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The Battle To Break Through The Sportswriting Boys' Club

Sep 25, 2018
Originally published on September 25, 2018 4:40 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's not easy for women to break into sports journalism. But 40 years ago, women had to fight to do the job. Sports writing was a boys' club. Newspapers hired women but mostly as fact-checkers. The NHL and the NBA gave women some locker room access, but when it came to professional football and baseball, women were banned. Here's Bowie Kuhn, the baseball commissioner in the '70s.

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BOWIE KUHN: It's not a fair thing for our players. This is an area where they're dressing, and it's an area where we think they're entitled to some reasonable privacy. We don't think it's really fair to the rest of the press, and we also don't think it's fair to a lot of our fans who would have great reservations about this.

CORNISH: Melissa Ludtke was in her 20s at the time. She was working for Sports Illustrated covering the 1977 World Series. It was the Yankees versus the Dodgers. She got access to the Yankees locker room because the Yankees knew her work. As a courtesy, she reached out to the Dodgers. She was planning to go to theirs as well. And that's when Commissioner Kuhn stepped in, as Ludtke recalls.

MELISSA LUDTKE: Bowie Kuhn had me called up to the press box in the fifth inning of the first game and essentially told me and had me told at that point that I was banned from all clubhouses in baseball forever.

CORNISH: Ludtke didn't cave. She and her employer sued Kuhn to force baseball to open up the locker room to women. Forty years ago today, she won and opened the door for more and more women in sports media.

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KATIE NOLAN: Welcome to "Sports?," the podcast that ends with a question mark but starts with a question. I'm Katie Nolan. She's Ashley.

ASHLEY BRABAND: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We got to talk about Boogie Cousins. Trust me. I get it. I get why when the news he was heading to the Warriors hit, it felt just so insane.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Looking right, toeing right, into the end zone, caught for the touchdown.

CORNISH: We spoke to Melissa Ludtke, and she took us back to those early days.

LUDTKE: The banning of me was not just after games when the players were changing their clothes, but I was also banned from being in the locker room for the 45 minutes between batting practice and when the game began. There was no nudity, and there was no issue in my view at all of privacy whatsoever. So I've never thought that this was really a case about the players' privacy or nudity. I think it was really the last bastion of where they were going to exclude us. They had excluded us from the press box earlier. They had excluded us from being on the field during batting practice. Hey, they'd even excluded a few of us from even eating with the other male sports writers. It really wasn't about nudity. It was really about the boys in the treehouse pulling the ladder up and not wanting us to climb it.

CORNISH: On your worst day, what was it like?

LUDTKE: Let's take 1977 and say I'm up at Yankee Stadium, and I'm working on a story where I need to talk to a couple of particular players. And I go up to the stadium early. I'm around the batting cage. A couple of them are there, so I mention to them that I would like to talk with them and could they kind of meet me in the dugout because I know I'm not going to have the access that the male reporters do to them once they go back through that tunnel and into the locker room. And there would be days where those players would literally come in from running out in the outfield and literally run right past me sitting in the dugout. You know, I'd kind of be reaching out saying something, and they'd go right past into the locker room. And that meant that I couldn't do my interviews. And the worst days for me - and maybe it doesn't sound like much, but it felt pretty bad - was when none of those players showed up, and I just sat there and sat there and sat there, you know, basically wasting my time and realizing that this just - you know, this just wasn't a fun way to be trying to do this job.

CORNISH: Fast-forward to today, there are many, many high-profile women sports writers, sports reporters, who are in and out of those locker room press conferences like everyone else. But you've also written recently about how they're treated in light of the #MeToo movement. What are you hearing from this generation?

LUDTKE: I'm hearing and witnessing - because I spend a lot of time on Twitter following a lot of them - the misogyny that they are exposed to because they have uttered an opinion about sports. I find it absolutely rather disheartening and unbelievable at times that for a woman talking about sports, there can be such a visceral reaction. This is...

CORNISH: And this is very different from what you went through.

LUDTKE: It is very different than what I went through. You have to remember that back then, if a sports columnist wanted to write about me - most had an opinion on this - they often had their picture on the top of that column and their byline. And that had a - I guess a civilizing, quieting effect.

CORNISH: I remember in recent months there was a moment, a viral video, where a woman sports journalist is sitting in a chair and a man is sitting across from her reading some of the kind of social media tweets that's aimed in her direction. And you wrote a little bit about this video. Why did it strike a chord with you?

LUDTKE: Well, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, who are both terrific sports media folks, had done this video in which two men who had never read these tweets before sat across from them on stools and read to them the words that had been sent to them by various people, usually, of course, anonymous people.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I hope your dog gets hit by a car you [expletive].

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Why bring up your own rape in the story? Is it your way of firing back at critics who said you can't get any?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You need to be hit in the head with a hockey puck and killed.

LUDTKE: And it really hit me when I watched that exchange, as I've talked to younger women, as I've been around them, as I've read their stories and read their tweets, they have created a sort of wall that they are able - a thick skin, I guess, I would call it and a sense of humor and an ability to push back. I've said to any of them who call me - and many do - that I admire them enormously because I'm not sure that I would have had the kind of hippopotamus skin that would have deflected this. I applaud them enormously. I wish I'd had their courage.

CORNISH: Nowadays, there are many women journalists covering sports, obviously, but sometimes, they are described in ways that seem like they're ornamental to the sport. And where do you think things are now? Like, how far do you think you've come?

LUDTKE: When I think about where we are today, I think about it in two ways. Let me do the optimistic one first, and that is that we now have women sitting in broadcast booths as analysts and color commentators in sports that we never thought this would happen in. But the sad news and the disheartening news is that coverage of women in sports is almost invisible. And also despite the fact that a number of young women go and study journalism in order to go into the sports media world, they also leave it very, very quickly. So we have less than 10 percent of sports writers in sports media people being women today. I would have thought we would be a lot further along in that 40 years later.

CORNISH: Well, Melissa Ludtke, thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with us.

LUDTKE: Well, thank you for going back to the old days and helping us to think about what 40 years ago was like and what it means to today.

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