Female sports writers talk about challenges and triumphs they’ve faced in a male-dominated industry


Photo Courtesy of Northjersey.com

Sports journalist Tara Sullivan interviews Eli Manning, former New York Giants quarterback.

Kelly Garrity, news staff

In 2011, Tara Sullivan, then a sports columnist for the Bergen County Record, was there to watch as a 21-year-old Rory McIlroy collapsed in the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, blowing a four-stroke lead at 12-under. 

However, as McIlroy addressed the meltdown with a group of reporters who had been covering the tournament in a locker room interview, Sullivan was not among them. She had been stopped at the door by a security guard, who had mistakenly banned her from entering the men’s locker room, despite the 1978 court ruling allowing female journalists to do exactly that.

“It was just frustrating because this has been litigated and mandated by law,” Sullivan said. “We should not have to keep reminding people that this is the way the business works.” 

Sullivan never ended up getting into the locker room to talk to McIlroy that day, and although her colleagues provided her with the quotes she needed for her column, the incident left her irritated. 

“My colleagues stepped up to help me, they gave me the quotes that I missed from inside there, but it was obviously very frustrating,” she said. 

Episodes like the one Sullivan endured that day at the Masters can be par for the course for female journalists covering sports. In 2015, three female journalists were denied access to the locker rooms at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis after the Jaguars lost to the Colts. Although the three reporters were eventually allowed to enter, it was a reminder of the discrimination women can face in the male-dominated field of sports journalism. 

According to the GIST, a women-run media startup that focuses its coverage on women in sports, women make up less than 14% of sports journalists, and only 4% of sports coverage focuses on women. For journalists like Bleacher Report’s breaking news writer Jenna Ciccotelli, that can often mean being the only woman in the room. 

“There have been so many times where I’m the only woman in the room. Even when no one says anything to you, you notice that,” said Ciccotelli, who graduated from Northeastern University in December 2020. 

Although Ciccotelli said all the managers and editors she has worked with have been very supportive, she acknowledged that being the only woman on a team of men can be taxing.

“My job at Bleacher Report right now is amazing. They have so many women who are in very visible positions, but on my individual team, I’m the only woman,” she said. “Everyone is so nice and supportive … but it’s definitely a thing you notice, and it can make you feel really small.” 

Although some sports departments and media companies are working to target women in their interviewing and hiring processes, this is not enough on its own, Ciccotelli said. 

“You can’t go out there and just pick a woman off the streets and say, ‘Hey, come cover sports for us,’ because that doesn’t work. You need to make it an industry where women can come in and really thrive,” she said.

When companies create this kind of environment, it not only benefits female sports journalists, but also helps the company itself, said Katie Strang, a senior enterprise and investigative writer for The Athletic. 

“One thing we talk about at our company is when you invest in women, you reap the benefits. It’s just smart business practice to invest in women, to invest in women’s sports, and to invest in women’s sports coverage,” Strang said.

She first fell in love with sports when she was about seven years old, spending her Sundays going out to breakfast and then watching the Green Bay Packers at a sports bar with her dad. Today, she uncovers the stories of abuse within the NHL, MLB and other professional sports leagues. 

Strang said she feels confident about The Athletic’s commitment to increasing gender diversity and identifying it as something essential to the future of their business. However, even when a media community is fully supportive, female sports journalists can still face challenges from outsiders, especially as more journalists come to rely on the internet and social media to break news and grow their audiences. A 2014 study from the International Women’s Media Foundation found that almost a third of female journalists consider abandoning the profession because of attacks and threats online. 

“There is every hostility online, and misogyny is certainly one of them. When it comes to sports in particular, because it’s been such a bastion for men, they feel invaded somehow,” Sullivan said. “Occasionally you’ll get emails that have disgusting, crude, sexist language.”

However, Sullivan said she tries to ignore the noise. 

“It’s just been an abiding principle of mine that somebody’s opinion of me only matters if that person matters to me, so I just work consciously not to take that stuff on board,” she said.

Strang has a similar point of view.

“I got a really good piece of advice from a friend in the business,” she said. “He told me, ‘If someone throws you a pitch in the dirt, don’t swing at it.’ So I’ve tried to abide by that saying during my career, and it’s served me pretty well.”

Of course, female journalists can also face sexism in person from players or coaches, though Sullivan, Strang and Ciccotelli were all in agreement that these kinds of players and administrators were outliers. 

Despite the challenges they have faced, the three women have all persevered, continuing to cover some of the biggest issues in sports. Whenever she’s having a bad day at work, Ciccotelli reminds herself of these challenges and all of the challenges that those who came before her overcame. 

“I just remind myself, people fought really hard for you to be here and for your right to be respected in this industry,” she said. “And we’re still fighting.”