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Widening the Playing Field

There are more people covering sports than at any time in history. In a field traditionally dominated by white males, the new online and on-the-air outlets are creating more opportunities for women and minority journalists.

This was not always the case. Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon (J80) remembers several incidents that helped bring racial discussions to the front page of sports sections. In 1987 Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis implied, on national TV, that African Americans lacked the natural ability to hold positions of power, specifically field manager and general manager, in baseball. A year later Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder was fired by CBS for saying African American athletes were better because they were bred that way during slavery.

"It's amazing that the race conversation started to take place openly only in the late '80s, early '90s, but that's when it happened," Wilbon says.

While sports journalists continued to expose stereotypes and fought for equality on rosters and in the front office, Wilbon admits that the journalism industry itself lagged.

"I knew that there should be more diversity, but after a while you get used to it," he says. "You get used to being the only black guy in the press box. Sportswriters were always shining a light on somebody else, but no one was shining a light on us."

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan (J80, GJ81) also sees vast improvement in the number of women now covering sports. Today she regularly gets calls from sports editors looking for women to hire.

But early in her undergraduate years Brennan barely considered a career in sports journalism, mainly because there were very few role models for her.

"I never read a female sports byline until I got to Chicago," Brennan says, still a bit shocked that she hadn't read a byline before then. "I never saw a woman covering sports on TV, except for Phyllis George of The NFL Today and the women who covered the Olympics every four years.

"There were probably a lot of women my age who wanted to go into sports journalism but didn't think they could," says Brennan, who initially made a name for herself by becoming the first female sports reporter to cover the Washington Redskins as a staff writer for the Washington Post in 1985.

Brennan believes getting more women into sports journalism starts with more coverage of female athletes. Then young girls will take a greater interest in sports and possibly see journalism as a way to embrace it.

"As a nation, we have just begun to see what Title IX means and how it will change things," Brennan says, referring to the 1972 law that requires schools that receive federal funding to provide equal opportunity for athletic participation to both genders. "Boys have had generations of playing and competing. Most of the women who have benefited from Title IX are still in their early 20s and 30s."

Last year Brennan realized how she could help give women athletes a leg up. During several visits to Northwestern, she spoke to a number of women's teams. Afterward, some student-athletes contacted her, asking for career advice.

To assist these women student-athletes, Brennan is working with the Northwestern athletic department to organize a special mentoring and networking session as part of the Women's Sports Reunion Weekend, April 18–20. She has invited nearly 50 female alumni and former Wildcat athletes — all of whom went on to successful professional careers — to meet and help guide Northwestern's female student-athletes.

"For someone who was not an athlete here at Northwestern, she has been a huge proponent of our women's sports," says Northwestern associate athletic director Noreen Morris. — R.M.

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Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post columnists Michael Wilbon, right, and Tony Kornheiser host Pardon the Interruption, a sports debate show that airs weekdays on ESPN.Courtesy of ESPN
Christine Brennan
Christine Brennan is a print and broadcast commentator.Photo by James Kegley