By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 13, 2007 12:08 PM
Kelli Johnson, Comcast Sports Net's beat reporter covering the Washington Redskins, still remembers a rather heated discussion she had on live television with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams shortly after the Redskins had lost a game in Kansas City in 2005. The subject that day was LaVar Arrington, and Johnson kept pressing a clearly perturbed Williams as to why the linebacker wasn't seeing any action.
"We got into it pretty good," Johnson said the other day. "But afterward, when he was getting ready to leave, he said to me, 'good job.' He respected me for it. I think in our business, if they don't have a problem with you, maybe you ought to be concerned. It would bother me a lot more if they didn't take me seriously."
At Redskins Park they clearly take Johnson very seriously. The only female reporter assigned to the team on a full-time daily basis for any area media outlet clearly has earned the respect of players, coaches and her fellow reporters she competes against every day.
"She's extremely well-prepared," said Paul Woody of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the dean of Redskins beat reporters now in his 28th year covering the franchise for his newspaper. "She's intelligent, she's knowledgeable and she asks good questions. And she's also persistent in getting answers from people. She is very good at what she does, one of the best I've seen doing that job."
Johnson, 31 and in her fourth year covering the Redskins, does plenty for Comcast, particularly during the football season. She's at Redskins Park almost every day, reporting and doing locker room interviews for the cable network's nightly sports news shows as well as preparing stories for the weekly pre-game show. She also handles post-game player and coaching interviews, and during the preseason, was a sideline reporter for Channel 9's game coverage team.
During the football season, she also may occasionally be called upon to anchor the 10 o'clock sports report, and in the off-season, she also spends a number of nights in the anchor chair, as well as reporting on the Capitals, Wizards and Nationals, among many other assignments she's been asked to handle since arriving here from a four-year stint with the NBC affiliate in St. Louis.
Before Johnson began covering the Redskins, she had a long conversation with Christine Brennan, now a sports columnist for USA Today. Back in the 1980s, Brennan was a Washington Post sportswriter and the first woman beat reporter ever to cover the football team full-time, paving the way for several generations of women now covering NFL teams all around the league. Johnson simply wanted to get a sense of what she might expect in the mostly all-male atmosphere at Redskins Park.
"As a woman, the biggest challenge comes the first time you walk in the door," Johnson said. "The first questions you ask you're establishing your credentials. I'm sure there were people who wondered 'does she know her stuff?' For a woman, every time you open your mouth, in a sense you're being tested, and you always have to be on your game. You feel like you're always being assessed, but I think that's all in the past for me. I think I'm accepted for who I am and what I do.
"I never felt like there was a lot of resistance to me being out here. If people doubted me or resisted me, I certainly didn't see it, and I sure don't see it now."
As a four-year starter for the University of Idaho women's basketball team who had several offers to play professionally after college, Johnson never really envisioned a career in sports journalism when she left school. Her father was a high school baseball coach, her mother was a highly-regarded gymnastics coach back home in Moscow, Idaho, and "I just kind of fell into this."
She originally thought she'd go into sports marketing or public relations, but in her junior year at Idaho, she got an internship through a cousin with a Seattle television station. "I thought it was kind of cool," she said. "If you can't play the game, why not be around the game?"
After graduation, she took a job as a weekend sports anchor for a small television station in Medford, Ore., staying ten months before moving to a regional cable network in Austin, Texas where she was half of a two-person reporting staff. Eighteen months later, she moved to the NBC affiliate in St. Louis to do sports reporting and occasional anchoring, then moved to Washington four years ago initially to cover the Orioles before moving over to the Redskins assignment.
"There's always pressure to break stories," she said of her current beat. "And that's a little harder doing television because you can know a lot of stuff and have all these unidentified sources, but on television, you need to get those people on camera. It's different than the print guys. It becomes a challenge and sometimes it can be frustrating because sometimes I know things, but I can't put it into a story.
"I enjoy doing the interviews. I try to ask the questions that need to be asked. I also take pride in sit-downs where you're just not talking football. You talk about their lives, their families. It's fun to get these guys to open up a little, and as a woman, it's an area I think I have an advantage. It's a little easier for a woman to show a softer side, to have a conversation about their lives. I think it's an area I excel in, and it makes for good television."
Johnson was particularly proud of an interview she did with safety Sean Taylor following his legal problems in Miami a few years ago. Taylor rarely speaks with reporters, print or broadcast, but Johnson was persistent and finally convinced him to go on live with her.
"I got him to open up more than he probably ever had," she said. "A lot of people came up to me afterward and said 'hey, I really liked him, I had never heard him talk like that.' Sometimes you can almost help a player let the fans see how they really are.
"I've also had people ask me 'why are you being so tough on them?' or tell me I'm being too negative. Hey, I'm doing my job. It's not personal. I've had players get a little cool with me for a period of time. But generally they know I'm doing my job, and they usually cool off. I like to think I'm always fair.
"I kind of still view myself as an athlete, and I think I know how to approach and phrase questions, when to ask certain things and when not to ask. I've been through slumps, battles with coaches, knowing what it's like to lose myself. Sometimes that helps me."
Johnson grew up pulling for the Seattle Seahawks, and clearly has no great emotional attachment to the Redskins. Like most beat reporters, she pulls for them to win, but only because she and every reporter who's ever covered any team knows it's far easier over the following week to interview players and coaches after a victory.
"Obviously, there are a lot of great people on this team and on the coaching staff," she said. "When you've been around them for four years, you obviously like to see them have success because you know how hard they work at it. But when I'm doing my job, I'm certainly not rooting for them."
When she was doing her job last summer as a sideline reporter for Channel 9, the so-called official preseason partner with the team, she was asked by the station to wear a polo shirt with a Redskins logo on the air, usually a no-no for any reporter worth his or her ink-stained shirt or blouse.
"I would have preferred not to," Johnson said. "I mean, they weren't even cute. But that was a decision made above my head, and I didn't make an issue out of it. There are so many battles you have to fight, and I just didn't think that was one of them. In my own mind, I was able to separate what I was doing on the sidelines from what I was doing as a reporter for Comcast. I was part of the game production, so I did it. But I also brought my own outfits to the stadium, and after the game, I found a place where I could change into my own clothes for the post-game show. I never wore that shirt when I was doing the interviews."
And where does Johnson go from here?
She's already had some feelers from the network level, and at some point, she can see herself doing sideline work during NFL games for one of the league's broadcast partners. But she also loves what she's doing now and has no great itch to switch.
"I like working for this regional network; it's really growing and we're going into a lot of markets," she said. "I've got the best of both worlds, really. I get a chance to anchor an all-sports show and cover a beat. The networks change their minds so much. Your life span on a network can be so short, especially as a woman.
"It's easy to throw in a woman who's just a cute skirt out there. But a lot of us have worked hard at this. We know our stuff and we don't need people to hold our hands. I do like the fact that more and more networks actually are putting on women who know what they're talking about. There are more opportunities. This is something I want to stay in. I'll just see where it takes me. In the broadcast business, you just never know."Back in the Booth
Good for The Washington Nationals in re-upping with television play-by-play man Bob Carpenter, who last week signed a one-year deal to continue doing games on MASN, with an option for a year after that.
The Nationals badly botched this unseemly episode, actually telling Carpenter late in the season he'd be wise to start looking for another job. That was before they realized some of the people they had in mind to replace him were either already under contract or not at all interested.
The Nationals also were bombarded with calls, letters and e-mails bemoaning the fact that Carpenter would no longer be with the team. At least the club came to its senses, realized a mistake had been made and finally did the right thing, sort of. Carpenter probably deserved a longer contract, say a three- or five-year deal, just as the team gave analyst Don Sutton. But at least Carpenter will be back in 2008, if not longer, and that's some consolation.E-Mail of the Week
I am a 50-year-old transplanted Washingtonian (not suburbs, but real upper 16th St., Shepard Park NW) and I have been in Colorado since 1988. As a software engineer, I guess I am a middle-aged fan who by career choice is "computer savvy." Your concerns related to handing out ballots for the Redskins Legends contest at the stadium, phoning in, and definitely the newspaper inserts were warranted, but came after the cow had left the barn. As soon as the contest was announced, I thought from a marketing perspective that newspaper ballot inserts would be nice since everyone may not even have a PC or internet access. As a minority, I may be more sensitive to those things than some others. I'm in the IT field, but I know there are many who do not have ready access to the technology, minority or not. Those who get to attend games are also privileged, but I also agree with you there. Phones are out. I can track a paper ballot or an online mouse click. Phone-in technology is so 1960.
All that said, these were issues that jumped out to me during the first week; did you notice them and raise the flag then, before your favorites got washed away? Brett Haber shouldn't get hammered; those hammering him should have phoned in to let him know this is a great idea and let's expand it to these other media sources as soon as it started. For him to get criticized now doesn't make him look bad, just those doing the hammering as being a little technologically challenged in assessing the problem before it became a problem.
Raymond N. Jones