In the field of sports journalism, female reporters have long been a rarity. The Washington Post stands out for assigning female journalists to lead its coverage of the four major Washington D.C. sports teams: Liz Clarke on the Redskins, Candace Buckner on the Wizards, Isabelle Khurshudyan on the Capitals and Chelsea Janes on the Nationals. They share what drew them to the male-dominated world of sports journalism and what the landscape looks like for women entering the field today.
What made you want to get into sports journalism?
Liz: I started my journalism career as a news reporter, covering the typical entry-level beats: school boards and cops; later, higher education. On the latter beat, I spent extensive time investigating and writing about academic fraud in college basketball, largely because the sports department at the paper for which I worked at the time wasn’t overly zealous in pursuing stories that were unflattering to a very popular local coach. The opportunity to switch from news reporting to sports was raised by the sports editor at a competing paper. It wasn’t a career fork I’d ever contemplated or sought. But this editor pointed out the value of and need for a “news-grounded” sportswriter to tackle the growing number of “off-the-field” issues in sports that were emerging in the 1990s. And it was largely because of his persuasiveness and a desire to broaden my skills that I switched to sports journalism. That was more than 25 years ago, and I’ve loved every bit of the journey since, which has included college sports, tennis, NASCAR, two World Cups, eight Olympics and several seasons on the Redskins.
Isabelle: It was actually pretty random because I was never athletic or played sports growing up. I was watching a Monday Night Football game with my dad when I was a freshman in high school. I think it was the Saints playing the Falcons. I was just kind of fascinated by it. I started watching ESPN regularly and reading good sports journalism. I had always been a strong writer in school, so combining that with sports seemed like a fun career. When I was a junior in high school, I would go help out after school at a local newspaper in Seneca, South Carolina, and the first thing they asked me to do was transcribe an interview. I thought it was the coolest assignment ever. Of course, now I hate transcribing, like pretty much every journalist. As a senior in high school, I got paid $50 a month to cover my high school’s sports for a small weekly paper. I stuck with it in college by writing for the student newspaper, and over time, I realized that I had fallen in love with journalism and not just writing about sports.
Chelsea: To be honest, much of my career is an accident. I played sports in college, and a girl across the hall wrote for the school paper. One evening, she was working on a story about the hockeyteam’s unofficial mascot — Captain America. She wasn’t having any luck getting in touch with the kid, which was easier for me because I knew several athletes. I asked her if it would help if I just wrote the story instead. I did, it was fun, and the rest is history.
Candace: I’ve always been drawn to sports. I can still remember being a kid and watching Lakers and Celtics on TV. I thought I was going to be the next Hannah Storm and work the sidelines for NBA on NBC telecasts. Then, around high school, I discovered the joys of writing and decided to go that route.
Are there any challenges you face being a female sports reporter in a male-dominated field?
Liz: Every reporter faces challenges on every beat. As a woman covering football, you might think that the challenges—specifically, the skepticism about a female sportswriter’s “credentials”—would be more pronounced. But I’ve never felt that playing football or playing any particular sport was a prerequisite for covering the sport, as long as the reporter is inquisitive, diligent and persistent. White House correspondents, for example, typically haven’t run for office, nor have war correspondents necessarily served in battle. So I don’t think about or dwell on challenges that being a female in a male-dominated field might present. The essence of the job is understanding the people, organizations and issues you cover and being smart, thorough and fair-minded in the way you portray them. As for the everyday “workplace issues” of laboring in a male-dominated workplace, I’ve never been bothered by that. I doubt that the cultural-gap presented by my particular male-dominated workplace is much different or more challenging than that facing women on Wall Street or in politics or any male-dominated profession. I have always been proud of my independence of thought and behavior. In nearly every respect, the best journalists are those who aren’t part of the reporting “herd.”
Isabelle: I think it’s a little bit harder to be taken seriously sometimes. It’s always felt like I’ve had to work harder for credibility with the fan base of whatever team I’m covering. There’s even less room for error to say or write the wrong thing because the perception is often that the mistake is as a result of me being a women and not a normal human who occasionally makes mistakes. But that almost makes it more rewarding when you finally do establish yourself as that authoritative voice on your beat and no one’s really ‘mansplaining to you anymore.
Chelsea: I tend to be of the opinion that standing in locker rooms with multi-millionaire athletes waiting for them to put on their pants so you can ask them questions is a challenging thing to do for anyone. But I do think challenges exist for me that might not for some of my male colleagues. I think it takes more for me to prove myself. I think agents, officials or players unfamiliar with my level of knowledge can be condescending, and therefore it takes longer to get to them to really talk baseball than it might for another. But generally speaking, I’ve had a great experience, and I think those women that came before me had to deal with much more than I do.
Candace: If you take one look at me, I’m sure the knee-jerk perception is that I know nothing about sports. But you overcome that challenge by knowing your stuff and by being good. It sounds simple, but when you walk into that locker room you have to be on top of your game, whether you’re male or female… but there’s more of an onus on you to be sharp when you’re the only woman in that space.
What unique perspectives do you think women bring to sports journalism?
Liz: While I hate to generalize, I do believe that quite often women have an especially keen, well developed “emotional IQ” to go along with their intelligence and work ethic. What I consider the essential elements of an emotional IQ–intuitiveness, compassion, awareness of and sensitivity to personal struggle–can be helpful in understanding the interpersonal dynamics that drive success (or failure) in team sports, as well as individual sports.
Isabelle: Sports tends to be framed as a male space, usually unintentionally. Having more women in sports journalism helps combat that. As an example, calling attention to a team’s [insert sport here]-in-heels night or the like because while it might be well-intentioned, just by actively trying to create a space for women feeds into the wrong mindset that there isn’t already one and that women specifically need education on the sport. The perspective women bring is noticing the things that the male majority in this industry usually don’t.
Chelsea: This is a tough one for me because I’m always wary of generalizing. I know that I tend to be more aware of emotions then some of my colleagues — or at least, tend to put more emphasis on them, for better or worse. I think the X’s and O’s and emotional ebbs and flows of the season have different relative importance to me than my male colleagues. Then again, that’s based on my experience alone. I’m not sure if it applies across the board.
Candace: Well, anyone who isn’t cut from the same cloth as everyone else in the room will always bring a different perspective. Personally, I like to find the human element in the game. Maybe men aren’t always searching beyond the Xs and Os, I’m sure some are but I believe that’s one of my strong suits. And women, because we’re pretty much awesome, have a keen sense of observation and an inquisitive nature. I think that makes us strong journalists.
What is your favorite story that you worked on?
Liz: Over more than two decades as a sports writer, I’ve worked on many stories I hold dear: Accounts of transcendent sporting events, profiles in which I felt I got at the essence of an athlete and some pieces written purely from the heart, weeping as I typed. But if I’m responding to this question in the strict sense—what story did I most enjoying “working on,” in which the pursuit of the narrative, the process of discovery and the pain of distilling it into prose was as meaningful to me as the end result–there is one. It was a description of the impact that the 2010 World Cup in South Africa had—and didn’t have—in a particular township in Johannesburg.
To me, the best sports stories reveal a sense of place. They also see beyond the heavily marketed pomp and pageantry of sports. This story, set in a small, impoverished pocket of Johannesburg known as Alexandra, where most of the 180,000 residents live in cramped shacks without running water, was my best effort to do that. I wrote it at the end of a six-week assignment in South Africa that took me from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back and taught me much about the country’s tremendous strides toward reconciliation post-Apartheid, as well as the scourge of poverty and joblessness that persists in so many townships in Apartheid’s aftermath.
Against the backdrop of Alexandra, I marveled at the power of the World Cup to bridge racial, ethnic and socio-economic divides and confronted its profligate expense and the windfall of glory and riches that accrue to relatively few.
I returned from this assignment a different person; to have worked on this story was a privilege.
Isabelle: I think it’s fun to reveal parts of the game that fans don’t see, so I had a lot of fun writing about hockey players trading and collecting other players’ sticks. I got to talk to a lot of players around the NHL about it, and there were some funny stories about the lengths players would go to for a stick they really want in their collection. It’s done behind the scenes, so a lot fans didn’t know about that aspect of hockey culture, that players can be fans and memorabilia nuts, too.
Chelsea: I think my favorite is a simple high school football championship game I covered a couple years ago. For some reason, it just meant a lot to me. I’d followed the team involved for two seasons, heard coach after coach talk about how much it might mean to finally win a title after trying for so long. When they did it, they rolled — absolute blowout, no doubt. Many of those coaches had given up a great deal to stay at those jobs or help out some of the players through tough family times or academic troubles. Knowing what that game meant to them and their community reminded me why I think sports are so important in the first place. They just matter, and they change lives.
Candace: Since joining The Post, I enjoyed working on my profile on Wizards coach Scott Brooks. The challenge was that he’s a well-known basketball figure but I wanted to write a story that revealed him like never before. After spending time with him in Southern California and exploring his roots, calling as many people as possible including his kindergarten classmate, I was able to write a piece that revealed Scott Brooks the man, not just the basketball coach.
What advice do you have for women thinking of becoming sports reporters?
Liz: Above all, pursue it as you would any other profession—work hard, show up early and stay late, seek out mentors, solicit criticism, learn from mistakes and persist in the face of adversity. Each reporter ultimately develops his or her own style of interviewing and building relationships on a beat. But in my experience as a woman who interacts almost daily with athletes and coaches, most of whom are men, one guiding principle has served me well: Never exploit being female and never apologize for it. By that I mean: Comport yourself like a professional who expects to be judged on the merits of her work. With rare exception, in my experience, you’ll be treated that way.
Isabelle: Don’t consider being a woman as an obstacle or a disadvantage. For the most part, as long as I’ve been fair in my coverage, I’ve been treated with respect by the players and coaches that I cover. I think it’s all about how you approach the job, so if you don’t allow your gender to be a limitation in what you’re writing about or what questions you’re asking, then it won’t be.
Chelsea: Try. And be yourself. I firmly believe that one of my greatest weapons is my memorability. I’m one of the only females on the major league baseball beat, so players and managers remember me. I’ve sometimes felt a push to be like women I see on TV, or other female reporters I see taking different approaches — for better or worse. But as a woman, you stand out, you don’t have to try to be anything to be something people notice. So just be yourself, and do what’s comfortable. Corny, but hopefully coherent.
Candace: Don’t be afraid to develop your voice. You bring something new that readers/viewers haven’t experienced before. So don’t try to be like everyone else. You’re not. Be unique and confident in your abilities.
All photos taken by The Washington Post’s McKenna Ewen.