In a world that embraces the pervasive myth that women are not sports fans, one where “throwing like a girl” is lobbed as a critique, women who write about sports face immense challenges. While women sportswriters may not necessarily write about female athletes, they still face the bias—that has been disproven time and time again—that women aren’t sports fans. As the Women’s Sports Foundation found, there is “no research that shows boys are more interested in sports than girls.” It’s a “lack of opportunity” and “lack of peer group support” that leads to girls dropping out of sports at a much higher rate than boys. Same goes for women sportswriters. Institutional and gender biases propel the belief that women aren’t sports fans and therefore women can’t write about sports. But: this is all false (obviously). Of course women are sports fans! Obviously, they can write about sports! This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, yet here we are.
Enter Amy Bass and Karen Crouse, two authors whose sports books were released in 2018. Bass’s One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Team Together tells the story of the Maine state soccer championships alongside the story of Lewiston, Maine, a town that has seen a large influx of refugees from Somalia since the 1990s. Crouse’s Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence is about the amount of Winter Olympians this small town in Vermont has produced.
Women sportswriters face unique challenges. Not only do they face violent threats on social media, many readers doubt their ability to report on sports. Bass explained that “it’s assumed [women] can’t talk about [sports] as well as men because we don’t have the experience playing it. Which, you know, there’s very few sportswriters out there, men or women, who were athletes themselves. So that’s not generally a requirement for being a writer.” Imagine having to be skilled in what you were reporting on—journalists would never cover the Olympics, or any sporting event. In Bass’s essay “Women Who Write About Sports, and the Men Who Hate Them,” published in the AllRounder in March 2015, she writes, “women taking flack for opining on sports is part and parcel of how women have to live their lives every moment of every day. It is part of the same world in which women battle against domestic violence and sexual assault and the wage gap. It is part of the same machine that sees male politicians trying to legislate female bodies, corporations firing women for breastfeeding on the job, and male professors receiving better teaching evaluations than their female counterparts.” Essentially: women writing about sports face the same misogynistic world that the rest of us do.
Out of all genres, female sportswriters have it particularly bad. In the Women’s Media Center report on the status of women in media in 2017, they found that men receive 62 percent of byline and other credits in print, Internet, television, and wire news. In sports, that number jumps to 89 percent. As Safia Ahmad pointed out in “Sexism and Racism Continue to Dominate Sports Journalism,” “Female sports journalists remain the least represented in all types of journalism today.” No wonder it’s so difficult to find sports books written by women; so few female sports journalists are getting book deals because they barely exist.
Jessica Luther released her debut Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape in September 2016. In it, she exhaustively covers the issues of rape on college campuses and writes about the importance of “de-centering the athlete” in stories of sexual violence and athletes. Essentially: amplify the other voices, because, as she writes, “de-centering the athlete is not only more fair to women who report, it is more fair to the players, as it draws attention away from the individual and instead forces us to interrogate the system itself.” When I had the chance to speak with Luther, she explained “it’s not only an issue in sports, [but] we as a society tend to worry much more about the ruin of someone whose been reported than about the harm done to someone that’s reporting.” She went on to discuss a study the Women’s Media Center released in 2015 (“Writing Rape: How U.S. Media Cover Campus Rape and Sexual Assault”), where she tells me with regards to sports media, “when male sports reporters cover [a story], they mainly talk to men as sources. Whereas, women sports reporters who cover it, tend to 50/50 [their sources]. So, female sports reporters tend to have a wider set of sources they’re talking to.”
Luther, a prominent sportswriter, explained that because sports media is so dominantly male, when you think about the “sort of hoops you have to jump through as far as convincing a publisher you’re marketable” in order to get a book deal, many female sportswriters are “climbing uphill.” When pitching her book, Crouse tells me, “three publishing houses expressed interest—all three were represented by female editors. This is a sweeping generalization but I can’t help but wonder if the women ‘got’ the essence of my book in a way that sort of went over the heads of the men who just couldn’t see the value of a book about a town built on relationships. Maybe that keeps more women from being published, I don’t know. But I don’t think it was a coincidence that I had a female agent and a female book editor.”
Luther is the co-host of a feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down, with Shireen Ahmed, Amira Rose Davis, Brenda Elsey, and Lindsay Gibbs. On Burn It All Down, the hosts make a point of amplifying the voices of women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people. As Luther explained to me, “we made a pact at the beginning that if we could find a woman or a non-binary person, then we would start with them.” And over 49 episodes, they’ve found those people. While Burn It All Down is not a book, it’s one step towards the badly needed diversification of the sports media landscape.
Needless to say, sports journalism is a deeply male-dominated field. Shockingly, however, both Bass and Crouse made it clear to me that they don’t really agree with the idea that there aren’t any sports books written by women. Bass pointed out that sports writing is not unique; most genres (with the exception of a few) are largely male-dominated. And, to compound the problem, “sports is not an outlier in terms of being an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.” Crouse concurred, pointing me towards a plethora of female journalists who have written sports books (Sally Jenkins, Liz Clarke, Joan Ryan, Christine Brennan, Liz Robbins, Selena Roberts, Ann Killion, Molly Knight, Mary Pilon, Kate Fagan, to name a few).
When I read Crouse’s Norwich and Bass’s One Goal, Luther’s concept of “de-centering the athlete” stuck with me. Bass explains that even though the story of the Lewiston Blue Devils—the high school soccer team made largely of refugees from Somalia who captured the state championship—has “everything you want in a classic great sports story,” what made it so powerful was that it’s not just a story about a great season of soccer. But the story of “refugees writ large.” Although the young athletes shine through on the page, Bass makes a point to constantly contextualize their story. Same goes for Crouse. As she wrote the stories of the Olympians who came out of this tiny Vermont town, her editor kept reminding her that no matter who she was writing about, “the main character of this book was Norwich,” and every story she told was through that context. De-centering the athlete makes for powerful stories on greater trends in sports.
De-centering the athlete to focus on the community shines in Alexis Okeowo’s story of a women’s basketball team in Somalia, an excerpt of her 2015 book A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Woman and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa. In the essay, she tells the story of Aisha, a young woman playing basketball in Mogadishu, Somalia, but transforms her story into a larger look at Somalia’s growing Islamic extremism and the institutional barriers keeping female athletes from succeeding. But, in expanding the focus of her essay, Okeowo doesn’t ignore Aisha; Aisha forms the emotional core of the narrative, and it’s her compelling sports story that gives readers an entry point for understanding the larger socio-political climate in Somalia.
Female sportswriters do exist. And they are leading the way to create space for female voices in sports journalism. When Crouse started working for the Savannah News-Press in 1986, she was the first woman in the sports department. She recalls, “The first time I went out to interview a high school football coach, he felt the need to explain to me that the quarterback is the person who lines up behind the center. It was the first time I realized there were people in this world who would not be supportive of my life path, who would question my legitimacy because of my gender, who thought I was overstepping my bounds for no reason other than my sex.” The New York Times hired Crouse in 2005, where she has worked since. Yet, she tells me, “to this day, even with three decades of experience, I can never assume that people will accept that I belong where I am or deserve to be doing what I do.”
To encourage more female sportswriters, who will eventually write books, Luther tells me, it needs to begin with hiring. Those in hiring roles at media companies “have to be way more conscientious of their own biases.” Crouse recalls, “A few years ago, I remember asking the then sports editor at Yahoo! why there were no women on his staff. He said that when making a hire, he consults with his staff, so it’s a collaborative effort. And I pointed out, if he consults with his staff and his staff is all-male, that’s pretty much the definition of an old boys’ network.”
In her acknowledgements of Norwich, Crouse writes, “this book was yoga for my soul, the writing equivalent of a forward bend after what amounts to the long and deep back bend that is my daily existence in the relentlessly male sports journalism world.” Both Bass’s One Goal and Crouse’s Norwich— and Luther’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct, and many other sports stories published before 2018— are much needed entries into the genre of sports writing.
Image Credit: Flickr/catherinecronin.