A couple years ago, after I made a sports talk radio appearance, a man emailed me to say that he never wanted to hear a woman talk about sports. I asked if that meant he would rather listen to a guy in a bar talk about something he knew nothing about or a woman who had spent her entire career as a sports journalist.
He wanted to listen to someone who knew nothing, as long as that someone was a man.
There may be plenty of listeners who feel as he does, but, like it or not, the sports media landscape is changing. Nowhere is that more apparent than in coverage of the NBA, a league which has always more nimbly and comfortably embraced politics and change than the NFL and other sports.
Just this week, three women made strides in broadcasting. ESPN’s Doris Burke was named a full-time analyst on NBA games, making her the first woman in that role on the national level. “I believe if the players and coaches respect my viewpoint of the game, then fans will as well,” Burke told Sports Illustrated. “And full credit there goes to the NBA and to ESPN. They are willing to put people like me in a position to do this. It’s pretty cool to have a greater role and the chance to continue to cover a sport that I love with the best players and coaches in the world.”
And CSN, soon to become NBC Sports Washington, made several bits of history Wednesday morning, naming WNBA champion and Olympic gold medalist Kara Lawson as the partner of the longtime Wizards play-by-play man, Steve Buckhantz, on games this season. Lawson is just the second full-time color television analyst in the franchise’s history, and at 36, one of the youngest game broadcasters in the market. She’ll also become one of the first female primary analysts for an NBA team, joining Sarah Kustok, who got the Brooklyn Nets job with YES last week. (Other NBA teams employ female analysts as part of three-person booths.) In 2015, Stephanie Ready broke through as the league’s first female full-time analyst, working Charlotte Hornets broadcasts.
Lawson told The Post’s Dan Steinberg on Wednesday that Jerry Reynolds, the Sacramento Kings’ color analyst, “was the first person to tell me, my first year, that ‘Hey, you know, you’re good enough to do this for a team.’ And I remember looking at him like, really? Not that I didn’t think I was good enough, but there were no women doing it, you know, and there were no women doing it at the national level. There were no women doing anything. So I was confident I was good enough to do it, it was just a matter of would things change enough for me to get that opportunity.”
Lawson sees the WNBA as a natural steppingstone for women. “They’re so intelligent, they know the game so well, and they can articulate, and they can anticipate. I mean, I can count a dozen right now that would be phenomenal broadcasters, or coaches, or front office [executives], in the NBA,” she told Steinberg, adding that there is an “untapped reservoir of potential talent for the NBA.”
Kustok, meanwhile, said that the ground she’s helping break isn’t always a welcome focus.
“It’s a dream to get to do. You talk about being a female — I don’t always love the attention on that,” she said on the “Road Trippin’ with RJ & Channing” podcast. “I just want to show up and do my job and be a part of a team. It’s the opportunity to still be part of a team and have that adrenaline rush. It’s an incredible thing.”
The NBA has long afforded women more opportunities than other leagues, such as hiring two women as referees in 1997. (It took the NFL until just before the 2015 season to hire Sarah Thomas.) Ready herself is credited as the first female coach of a men’s professional league, serving as an NBA D-League assistant from 2001 to 2003. In 2009, Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman became the first female head coach in the D-League and later moved to a front-office position. She is now an assistant with the NBA’s Kings. Becky Hammon, a former WNBA player, first broke into the elite circle of NBA coaches in August 2014 because the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich liked what he saw from her when she sat in on meetings while she was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament during her time with San Antonio’s WNBA team. Popovich, who made Hammon the league’s first full-time female assistant, has touted Hammon as a prospective head coach and, in 2015, Hammon coached the Spurs to the NBA Summer League title in Las Vegas.
“I don’t even look at it as, well, she’s the first female this and that and the other. She’s a coach, and she’s good at it,” Popovich said. “I think some people thought this was some kind of gimmick or we were just trying to be cool. I’m glad she’s there. I respect her opinion, I enjoy the give-and-take with her, and when she went to the summer league, that stuff’s about development. … That was her purpose at summer league, and she did a great job trying to make guys play the way we wanted them to play.”
Three years ago, Michele Roberts became the first woman to head a major sports union in the United States when she was chosen to lead the National Basketball Players Association. “When I sought the job, I was obviously aware being a woman was of some significance,” Roberts told The Undefeated. “But it did not occur to me that getting the job would be received the way it has been received. It’s wonderful getting letters and emails from young women of color, or otherwise, who talk about how impressed and motivated they are about my having the job. And so it occurs to me, I certainly intended to be the best executive director in the history of the union, anyway. But now I better because the thought is if I’m not, then there’ll always be some silly person who says, well, she was a girl.”
And this week, The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner profiled Danielle Cantor, who holds a unique role as the only female agent, among 30 certified by the NBPA, to solely represent an active player, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon. But some things haven’t changed. Cantor, who is a partner in David Falk’s F.A.M.E. agency, told Parker that one owner’s wife mistook her for Falk’s girlfriend. “My goal is to prove myself with owners and GMs, so they know who I am and they respect me — which I think has happened,” Cantor said. “But I’ve had to work my a– off to prove myself.”
That much, for both women and men in sports, will never change.