I was expecting horror stories.
I figured there’d be tales of harassment, reports of bigotry — accounts of discrimination that would spark shock, rage and sympathy all at once. Fortunately — and refreshingly — I was wrong.
Like most people, I was stunned when Panthers quarterback Cam Newton remarked how “funny” it was for a woman to be asking him about routes Wednesday. Not because I thought sexism among athletes was dead, but because an athlete could be so blatant in expressing his prejudice.
It made me wonder what other female sports journalists have experienced in less publicized interactions, so I reached out to several in the Seattle area. The consensus? Sexism may exist, but nobody has seemed to feel it from a single player, coach or executive in this town.
“In the 17 years since I’ve moved to Seattle, I’ve never had a problem like that,” said television personality Jen Mueller, who covers the Mariners for ROOT Sports and serves as a sideline reporter for Seahawks radio. “Seattle fans should really be proud to cheer for the guys that they cheer for. They’re phenomenal young men who show me a lot of respect.”
A younger Mueller may have been skeptical that she would say something like that one day. In 2000, just before she moved to the Emerald City, Jen felt firsthand how certain men in sports media view her sex.
Three weeks into her job as an associate producer for a sports talk show in Dallas, Mueller was already booking guests and regularly throwing ideas out at meetings. Her boss didn’t like that, though.
“You were hired to wear short skirts and open doors,” he told her. “You weren’t hired to think.”
But such misogyny has been absent for Mueller in the clubhouses and interview rooms of Seattle. Doesn’t mean players won’t be short with her after a loss sometimes, but it has nothing to do with her being a woman.
Mueller feels she has been treated as an equal from Day 1 in this city. Shannon Drayer, the Mariners insider for 710 ESPN Seattle, can relate.
Drayer vividly recalls the nerves she felt on her first day on the Mariners beat in 2002. She was in Arizona for spring training, fretting that first step into what can be an intimidating clubhouse for newcomers.
Then, she felt one arm go around her left shoulder and another go around her right. It was Mike Cameron and Arthur Rhodes walking her through the locker room.
“There were probably 55 people in that clubhouse and just a couple that I knew. So to have two veterans like that saying ‘she’s OK’ — that was the coolest thing. They kind of literally and figuratively opened the door for me.” Drayer said. “I have always been comfortable asking questions with every team that I’ve covered. From Bret Boone to Mike Zunino, they were always willing to answer and talk to me like my peers.”
Drayer’s co-worker Jessamyn McIntyre, the executive producer at 710 ESPN Seattle, is pleased to hear stories like Shannon’s. Mainly because they echo her own experiences.
Also a sideline reporter for Washington State football, McIntyre said she has never felt slighted by a coach or an athlete because of her sex. She added that her colleagues frequently look to her for creative input and that she feels “completely respected in all the groups I work with.”
That’s why McIntyre was particularly irked by Newton’s “it’s funny” answer. It wasn’t so much that he said it — it’s that he may have caused people to think he reflects a decent percentage of modern-day athletes.
“I don’t think Cam Newton’s comments should make us feel like we’re back in the 70s,” said McIntyre, adding that “99 percent” of social media supported her after he made those comments. “I want the positive side to be told because of all this outrage. It’s like ‘hey, we’ve made progress’.”
Seattle Storm color commentator Elise Woodward, who has also covered the Seahawks, Mariners, Sonics and Huskies over her 20-year career, agrees. She looks at all the women covering sports on various platforms and wonders how Newton could be so unaware.
“Why would he have that comment now? It was completely out of place,” Woodward said. “I thought we were so far past this that it was a slap in the face. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve never had anybody say anything like that to me.”
Stacy Rost, a Seahawks writer for 710 ESPN, hasn’t either. Granted, she’s only been in the biz three years and hasn’t had another team to compare to the one she covers. But based on her experience so far, she hopes the Seahawks are the norm.
“I’ve never had any problems with the players and have felt lucky to work around them,” Rost said.
So there you go. I interviewed five journalists who are different ages, work on different platforms and cover different teams. And not one of the five has come close to having a Cam Newton moment.
So is sexism in sports kaput? Of course not.
There is still sizable chasm between men and women when it comes to coaching, play-by-play announcing and front-office opportunities. You still have people such as former Cal assistant basketball coach Yann Hufnagel, who was fired last year for sexually harassing a female reporter. And despite the glowing reviews the aforementioned journalists gave the athletes they work with, they’ve still faced challenges elsewhere.
The first time the Seahawks played at CenturyLink Field, a guard denied Drayer entrance to the locker room because she was female. When McIntyre started her career at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, she constantly worried that one spelling error would earn her the title of “dumb girl” (although she added that this turned her into a perfectionist, which helped her in the long run.)
And while Rost is good friends with the regulars on the Seahawks beat — a group she says “is awesome to me” — there were little things she noticed about the male-dominated environment when she started out.
“It was nothing overt. Just maybe (other media members) not asking me about football the way they would the guys. You become hyper-aware of looking like you’re not informed,” Rost said. “I think a lot of people bashing Cam are a little hypocritical. And I think the situation offers a chance for people to think ‘how do I support women I work with? Do I share their work? Do I read their stuff?’ This is a good opportunity to ask those questions.”
She makes an interesting point. There are likely an array of subtle, even subconscious, actions men take around female sports journalists that they wouldn’t take around males. But that doesn’t mean the current state of affairs is discouraging.
Newton said something idiotic. It was unabashed sexism that went without an apology for more than 24 hours.
But if Seattle sports teams are any indication, he doesn’t represent athletes today. Thinking he does would be just plain funny.