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Friday, February 17, 2012
Updated: February 20, 8:09 PM ET
Get used to it: Women cover sports

By Christina Kahrl
ESPN.com

Naturally, as press boxes and newsrooms have become increasingly diverse, women in the booth and at the keyboard have earned their place.

For some -- including me -- women like Gayle Gardner, who first appeared on the national stage with ESPN in 1983, have been role models. (It didn't hurt that I was a huge USFL fan back in the day.)

But even with the prominence that Gardner achieved, first at ESPN and later at NBC, she observed that "for women especially, this profession will never stop being a struggle with constant blows which must be taken."

In the years since, women have struggled to earn acceptance from the sports-watching audience. As Gardner cautions, presence alone is not the same thing as total acceptance.

An echo of that uncomfortable reality cropped up recently when ESPN removed and apologized for including "dislike female commentators" on a viewer response form.

Certainly, wherever women write about or analyze the games we love, you can find their work being dismissed by some segment of the audience on comment boards across the Web. It's easy to be a keyboard hero, showing off a personal brand of misogyny, however subtle, especially behind the timorous anonymity of a nom de Net.

As one blogger accredited by an MLB team said to me on condition of her anonymity: "The attacks have nothing to do with my writing or baseball knowledge, but rather focus almost exclusively on their opinion of my physical appearance. And it's not just men -- more than a few women participate in this as well. It's pretty much the oldest tactic on the Internet: Disagree with a woman, so you attack her appearance. Don't like what she says? Call her fat."

Yu Darvish
At one point in time, Yu Darvish would have been speaking to a male-only audience.

Claudia Perry, the first African-American female sports writer in Virginia in the '80s (with the Richmond Times-Dispatch) and an early member of Association of Women in Sports Media, sounds a note of resignation about progress where acceptance of women sports writers is concerned: "The saddest thing that I can say is that I don't think it's really changed that much. There's still the perception that you're still just a groupie with a notebook."

But there are signs of improvement. Wendy Thurm, a writer at FanGraphs and SBNation, notes that she's run into "nothing horrible, but a few comments like, 'But you're a woman, what do you know?' I let other commenters respond to the sexist comments."

That confidence in broader acceptance is reflected in Emma Span's experience as well. She has worked at the Village Voice and Baseball Prospectus and has written about gender-related issues in sports in her book "90% of the Game Is Half-Mental." As Span notes, she's also gotten the best and worst of reader comments. "One game recap I did for [the Yankees blog] Bronx Banter got a 'This is what happens when girls try to write about sports!' comment, which made me want to stab the guy in the kidneys. But he was shouted down by other commenters before I even saw it."

Span's a good example of a younger generation that has avoided being labeled sports writers with women's perspective, and instead been accepted as sports writers who just happen to be women. It's an important distinction that keeps the focus where it belongs: on their words, not their gender.

And focusing on what drives sports fansí' interests is also an effective adaptive technique. As Cecilia Tan, author of "The 50 Greatest Yankee Games," observes, "Yankees fans were pretty universally interested in the book, and uninterested in my gender." In the end, merit is the best way to guarantee acceptance: "I've got good stuff, and the Yankees are more important than whether or not I'm a girl."

Social media are also providing ready response critics. Thurm notes she's used social media to garner support, recalling that "at one time, I took to Twitter to point out an egregious comment and lots of folks came to my defense, men and women."

This kind of wider public shaming of bigoted behavior is one way to address the misogyny you'll still find, but not all experiences are so positive. The anonymous team blogger notes that she "was protected from most of it until Twitter became more popular. Before then, people had to go to my site, which required energy most of them don't have. For some reason, Twitter emboldens them."

That's depressing enough, but she goes on to say: "I have never felt physically in danger, mostly because keyboard warriors generally don't have the guts to say things in person. [But] I also try to be circumspect about what information I share. My boyfriend reads my Twitter feed and my blog to make sure I don't inadvertently share anything too personal/identifiable." A sensible precaution, but also a reflection of the kind of venom that can be conjured too easily.

Tom Brady
As crowds and media coverage of the biggest sporting events and stars has grown, so has the diversity of the people covering them.

Not to belabor my own backstory, but when I wrote under "Chris," I was certainly able to enjoy the benefits of life on the other side of the gender divide. I could count on a certain kind of sexist reader critique not showing up, whether that article was published by ESPN.com, Baseball Prospectus or the New York Sun. It was only after my byline changed that I started to receive emails and comments that featured a blend of condescension and outright dismissal, just because the article was written by "Christina."

My personal favorite was this response to an ESPN article about the 2011 NL MVP vote: "After reading this the image I saw in my mind was of some childish girl probably from the West Coast who can't stand the fact that her guy came out number two." Now, the reader was wrong on multiple accounts. I'm in Chicago and in my 40s, but the lowest accusation wasn't the juvenile sexism; it was that I might be a Dodgers fan for piping up on Matt Kemp's behalf.

In sports, that sort of ignorance is not unique to readers. One of my more amusing memories from my first game accredited as Christina Kahrl at the Nationals' press box back in May 2007 was having the wire service old-timer sitting next to me volunteer: "Trying to keep score, Miss? I can help you with that." Rather than react with outrage at what was probably just a well-meant gesture, I good-humoredly flipped back a page and slid over my scorebook -- sufficient physical evidence that I had a wee bit of experience -- for him to take a gander.

Perhaps that kind of patient diplomacy will be forever necessary. But one hopes the number of men who assume that women must know less, that they must need help talking about a topic that men know and love, is shrinking.

For the men reading this: Ask yourself how you would feel and how you would respond if the automatic assumption was that you were less capable because of what you are. Do you have the strength to withstand the "constant blows" that Gayle Gardner warns of?

Maybe you do and maybe you don't, but you'll never have to find out.

Ideally, we should all be judged and responded to on the merits of our work.

Women comprise an expanding segment of the sports audience across every league or game. As Forbes.com reported in 2011, women make up more than a third of the audience for major events like the World Series and NBA Finals. Forty percent of self-described NASCAR fans are women. Almost 46 percent of the audience for Super Bowl XLV was female. That same enthusiasm for sports is reflected in the growing numbers of women reporting on sports.

However much misogyny might be and may always be expressed by the audience, the growing diversity among fans and an increasing willingness of readers to stick up for the writers they enjoy means things are getting better -- and figure to get better still.

Christina Kahrl was a co-founder of Baseball Prospectus in 1996, was voted into the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2009 and is a member of ESPN.com's MLB editorial team. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChristinaKahrl.