment or if its action caused others to harass or retaliate against Rayno for coming forward. The Star Tribune's independent action could have made Rayno's working environment worse.
“Where an employer provides no alternative, or no real alternative to the employee pursuing the claims on her own, the employer probably isn't acting reasonably to prevent or end the harassment," McCormick continued. “But giving an employee a real choice is likely going to be seen as reasonable. Again, this may seem like it doesn't protect female reporters enough, but supporting them to make decisions that will protect them and allow them to progress in their careers is a positive way to promote sex equality.”
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