By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009
In 26 years as a TV sports journalist, Andrea Kremer has done just about everything. She's produced and directed highlight programs, reported on the Olympics and the NFL, hosted panel-discussion shows and won Emmy Awards for her feature stories. Tomorrow, she'll be part of NBC's Super Bowl reporting team.
There's only one gap in Kremer's otherwise glittering résumé: She's never done play-by-play of a major league game. Nor has she ever been asked to be the "color" analyst on a game broadcast. "That," she says with a slight twinge of anguish, "is another story."
It's a story familiar to Kremer's female colleagues. As women have risen in sports television over the past 20 years, they've bumped up against a glass (or perhaps grass) ceiling. Women have been reporting sports on TV for decades -- remember Sarah Palin's early work as a sportscaster? -- but broadcasting the games themselves has remained mostly out of reach. Only a rare few have ever attained the two most prominent on-air roles in network sports TV -- that is, calling the action or sitting in the second chair as commentators.
Tomorrow, just as they have for the previous XLII Super Bowls, men (Al Michaels and John Madden) will be "in the booth." Kremer will occupy a secondary role, reporting from the sidelines -- about the only place outside a studio you're likely to see a woman during a big game.
Men will also take the leading roles in announcing the NCAA basketball Final Four, the Masters golf championship, the World Series, the NBA championships, NASCAR races and just about every glamorous sporting event. During the Olympics last summer, NBC had only one female play-by-play announcer (Andrea Joyce) among the dozens of sports it covered, and her assignment was rhythmic gymnastics, a sport in which men do not compete. Men are even behind the mike for the few marquee women's sports events, such as the college basketball finals.
For the record, female sportscasters like Kremer and Lesley Visser -- the first woman to do sideline reporting on "Monday Night Football" -- say they're grateful for the opportunities they've had and the progress they've made. When she started out as a sportswriter for the Boston Globe in 1974, Visser recalls, her press credentials often carried the notation, "No women or children allowed in the press box." As a result, she says, "it's very comforting to me to say that women are sideline reporters now."
Erin Andrews, ESPN's rising sideline star, strikes a similar theme: "I'm really content with what I'm doing right now. That's not to say that women don't have a place in play-by-play, but . . . I really like being the eyes and ears on the field."
But privately, some women seethe with resentment. "This is the most misogynist part of society," says one, wary of offending her bosses. "It's the last bastion of acceptable sexism." Another adds, "I truly believe you could put Pam Oliver [of Fox], Suzy Kolber [and] Michele Tafoya [of ESPN], Lesley Visser and Andrea Kremer in a booth and they'd completely hold their own. But they've never, ever been given a chance."
In the unequal playing field that is TV sports, these women say, a physically unattractive man (say, John Madden or Howard Cosell) can thrive, but an unattractive woman has no chance. At the same time, while a female sportscaster of a certain age can kiss her TV career goodbye, a man of similar age is lauded for his maturity and experience.
Female reporters also face hazards on the field that men in a similar position never have to contend with. In an infamous sideline interview in 2003, a drunken Joe Namath made a sloppy pass at Kolber ("I wanna kiss you"). During the Rose Bowl this month, USC linebacker Rey Maualuga walked up behind an unsuspecting Andrews on the sidelines and did an impromptu dance, dutifully captured by a fan in the stands and uploaded to the Internet. (USC later issued an apology to ESPN.)
Andrews won't comment about the incident now, but she notes: "I feel I constantly have to prove myself out there. People are always in shock to find out that a woman can be as big a sports fan or as knowledgeable as a man." Tall, blond and glamorous, Andrews is the subject of worshipful YouTube videos and the object of salacious comments and trashy gossip on Internet chat boards -- something Dick Enberg or Joe Buck probably never had to contend with.
ESPN's top personnel executive says the absence of women is in part a reflection of what fans want. "Women have historically moved toward sideline reporters because that is what has been acceptable," says Laurie Orlando, a senior vice president of the all-sports network. "The industry is changing, and of course, this, too, will change."
Women haven't been completely absent from the TV booth, but the number who have done play-by-play on national TV can be counted on one hand. In 2000, with little fanfare, ESPN assigned Pam Ward to announce three college games. Ward, who grew up in Prince George's County and attended the University of Maryland, has since become a regular ESPN football announcer, handling Big Ten games. ESPN has also used Doris Burke on men's and women's basketball and Beth Mowins on women's basketball games.
In its entire history, NFL football -- TV's most popular sport -- has had only one female announcer. She lasted an afternoon.
In the end of the 1987 season, Gayle Sierens called a Chiefs-Seahawks game for NBC. Sierens, now a newscaster in Tampa (site of this year's Super Bowl), declined NBC's offer to broadcast several more games during the 1988 season, and no woman has gotten the assignment since then. (NBC declined to comment for this article.)
The NFL defends its record by pointing out that it has used six women in on-air roles on the league's cable channel, the NFL Network. What it doesn't say is that none have ever announced a game. A league spokesman, Greg Aiello, says in an e-mailed statement: "NFL Network certainly will consider these and other female broadcasters for future play-by-play roles based on their interest and opportunities to do play-by-play on NFL Network, which at this point are very limited."
Some female sportscasters aren't buying it. "There's really no reason why a woman couldn't handle those jobs," says Lindsay Czarniak, the sports co-anchor for Washington's WRC (Channel 4), and a pit-crew reporter on TNT's telecasts of NASCAR races. "I don't feel there's a real reason it hasn't happened yet. Maybe people haven't fought hard enough for it."
Or maybe it's because there are so few women in decision-making roles at the networks, says Marj Snyder, an executive at the Women's Sports Foundation, a New York organization that promotes equal opportunity in sports. "I don't think men consciously discriminate," Snyder says. "If I'm a guy in a position of authority, my working network of contacts is going to be other guys. You just have to make a conscious effort" to recruit from a wider pool.
ESPN's Orlando suggests the problem is bigger than any one network: "Women have to be interested in doing play-by-play and the fans have to accept them in that role. That will take time."
Have patience, says Visser. "I think change is very slow," she says. "The last segments of society men have wanted to give up [control over] were sports and Wall Street. But it's going to happen."