Female sportswriters written off when it comes to the top jobs Number of workers increase, but problems still exist

December 24, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

After seven years of chasing down the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants for quotes as a baseball writer for the Sacramento Bee, Susan Fornoff wasn't sure she wanted to be a sports columnist.

"All the travel and the baseball life sapped my enthusiasm for sports," Fornoff said. "When the off-season came, I didn't want to go to a 49ers game or a Warriors game. I wanted to just be as far away from sports as I could, which is unfortunate, because I have a lot of enthusiasm for it. It wasn't until I left the baseball beat that I remembered that."

When her editors assigned her some columns, Fornoff, a sportswriter for 13 years, found her passion again. When slots for two columnists opened at the Bee, she made her availability for either position known.

"I couldn't get one of them," said Fornoff, a Baltimore native who is finishing a non-fiction book on women in sportswriting. "I was told that I hadn't found my voice yet. I guess my voice wasn't deep enough yet. The voice of the American sports section is the 35-year-old white guy."

What Fornoff, 34, discovered is what many female sportswriters find: It's hard to get to the top of their field.

"I'm not really sure if they're afraid we're going to do something," said Sandra Bailey, deputy sports editor of The New York Times and president of the Associated Press Sports Editors. "What do they think minorities and women are going to do? That is the biggest question I have. It's outrageous."

The overall picture is as murky for female sportswriters as it is for women in all aspects of athletics.

On the one hand, there are more women sportswriters than ever. The Association of Women in Sports Media counts about 400 members in its rolls, and most major newspapers have at least one woman on their sports staffs. (Of the 58 full-time members of The Baltimore Sun sports staff, seven are women.) Their assignments cover everything, including the Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, NBA playoffs, NCAA Final Four and Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I think that happened pretty early on in women's entry en masse into the business," Bailey said. "I don't think there are very many places left that say, 'I would question putting a woman on this assignment.' "

But the good news seems to end there.

AWSM does not keep a separate count of how many of its members are sportswriters, but Bailey said that a significant portion of its membership is made up of public relations professionals. Fornoff estimates that one of every 20 sportswriters is a woman.

The Newspaper Association of America says that 38 percent of all newspaper writers are women. There are no statistics for sports departments alone.

Though a number of women, such as Fornoff, write occasional sports columns, there are just a handful who do so regularly.

There are four newspapers with circulations of more than 100,000 that have women running their sports departments: the Seattle Times, the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. However, The Associated Press, the nation's largest wire service, recently named Terry Taylor as its sports editor.

Bailey said: "We [newspapers] are very good at examining other people, but I don't think we usually put ourselves through the same microscopes. We're big corporations, for the most part . . . and basically we operate like most of the other big corporations whose feet we hold to the fire on these types of things."

Of particular interest to women sportswriters is access to locker rooms, where nearly all post-game interviews are conducted.

Equal access to locker rooms for the four major pro

fessional team sports -- baseball, basketball, hockey and football -- is mandated by the governing bodies in those sports.

But locker-room access is limited by many colleges, where officials shepherd reporters into an interview room to wait for a few selected players.

Some women sportswriters say their presence in locker rooms has become more problematical since Lisa Olson, formerly with the Boston Herald, allegedly was sexually harassed by members of the New England Patriots after a practice in September 1990.

Olson, who entered the Patriots locker room after a player she had requested to speak with did not appear in the interview room, reportedly was taunted by several New England players.

The NFL fined the team and four players a combined $72,500 for their conduct, and Olson received a settlement that reportedly was at least $250,000 in a sexual harassment suit she filed against the Patriots and the players.

However, Olson, who was harassed on assignments by Boston fans, left the paper and is now working in Australia.

Tracy Dodds, a sportswriter for 19 years, is now sports editor of the Austin American-Statesman. She said that what Olson encountered is similar to what a lot of female reporters and broadcasters have endured.

"If I had made an issue of the things that happened to me in the early '70s, I might not be doing this now," said Dodds.

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