Coutinho: Diversity Among Sports Reporters Has Made The Business Better

As many of you know I am not only a sports reporter but consult with many media outlets in ad sales and we all know how sexual harassment has began to be uncovered in so many businesses. And I can safely tell you that sexual harassment can lead to sexual assault which I have seen in my career over the years.
So here’s my message to the business world: Learn from the sports reporting industry and treat all members of your team with respect and that means ALL. I thought it was time to illustrate the pitfalls every business deals with in both uncovering and punishing the management personnel who exhibit this form of behavior. In most cases, these wrongful deeds are not only not uncovered–they are encouraged to be part of an immoral company culture. In my book Press Box Revolution I talked about it in vivid terms and here is that chapter that defines what the women trying to establish reporting careers had to endure and in some cases still endure. Diversity creates better reporting but when women started appearing in the locker rooms early in my career they were faced with many obstacles.
Here is that Chapter:
As I began my sports reporting career in the mid ’80 s, women still had not yet fully gained the access to the sports locker rooms that they have today. Once the process began, there were so many obstacles these women had to face and I saw firsthand how unfair some of the veteran sports reporters were to them, which made their jobs even tougher.
Claire Smith and Suzyn Waldman were reporters who were pioneers in breaking down those barriers and bringing much needed diversity into the sports reporting world. I have had intense respect for them both from the moment I first met them.
Claire Smith was the first women to ever cover Major League Baseball on a regular basis for any newspaper, serving as the New York Yankees beat reporter for the Hartford Courant for five years and followed that up by being a columnist for both the New York Times (1991 to 1998) and Philadelphia Inquirer (1998-2007). She currently holds the position of News Editor of Remote Productions at ESPN as her handprint can be vividly seen on programming like SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight.
She was the recipient of the 2017 J.G. Taylor Spink Award from The Baseball Hall of Fame, a long-overdue acknowledgement of her contribution to our industry. What Smith brought to the forefront is the fact that women deserved every right to stand alongside men in the locker room and she did it facing every roadblock you could imagine.
On my very first day covering the Mets in 1984, two well-known writers were chatting about how the presence of women in the locker room must be stopped. I honestly thought I was hearing a conversation in a time tunnel a hundred years earlier and could not believe my ears. In my early years in the business, I had female bosses while at both Lifetime and The Discovery Channel and  any chauvinistic tendencies I possessed were knocked out of me. But so many male reporters were still living in this macho world and their worst stereotypes of women came to the surface every single day.
I was saddened when I heard that Smith was physically removed from the San Diego Padres locker room during the 1984 National League Championship Series. To his credit,  Padres first basemen Steve Garvey met her outside the locker rroom and agreed to an interview which forced Major League Baseball to declare the next day that equal access in all baseball locker rooms must exist.
Think about that for a minute—she was physically removed by some clubhouse attendant and treated like a prisoner. But she knew deep down in her heart she had to stand up what she believed in and also was very cognizant this could be a watershed moment for all aspiring female reporters.
I talked with her briefly a few times in my early days as a reporter and she gave me solid advice on how to act in a locker room and how to work every corner of a baseball clubhouse. I was impressed that she did this for someone she barely knew and her advice would only help me. To this day, I remember that when a young reporter asks me a question I try to exhibit the same patience and class that she exhibited to me so I can help someone in the same fashion she helped me.
From a broadcasting standpoint, Suzyn Waldman is also someone every one of us should look up to and I believe she is deserving of winning the Ford Frick Award presented by the Baseball Hall of Fame for her contribution to baseball broadcasting . I hope to be in Cooperstown the day she is honored. Suzyn appeared on the New York scene in just as WFAN launched—in fact, she was the first voice ever heard on that July day in 1987 when sports radio hit The Big Apple airwaves. I got to know her in early ‘90s as she served in a multitude of roles at WFAN including Yankees and Knicks beat reporter while I was covering baseball and basketball for ABC Radio.
I enjoyed talking sports with her as she always chatted about it in such a conversational way. She also had a great way in the locker room as players really enjoyed talking to her and opened up in a much different way than they did with other reporters. When I joined WFAN in the mid 90’s, we already knew each other and she always made me feel welcome whenever we worked together on a shift or when I saw her at the ballpark.
We should never forget that she brokered the meeting that brought Yogi Berra and George Steinbrenner together after a fourteen-year period in which the two did not speak to each other and Berra stayed away from Yankee Stadium. Both men might have left each other without mending broken fences and she put that meeting together in her own way.
But I always heard the rumblings from my some of my male media colleagues that they thought they were better than her and even if they were nice to her outwardly, they tried to discredit her at every chance. I noticed it at WFAN’s studios in a vivid way one day when I was producing on a super busy Sunday NFL/late season baseball Sunday. Content was flying in all day that needed to be edited and Suzyn called in with a voice report which I told her she had to redo since Bernie Williams drove in four runs, not three as she had mentioned in the report.
She revised it and thanked me and then one of the other editors said to me that I should email management about the mistake because they always did that. I asked why as they sensed I questioned them with a very perturbed voice. They admitted that they only did with Suzyn’s reports and I said to them I would never do that to anyone. The important thing is the listener got the correct info and we are all here to help each other.
At that very moment, I totally understood why she would sometimes be gruff with the people taking in her reports. It reminded me of the idiotic conversations I had with writers who complained about the presence of women reporters. I learned early in my life that diversity is a good thing—and I was so lucky to be around Suzyn because her excellence taught me what I needed to get better at and she always offered advice in a one-on-one conversation—never in a large group. I will never be able to repay her for the help she gave me.
Suzyn was not only a pioneer for women but also for every one of us that serves as a radio baseball beat reporter because she created the need for this position that gave listeners inside information while providing an advertising revenue source all at the same time. If Suzyn and Ed Coleman did not do such a great job on their beats, I would never have been able to carve out my niche as a Mets beat reporter at ESPN Radio.
Waldman also became a radio talk show host at WFAN, later joined the YES Network, and now serves as a color analyst on the Yankees’ radio broadcast team with John Sterling. There is no woman in New York that has done more for eradicating the awful stereotypes that have existed for years in sportscasting. And she did with hard work coupled with caring about the young people in the business who will be our future reporters. Simply put, those are Hall Of Fame credentials.
Two notable incidents that brought the plight of female reporters to the forefront involved Erin Andrews and Lisa Olson. Both are very skilled reporters and sports fans have benefited from their work. While working at ESPN, I would occasionally see Erin Andrews and could see her knowledge of college sports was top of the line. She was able break down a game like a veteran while at the same time deliver in-game interviews that were very interesting because she did not ask the typical questions.
In 2009, Andrews was the victim of stalking when Michael David Barrett took videos from an adjoining hotel room and was arrested on charges of interstate stalking but the story got worse. Apparently, the hotel was involved in the incident as it provided Barrett with dates she was staying at the hotel as well as giving him the adjoining room granting him the access needed to record nude photos and distribute them on the Internet.
Barrett was convicted of the crime and a civil suit ensued where a jury awarded her $55 million in damages from both Barrett and the hotel. Andrews’s personal privacy was violated in a number of ways and to this day, some sports reporters snicker about it, indicating she knew about the photos. Nothing could be further from the truth and I was outraged by the ease in which this stalker gained access to recording her in the nude and distributing it online. Nobody deserves to be treated in that fashion and I give Andrews credit for seeing the civil case through without succumbing to the public pressure she had to endure—in essence, she became a victim twice.
The Lisa Olson story is just as troubling. While working at the Boston Herald in 1990, she was abused by several members of the New England Patriots who taunted her by walking naked right in front of her. Zeke Mowatt touched himself in a private place right in front of her which to me should have generated a season-long suspension by the NFL.
Olsen properly complained calling the incident “mind rape” while Patriots team owner Victor Kiam called her “a classic bitch” and then told a crude joke in public, asking, “What do the Iraqis have in common with Lisa Olson? They’ve both seen Patriot missiles up close.” Things got so bad for her that she received hate mail and death threats while her apartment was burglarized.
Lisa Olson transferred to Australia to write but returned to the United States in 1998, taking a position with the New York Daily News. This is a great writer who was treated so badly by both the people who for all intents and purposes assaulted her while at the same had to become a victim again as both the Patriots and the NFL turned their heads. Meeting her, you can readily see that she loves sports and writes about it so well.
Another trailblazer for women in sports was Nanci Donnellan, “The Fabulous Sports Babe,” who was a fixture in the early days of ESPN Radio. She performed the network’s first weekday syndicated sports show and was so popular she was heard in more than 500 cities around the country. She was also one of the prime reasons ESPN2 got off the ground as her radio show was simulcast on the network.
She was a trendsetter in two ways as she became the first female sports show host to ever be syndicated nationally and also provided the first real glimpse of a national show combining entertainment with sports. I will be the first to admit her style was brash but it honestly gave us a peek into the future.
Another trailblazer was Robin Roberts who we think of today as a newscaster but she did great work at ESPN. However, the courage she has shown goes far beyond her on-air work. Robin has faced so many health issues including both breast cancer and a disease of the bone marrow and yet continues to live her life to the fullest. In many ways, she was the most versatile broadcaster I’ve ever been around when you consider she excelled on both SportsCenter and Good Morning America. Her courage has no boundaries and every aspiring journalist needs to understand that she represents a professional that was given tough break after tough break but has never quit.
I firmly believe the trailblazers I have mentioned created an atmosphere where women can be treated equally in the sports reporting business. But there are always slipups and setbacks as we have seen over the years. I’ve been around so many women in this business I admire and I feel they must be applauded for never backing down.
They include Sam Ryan, Kim Jones, Linda Cohn, Hannah Storm, Meredith Marakovitz, Tina Cervasio, and Anita Marks. I have directly worked with each of them in the same companies and their resolve is a direct result of what the female trailblazers did in setting the stage for an equal playing field with the male broadcasters.
The sad thing is every so often even today you see women media people treated badly. Men can never understand what they go through because they never had to walk in their shoes. The best thing we can do is point out these incidents immediately and fight for their rights to have the same resources to do their jobs that men possess.
The Olson and Andrews stories bring out a huge point in today’s world—stalking can lead to sexual abuse. I have become directly involved with The Joyful Heart Foundation so I can learn more about spotting it as its founder, Mariska Hargitay (star of Law & Order SVU) is constantly using her resources to get the word out.
Nobody is ever going to make me believe that the NFL did not have knowledge of the Ray Rice footage before it was publicly revealed. They hid it because they did not want a scandal. I credit Major League Baseball for taking far greater steps than the NFL in a number of ways. They hold players accountable while demanding they take the necessary steps in rehabilitating themselves. And trust me those steps are real—they are monitored by numerous people and commissioner Rob Manfred takes this very seriously.
And I firmly believe the presence of female reporters have brought these issues to light much quicker than they would have had diversity not been present in the sports reporting world. Sports always mirrors society and sometimes when society has to take big steps, sports needs to lead the parade. They did in 1947 with Jackie Robinson. But women’s rights in this business took years to develop and the sports profession should be embarrassed about that.
In many ways the duo I mentioned at the top of this chapter, helped us catch up. And for that we must always be grateful for the contributions of Claire Smith and Suzyn Waldman—pioneers in every sense of the word.
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