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Women in Sports Lose a Pioneer

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A tough week for journalism was made even tougher on Thursday, when pioneering baseball reporter Alison Gordon died in Toronto at age 72.

Gordon was the first female beat writer in Major League Baseball, covering the Toronto Blue Jays for the Toronto Star starting in 1979. A slew of tributes have come down in the days since her passing, with women across sports journalism remembering Gordon for paving the way for future generations of female reporters.

With all the strides women in sports media have made since Gordon, the state of the industry seems to be at a crossroads. In print and digital, women now occupy senior-level reporting and editing roles. The percentage of women among sports editors, assistant sports editors and sports copy editors have all risen in the past few years. From ESPN’s Jane McManus to Sports Illustrated’s Emma Span, women are carrying forth Gordon’s legacy.

But even with a larger female presence in sports media, progress has been disappointingly slow, and the industry remains far from egalitarian. According to the most recent report by the Women’s Media Center, in print and digital, 90 percent of sports editors, 90 percent of sports columnists and 88 percent of sports reporters are men.

It should be noted that many of the women included in these studies are employed by ESPN. If you discounted the 23 columnists at ESPN, the percentage of female columnists throughout the industry would drop to 4.8 percent. 

ESPN actually raises a notable conundrum in the issue. The Worldwide Leader's women's site, espnW, has inspired much debate over its contributions to female sports reporting. On the one hand, given the rising popularity of women's sports, it gets harder to explain the continued dearth of female sportswriters. And espnW addresses that aspect, with a site dedicated to coverage of women, by women, for women.

On the other hand, when it launched, espnW was accused by some feminists of creating a “pink ghetto,” a women’s site under the guise of “separate but equal” that would do more harm than good by sequestering women’s sports to its own URL and leaving the men’s sports on the main site, still largely covered by men. It seems the best way to get all fans caring about women’s stories and the women who write them would be to integrate them among the men. And if the second part of the conundrum has to do with the rise of female fans of men’s sports, a separate site would do little to change that.

In the years since espnW launched, I think the results have been somewhat mixed, but overall positive. It’s true that many of the stories of female athletes and women’s sports don’t feature prominently among ESPN’s endemic male readership. But that might be more of a failure of the broader operation to promote women’s stories than of espnW itself.

Rather, espnW’s impact can be seen with women’s stories that already have national appeal -- most recently, Ray Rice. At a time when the conversation about hitting women was largely, tone-deafeningly dominated by men, McManus, regularly the Jets and Giants beat writer for ESPN New York, led the coverage for the site. Her pieces for espnW were routinely featured atop ESPN.com and showed the impact a women’s sports site can have when given proper support.

Overall, however, things are probably worst on television, where female journalists get pushed to support roles such as sideline reporting in an industry that emphasizes their entertainment value over their sports insight. The problem was particularly stark during Ray Rice coverage, but has since arisen with Greg Hardy’s case and the problematic framing of his victim as a gold-digger.

As I’ve written before, employing women in these nominal roles doesn’t just skew the coverage -- it also devalues female journalists in the eyes of sports fans already inclined to hostility. In this age of social media, the level of fan harassment has risen astronomically, and disproportionately targets women. CBS Sports Radio’s Amy Lawrence wrote about the Twitter abuse she suffered during the Ray Rice story, describing everything from sexual harassment to threats. “In my 10 years in network radio,” she wrote, “that was the worst it’s ever been.”

I think if Gordon were still with us, she’d lament how far we really are from normalizing the role of women in sports. Yet it’s only because of women like her that we can even uphold equality as a goal, that we can expect and demand better than what we have. The biggest tribute we can pay her is to continue to fight for it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net