NHWL: The rise of the Boston Pride

I’ve always been interested in seeing how women’s leagues compare to the more popular, well-known men’s leagues. Professional hockey is interesting to look at because the NHL has such a huge following. The National Women’s Hockey League is only in its second season, but it’s steadily gaining fans and recognition, so I went to a Boston Pride game to see what the atmosphere was like. They played at Warrior Ice Arena, which happens to be the Bruins’ practice facility. Although the game was nothing like an NHL game in terms of fan turnout, the Pride seemed to have gained a solid following.

This was my first-ever attempt at a news video, so I definitely experienced a good number of challenges in both shooting and editing the video. It’s a useful skill to have as a journalist, though.

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Column: Universities dropping the ball on athletes’ sexual assault cases

I wrote this column for The Huntington News, which appeared in the Feb. 22 version of the paper.

For as long as I can remember, stories of sexual assault have permeated my beloved sports world. As much as I would love to view sports as a pure, frivolous way to pass the time, I can’t ignore the fact that we’ve been hearing about sexual assault scandals more frequently than ever.

About a week ago, Michigan State University (MSU) officials announced they are investigating sexual assault allegations against three football players. Sound familiar? A simple Google search brings up countless results of cases like the one at MSU. University of Minnesota. University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Stanford University. University of Richmond. University of North Carolina. University of Southern California. And, of course, Baylor, where 31 football players have been accused of committing at least 52 acts of rape between 2011 and 2014. In fact, as I was writing this column, news broke of rape charges against UNC Charlotte quarterback Kevin Olsen, adding to the growing list of atrocities being committed by college athletes across the nation.

These allegations have become so normalized, and even expected at this point, that I barely even find myself getting outraged anymore, instead just feeling a helpless sense of frustration. The sheer quantity of cases and schools involved makes it obvious that these are not isolated, rare occurrences. And if this many stories are coming out of big-name universities, then how many cases are being swept under the rug at schools with smaller programs and less of a media presence?

Of course, it’s not just athletes who commit sexual assault on college campuses. It is a serious issue that sweeps across entire universities, and if we hear about so many high-profile athletes committing these acts, think of all the assaults being committed by non-athletes that receive absolutely no coverage. With these highly publicized cases involving athletes, however, schools have an opportunity to use a big stage to speak out against sexual assault, yet they tend to side with the athletes in most instances.

These cases all cause public relations headaches for the schools and their athletic departments, but in the grand scheme of things, the schools aren’t affected much. Their football and basketball programs will continue to bring in millions of dollars, and recruits will still happily commit to their teams, so the institutions don’t see much of a benefit from taking a stand.

The casual manner in which teams and universities handle sexual assault cases have done nothing to discourage athletes from committing similar acts in the future. An absolute zero-tolerance policy needs to be implemented. Under the current climate, where the repercussions for sexual assault can be anything from expulsion to a one-game suspension to no punishment at all, victims may be hesitant to report an incident if there’s a chance that it will have no effect. If universities and athletic programs were to send a harsher message, athletes would be less likely to commit these acts, and victims would be more likely to speak out.

In addition to a zero-tolerance policy, schools need to take more action to prevent sexual assault in the first place. I can’t pretend to know the extent of education regarding consent that student-athletes receive at each university. It is crucial, however, that these athletes—and college students in general—undergo in-depth trainings when they arrive at school (because somehow, even in 2017, the idea of consent is still a blurry concept for so many people). Although consent education won’t prevent all assaults, universities can at least make it clear what constitutes as sexual assault—because contrary to what people seem to think, consensual sex is not a confusing or ambiguous concept at all.

The misogynistic culture in sports ranges from subtle to absolutely appalling. It’s evident in the male athletes that make inappropriate comments toward female reporters. It’s evident in the Harvard men’s soccer team that created documents rating the women’s team based on appearance and sexual appeal. And it’s especially evident in the lengthy list of athletes accused of rape, and the programs that defend them instead of holding them accountable.

The scandals at Michigan State and UNC Charlotte are disgusting and heartbreaking, but not at all shocking. Universities and athletic programs have allowed this misogynistic culture to thrive, so it’s no surprise that even more schools have been added to the list this month; I will be amazed if MSU and UNC Charlotte decide to fight the trend and attempt to change that culture.

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Q&A with The Ringer’s Shea Serrano

In keeping this blog, I’ve reached out to a few high-profile sports media people for interviews, because what better way to learn about the industry than from the pros? Somehow, I’ve been pretty successful in getting responses, thanks to my mastery of the perfectly crafted, groveling email (shoutout to Mina Kimes and Melissa Ludtke). My luck has continued, because I can now add Shea Serrano to that list. 🙌

Serrano is the author of The New York Times best-selling book The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed and currently writes for The Ringer. Although I’m most familiar with Serrano’s sportswriting, he also covers pop culture topics like music and movies. His pieces are varied, including everything from lists (like this one, of the seven versions of Will Smith and this one on dunk celebrations in the NBA) to visual elements and video clips (see: NBA Character Examinations and The NBA Guide to Shooting Your Shot).

He’s known for his strong Twitter presence and an overall funny, conversational writing style (even evident in his response when I emailed asking if he’d do the Q&A…)

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Continuing with my recent theme of diversity in sports media, I thought Serrano—a Mexican-American writer who is fairly vocal about social issues—would be an interesting interview subject for this blog.

Thanks to Shea for answering my questions and continuing to help out the little people (and if you’re not already following him on Twitter, do it. Now.)

 

Why do you think it’s important for news organizations to hire more diverse voices (like more females or more racial diversity)?

Because it makes for a rounder, more compelling, more thorough working environment. Stories just come out better when you’ve got that sort of influence there. Also, it helps to keep things balanced (or, at least, more balanced than they’d be otherwise). That’s important.

You’ve obviously written about subjects other than just sports, so do you consider yourself a traditional sportswriter, or do you prefer to keep that title more open to include topics in pop culture/politics/music/etc?

It doesn’t matter to me what people call me or my job title. If someone asks what I do for a living, I just tell them that I’m a writer and an author. That seems to cover all things. If they ask for specific things, then I tell them I write about sports and music and movies and whatnot. People don’t press too much beyond that. But yeah, it doesn’t make a difference to me what I get listed as.

On that note, how would you describe your writing style? And how has the Ringer allowed you to express and embrace that style?

I try to make my writing as conversational as possible. If you can do that –if you can take a thing and turn it into a conversation– then things work out okay (at least with respect to the things I’m trying to write about). As far as The Ringer, I really like working there because they’ do exactly what you mentioned: they allow you to express your style and they embrace your style. The editors are very good at taking a thing you’ve written, cleaning it up, and making it sound like an even better version of yourself. That’s important in a workplace, I think. I remember one of the very first conversations I had with Bill Simmons –and I hope I’m not betraying his trust here by telling this– but I remember that conversation very vividly. He pulled me to the side and said something like, “I don’t want you to worry about anything else except for writing things. We’ll take care of everything else. Your job is to just write, take chances, be creative, be bold. Just write. That’s all we want you to do.” And, I mean, you’re talking about I’m fresh in the writing game and here’s Bill Simmons, one of the most prominent and successful writers working today, and he’s putting that trust and that confidence in you? Come on. What else do you need?

How has Twitter and social media helped advance your career and make sort of a brand for yourself?

Ha. I think more than anything else it just helps you to connect to a bunch of people and to spread your message to those people and build things with those people. I’ve been fortunate in that the following I’ve built up on Twitter feels less like a following and more like just a bunch of my homies. I know that sounds corny and silly, but that’s just what it is.

How do you react to people who tell athletes or sportswriters to “stick to sports” after they make social/political commentary?

I think that’s obviously dumb. That’s like if I’m at a party and I’m talking to a dentist and he’s like, “I think Hillary…” and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stick to molars, bro.”

Do you think sportswriters have a responsibility to comment on issues outside of sports?

I don’t know. Probably. I definitely think I should speak on issues outside of sports (or music or movies or whatever), but that’s just because that’s how I feel, you know what I’m saying? I know for certain that I feel like if you have any sort of platform you should use it to advocate for things that are good and just and right. I think it’s selfish and cowardly to not do that.

A question I’m sure you hear a lot of – would you ever consider podcasting?

I would consider it, sure. It’s just that all the podcasts at The Ringer are handled by Tate Frazier, who hates me immensely. We got into a big argument my first week there and ever since then he’s made it impossible for me to have my own podcast. I said, “Tate, we have to get past this. Is there anything I can do to get my own podcast?” He said, and I will never forget this, he said, “Yes. You have to eat an entire trampoline.” I said, “What the fuck?” He said, “The whole thing.” And that was that. We haven’t spoken since. That was six months ago.

Who are some of the sportswriters/broadcasters that you read/watch the most?

I only read everyone at The Ringer and nobody else anywhere. Not a single other person.

 

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Q&A with ESPN’s Mina Kimes

Mina Kimes has been my sports journalistic idol for the past few months (though she’s been thriving in the field for much longer). I mentioned her in a previous blog post in regards to her outstanding story on Tyreek Hill and domestic violence, a piece that really made me think about covering tough subjects as a journalist and the thought process that goes into getting the story just right. Kimes has written for Fortune and Bloomberg and now is one of ESPN’s most talented writers, making the flawless transition from covering business to sports. She has really mastered a style of writing that goes beyond the Xs and Os of sports – one that explores human relationships and social issues within the context of the game.

Kimes was kind enough to answer some questions about her career and give me her thoughts on the industry. As a woman who has found immense success in sports journalism and who has covered some really deep topics, she offers great insight that is especially relevant to this blog.

 

Your career started with business writing before you switched to sports, so you have a pretty broad view of journalism. What is your response to people who may say sports journalism is easy, or isn’t “hard-hitting” like other types of journalism?

I’ve found that sportswriting is easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Easier because, for the most part, I’m writing for a large, passionate audience; if I profile an NFL player, for example, I know that a ton of people will read the story because of the subject matter alone. But it’s hard to be original. There’s so much content around sports and so much of it is pegged to the same material. We’re all writing about the same athletes, following the same storylines, going to the same games. It takes a lot of effort to find novel angles and narratives.

Sportswriting doesn’t have the same obvious impact as business or political journalism. Our stories rarely change public policy. But they can draw attention to issues that affect everyone–issues like race, gender, business and politics. Most great sports stories aren’t just about sports.

In what ways do you think having more women in sports media helps the industry? What do female journalists bring to the table that’s maybe different or unique?

It’s fantastic because it brings more perspectives, and encourages other women (particularly younger ones) to pursue the field. Growing up, it never occurred to me that I could write about sports.

People often ask me if it’s hard being a woman in this industry. I actually see it as a tremendous advantage–especially in dealing with athletes, many of whom are accustomed to interacting with journalists with similar backgrounds. It’s good to stand out. And as an Asian American woman, I bring a singular point of view and set of experiences to reporting. I feel that allows me to engage with interview subjects in a unique way and see stories in a different light.

What would you say is the best way for female sports journalists to combat sexist remarks (whether it’s on Twitter, face-to-face, etc.)? Do you tend to respond/ignore/laugh it off?

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at times. Not the really gross, ridiculous stuff, but the subtler insults–especially from men who use their names and faces online, and who probably don’t think they’re acting out of turn. But I rarely engage with them, mainly because doing so would consume so much of my time–which, if you think about it, would be handing the trolls a victory. So for that reason, I generally think it’s better to mute and block people–unless there’s a really good burn to be had at a hater’s expense.

What made you want to do the longform piece on Tyreek Hill, and why did you choose to include your own voice in the piece?

I decided to write that essay because it had been on my mind for months. It’s something I started thinking about the moment Hill was drafted, and then continued to ponder as the season went on and I found myself talking about him as a football player on various radio shows and podcasts. The more I thought about it, the murkier I felt about the subject. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him, his story, or the appropriate response to it–so I decided to do some reporting and then write about it, which is my favorite way to work through a complicated issue.

Who are some of the female journalists or broadcasters in the field that you follow or admire?

I look up to so many of my colleagues at ESPN: Ramona Shelburne, Liz Merrill, and Kate Fagan, to name a few. On television, I admire everything Jemele Hill has done–and I love the work of Katie Nolan, who is ferociously funny and uncompromising. Outside of sports, I have huge writer crushes on Pamela Colloff, Jeanne Marie Laskas, Kathryn Schultz…I could go on. It’s a long list.

 

Thanks again to Mina for these fascinating answers. We should all look forward to reading her future work, but for now, enjoy this piece on Von Miller, one of the most interesting players in the NFL and the star of my beloved Broncos.

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Breaking barriers of race in sports media

I’ve been preaching the importance of elevating female sports reporters and broadcasters to the same level as men, but in order to have a fully well-rounded news room or studio, it’s equally as crucial that we see more racial diversity as well. Although women and people of color have made advancements in the sports journalism field in recent years, positions of power  such as editor positions  are still largely monopolized by white men. As recently as 2014, more than 90 percent of sports editors were white males. White men take up the most space in other positions too, as analysts and columnists.

For those reasons, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith‘s rise to prominence is incredibly impressive. Despite the odds, they have cemented their place as some of the top analysts and broadcasters in the business as a result of their hard work and unique talent. In 2013, they started Numbers Never Lie (later renamed His & Hers), a sports debate show that also included hints of social and political commentary. In early February, Hill and Smith moved to the 6 p.m. slot of SportsCenter. Instead of the traditional highlight-reel commentary that is common on the show, the duo has brought the familiar flair from His & Hers to the SportsCenter gig, incorporating in-depth analysis and pop culture discussions. Hill and Smith bring an unapologetically black style to the show without watering anything down or holding anything back. Their strong opinions allow them to infuse their personalities into sports commentary, making for a genuine, impactful show.

One reason that this type of diversity in sports media is so necessary is to reflect the diversity of the audiences. For example, this chart shows that African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic people spend more time watching the NBA on television than white people. With the primetime evening slot, Hill and Smith represent all viewers on the biggest platform.

In a recent podcast with Richard Deitsch, Smith and Hill spoke about potential criticism they may receive for their style of commentary, much of which focuses on racial issues.

“[The public] will watch a black person  or even two black people  host SportsCenter, but are people going to be turned off, and literally turn off SportsCenter when they see two black people advocating for Black Lives Matter?” Smith said. “That’s going to turn people off. That has turned people off. That’s never something that’s discouraged us from opining when necessary and appropriate…on matters of sports and society.”

He also mentioned the responsibility they feel to continue to highlight issues like race and gender on the show.

“We’d be going out of our way if we didn’t address some of these issues that have bubbled to the surface and dominated the sports conversation, be it matters of gender, domestic violence, sexual assault, you know, race, and the police force,” he said. “All of those different issues, we owe it to ourselves as individuals, we owe it to the audience, we owe it to society to continue to drive those conversations.”

Dan Le Batard, the Cuban-American host of Highly Questionable, is another success story of diversity in sports media. Because of his unique perspective, Le Batard can offer thoughtful commentary and harsh criticism, and often does so through the lens of race and politics (example 1 and example 2).

Similarly, the late Stuart Scott will forever be remembered as one of the trailblazers in bringing his own voice to sports broadcasting. These quotes from Steve Wulf’s moving piece on Scott speak to the impact he had:

“There were successful African-American sportscasters at the time,” says ESPN director of news Vince Doria, who oversaw the studio programming for ESPN2 back then. “But Stuart spoke a much different language … that appealed to a young demographic, particularly a young African-American demographic.”

“He was a trailblazer,” says ESPN anchor Stan Verrett, “not only because he was black — obviously black — but because of his style, his demeanor, his presentation. He did not shy away from the fact that he was a black man, and that allowed the rest of us who came along to just be ourselves.”

“Yes, he brought hip-hop into the conversation,” says Jay Harris, “but I would go further than that. He brought in the barber shop, the church, R&B, soul music. Soul, period.”

So many of the storylines in sports are centered around social issues because sports are a reflection of society. Elevating the voices of the marginalized to the highest platforms is crucial in addressing those issues and adequately representing the diversity of fans. With more non-white people in highly visible and prominent ranks like the examples I mentioned above, sports coverage will continue to become even more inclusive and meaningful – something that will benefit us all.

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Connecticut continues to bulldoze opponents

What better time for a UConn women’s basketball appreciation post? On Monday night, the Huskies won their 100th-straight game, further cementing their status as a sports dynasty. Most people already knew how great UConn is, but there is something about the milestone “100” that makes the program seem even more impressive and untouchable. More than half of UConn’s 100 wins came by a 40-or-more-point margin, according to this interesting visual piece by New York Times.

Women’s college basketball is by no means the most popular sport among viewers, but the two most recent championship games (both involving UConn) drew three million viewers, likely due to the fact that people were curious if the Huskies would win again (they did). UConn has now won the last four NCAA championships, and has won 10 times since 2000.

People may argue that UConn’s dominance is bad for women’s college basketball because no other team stands a chance, which diminishes the competitive appeal of the sport. Although this may be partially true, I would argue that UConn’s incredible program has been instrumental in bringing women’s basketball to the attention of mainstream sports consumers. In the grand scheme of sports, we rarely talk about women’s basketball, so maybe the public needed a program like UConn to accomplish incredible feats in order to be interested. Maybe the conversation surrounding the UConn team will extend to women’s hoops in general. Sometimes the public needs a storyline to latch on to, especially in less popular sports that don’t receive as much attention on a daily basis. If this UConn team can bring light to women’s basketball as a whole, I’m all for the dominance to continue.

Photo courtesy Mobilus in Mobili 

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Why we really need female sports journalists

The discussion regarding women in sports media is always a little head-scratching to me. News organizations executives are quick to preach the importance of diversity in the media industry, but they never actually say why. They pat themselves on the back for hiring women, but they reduce those women down to statistics rather than the valuable voices they are. Having more women in sports media is important, but sometimes I question those executives’ intentions. Sports media organizations have been making efforts towards being more inclusive, but are they hiring women for good reasons, or just so they can label their organizations as diverse? In fact, it’s tough to find any mention of the actual benefits of hiring female sports journalists (If you are interested in the numbers, however, here are a few studies from Poynter and the Women’s Media Center).

For that reason, I’d like to highlight the reasons why women truly help the sports media industry — other than fulfilling some vague claim of diversification. One of the biggest ways that women succeed in sports journalism is by using their unique eye for human interest stories. Melissa Ludtke, the former Sports Illustrated writer I spoke to, gave me her thoughts on this idea.

“I really brought to — what was then the leading sports magazine in the country, Sports Illustrated — very fresh ideas,” she explained. “I would see things through different eyes, and I’d look at things with different questions than I think were typically brought into the conversation by what had been a previously all-male press corps.”

Ludtke used the example of a story she wrote in 1978, which ended up as the feature of the SI baseball preview issue (what she called “prime real estate”). She spent a full season interviewing catchers and umpire crews in the MBL to craft a story detailing the experiences of catchers and their interactions with home plate umpires. She credits idea for the story to her ability to observe and be perceptive.

“I think one reason that I saw it was I picked up on conversations that probably weren’t of great interest because they were much more subtle, and involved the relationships that existed between these two human beings brought together in a strategic way,” she said.

“Within the coverage of the games themselves, women can see different things and ask different questions,” Ludtke added. “Their interests are somewhat different, and what they’ve been trained to see, or nurtured to see, or acclimated to see from their perspectives as women are very different.”

Take a look at the excellent and thoughtful piece here. Ludtke’s in-depth reporting is evident, as she successfully captures the intricate rapport between her subjects through dialogue and description.

Another reason that Ludtke brought up, which is something I have mentioned in an earlier post, is that women seem to lead the charge in hard-hitting coverage on domestic assault.

“You now have women calling out athletes for behavior that, for years, they were getting away with,” she said.

Rachel Nichols, for example, has been known to use some of her best journalistic skills when covering domestic violence, like her interview with Roger Goodell, who came under fire for the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse cases. Nichols refused to back down in the interview. I didn’t hear of any male journalist putting that type of pressure on the commissioner.

Ludtke acknowledged that not all women stick to human interest-type stories and that plenty of females offer excellent analysis and commentary on the games themselves, but she offered an interesting comment that seems to encompass women’s success in sports really well.

“Society has raised [women] to see the world much more relationally than men are expected to,” she said. “So it just makes the difference. A game, a team, is really a collection of relationships, and those relationships matter to how well the team functions. So, when you think about women coming in and covering a team over a season, they’re going to be looking at different aspects of it.”

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