Women remain conspicuous by absence in NFL game booths

Media Watch

August 25, 1998|By Milton Kent

Another pro football season is upon us, and, save for a little rules tweaking here and there and a new network, nothing much has changed in the game.

That's also true in the broadcast booths, where most of the usual suspects will return to call the action. And all of those suspects will be male.

Ever so slowly, but surely, women are finding more meaningful roles on football telecasts than what was afforded Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy on the old CBS "NFL Today," when their jobs essentially were to be on camera and look pretty.

This fall, for instance, women will have significant presences as reporters on all of the NFL pre-game shows, and Lesley Visser and Michele Tafoya will each roam the sidelines for ABC and CBS' NFL games, respectively.

But there will be no women wearing headsets in the booths on any of the four entities (ABC, CBS, ESPN or Fox) carrying NFL games this fall.

It's not as if women haven't been in the booths before. In the 1970s and '80s, Jane Chastain and Gayle Sierens did brief stints with CBS and NBC, respectively, but no one has tried it since.

The stock network answer that explains the absence of women in the booths is that, well, there are none available to do the job. CBS executive producer Terry Ewert, who recently hired six men to do play-by-play this fall, said that of the 60 audition tapes he received for NFL openings, none of them came from women.

The culprit, as Ewert and other network executives tell it, is that the group of competent, experienced women who could do play-by-play is small, bordering on nonexistent.

"It's not something that we look the other direction on," said Ewert last month. "But it's not a big pool of experienced people. It's not something that we will not necessarily entertain in the future."

Fox executive producer Ed Goren, who was with CBS in the mid-1970s when it put Chastain in the booth with Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier for a short time, said the experiment "did not work."

Sierens got exactly one week to show her play-by-play stuff, and fTC subsequently left sports broadcasting for news. She is currently an anchor in Tampa, Fla.

From there, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if a particular genre of work is closed to you, sensibly or not, you go to a different line of work, and most women sportscasters have gone the host/interviewer route, because that's where the work is.

Thankfully, some women are trying. The WNBA's presence allowed a chance for NBC, ESPN and Lifetime to hire women to call games last year, though NBC's Hannah Storm took this year off to give birth, while Tafoya and Robin Roberts are working this week.

There are others. Beth Mowins is frequently heard on some women's sports telecasts, ESPNEWS anchor and former WBAL Radio staffer Pam Ward gets an occasional women's college basketball game and Suzyn Waldman calls some Yankees games on New York television.

So, why can't any of them or some other woman get the keys to the booth?

Probably because the old boys (and a few new ones) are zealously holding on to them. For all of its potential to engineer change in our society, sports truly is one of the last bastions of sexism left in America.

But sexism isn't the only answer here. There's also probably a good amount of fear attached, too. It's as if some network executives believe that sports viewers will only accept so much change and that asking them to accept female faces and voices is more than they're capable of.

Of course, that was the logic that kept African-American broadcasters from working, and that was proven faulty. No doubt, keeping women out of the booth is just as silly.

Plot thickens

There may be more to this flap between Major League Baseball and ESPN over those three Sunday night games next month that ESPN wants to shift to ESPN2 so as to not go head-to-head against NFL games.

Baseball not only has a contract with the television wing of ESPN for those games, but it also has a new separate Sunday night pact with ESPN Radio, and rumblings from ESPN are that the company intends to enforce that aspect of the deal.

That could mean that baseball cannot return the broadcast rights to the three games in question -- San Francisco-Los Angeles on Sept. 6, St. Louis-Houston on Sept. 13 and the Orioles-Yankees on Sept. 20 -- back to the teams involved as they've announced.

That, in turn, could mean that the start time of the Orioles game may stay at 8 p.m. to satisfy the ESPN Radio deal, although there is another 8 p.m. game that day, with Anaheim playing host to Seattle, which could be substituted.

Pub Date: 8/25/98

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