Where are female football announcers?
I saw an email this week that really made me smile.
My friend and colleague Amina Hussein has been named coordinating producer of ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown," meaning she oversees the production of the entire show -- from analysts to content. I know it doesn't seem like that big of a deal -- what goes on behind the camera usually doesn't to fans -- but to me it was significant. Not because she's the first woman in the job but because she isn't the first. Stephanie Druley oversaw all of ESPN's NFL programming before being named VP of the Longhorn Network.
This is all a great sign for women who love and work in sports, for women who love and work in football.
When Lesley Visser became first female NFL beat writer in 1976, her media credential actually said no women (or children) in the press box. If you think about it, that's not really much different from the "No Coloreds" signs that used to greet restaurant patrons at the door not even a full decade earlier.
I guess this is why Visser said "the players who were nicest to me were the black players because they knew what it was like to walk into a room and being the only one."
But just as we've managed to move past much of our racist past, we've moved past a lot of our sexism as well. Today women like Visser and my friends Amina, Roxanne Jones, who spent time as ESPN The Magazine's football editor, and of course Jemele Hill, Pam Oliver, Andrea Kremer and the countless others are intimately involved in every facet of how we see sports, particularly football.
Except in the booth.
For some reason that remains a tough egg for them to crack.
In 1987 Gayle Sierens was the first (and so far only) woman to do play-by-play for a national NFL game. That Chiefs-Seahawks matchup was blacked out in Kansas City and seen by only 10 percent of the country. In 2009, Visser became the first woman to do color for a televised NFL game, a preseason matchup between the Dolphins and the Saints.
Pam Ward was the first to get a full slate of college football play-by-play in 2009 (she had done games earlier in the decade, as well) and Beth Mowins has since joined her. And that, my friends, is about it on the national level.
Think about all of the football games -- both college and pro -- that have been on television over the past 25 years, yet literally only a handful of women have been in the booth. So as Amina's ascension behind the camera shows we've come a long way, this glaring absence in front of the microphone suggests we still have a ways to go. I'm not saying there should be a 50-50 gender split among broadcasters, but the presence of professional organizations such as Women in Sports and Events and the Association for Women in Sports Media would lead me to believe Ward and Mowins aren't the only ones qualified for these jobs.
Now here is where the naysayers start with their defensive chatter, like there are not a lot of women interested in football.
Well, according to the NFL, 44 percent of its fans are women, and revenue from female apparel is 21 times higher than it was 10 years ago.
You say maybe there's an announcing imbalance because women don't play the sport at the highest level?
Well, Jim Nantz, Marv Albert and Dick Stockton -- most of the play-by-play announcers and not a few color commentators -- haven't played "the sport" at the highest level either, and they seem to be doing just fine.
Women don't want the job? I don't think that's the case either. So I asked.
"I would do it, and I can think of 50 other women who would too," said USA Today sport columnist Christine Brennan. She's been in sports since 1981, became the first woman to cover the Washington Redskins soon thereafter and has worked in television for years, reporting for ABC News and ESPN among others. Brennan said if given the ample time to do the prep work and reporting, she would welcome the opportunity to be in the booth during football games.
"There have been thousands of incredibly talented women in sports journalism over the years, you mean to tell me in 2011 I can only think of two working in football booths?" she said. "Why is that?"
That's a damn good question.
It would be easy to just start bashing the establishment as a bunch of sexist Neanderthals -- and I'm sure there are some latent gender perceptions at play behind closed door -- but according to Laurie Orlando, senior vice president, talent development and planning at ESPN, there are other reasons too.
"A lot of women I talk to don't want to do play-by-play," she said. "They want to be sideline reporters or anchors. And it takes a lot of experience to be really good at it." Orlando said ESPN has been working with broadcasting schools to stress the importance of giving women in journalism programs play-by-play opportunities so they have the skills to work their way up to a national audience.
"I am not going to put someone in a position to fail," she said.
So how do we change that? And in case you're wondering, yes, we do need to change that.
Just as we needed to change the dynamics of hiring NFL head coaches, and did with the advent of the Rooney Rule. Just like we needed to give young girls fair access to athletics, which happened through Title IX. Men are not born with an innate knowledge of cover 2. We cannot sit back and hope the makeup of the booth will change through osmosis. Mechanisms need to be put in place to help facilitate a more inclusive environment.
Visser was recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of her 30-plus-year career as one of the best football reporters that ever was. She persevered even as athletes objected to her presence on the field, even as Houston Cougars coach Bill Yeoman yelled "I don't give a damn about no Equal Rights Amendment I ain't having a woman in my locker room" before escorting her out.
But Visser only got her start in sports at the Boston Globe because of a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. College football programs and conferences, the NFL and companies that show games, such as ESPN, need to work more closely with broadcasting schools to make sure young female athletes, as well as journalism students, have exposure to all aspects of media surrounding football.
Sideline reporting is hard work but you cannot tell me out of the 93 million women the NFL estimates watched games last season, that none of them are capable of joining Ward and Mowins in the booth. You can't tell me a reporter like a Selena Roberts is talented enough to take down Alex Rodriguez but can't be given the training to get comfortable in an NFL booth. This isn't just about being politically correct, it's about being fair as well as using a talented resource.
Not to knock the comedic genius that is Dennis Miller, but if there's room for him in the booth, surely there's room for more women such as Ward and Mowins or a Hannah Storm who are qualified sports veterans. If the nation can handle women running Fortune 500 companies, delivering the evening news or running for president, I think we can handle women describing and discussing a football game.
"I never thought about being a trailblazer," said Ward, ESPN's first female play-by-play analyst for college football games. "I just knew I loved sports and this was the only career path I pursued."
Or think about it this way: If you're a dad and your little girl said "I want to do that," pointing to a shot of the booth on TV, wouldn't you want her to grow up in a world where you truly felt that was possible?
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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