What happens when a female sports reporter is sexually harassed?
Working in sports media seems glamorous. But what happens when a female sports reporter is sexually harassed? (USA Today/Kirby Lee)

The recent spate of highly-publicized, mass mediated instances of sexual misconduct has brought attention to a culture in which men have been permitted to harass, humiliate, fondle, and even rape women – and men – with impunity. While the narrative surrounding this culture has been mostly bound to the entertainment, news media, and political industries, the recent firing of Gregg Zaun, television analyst for Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays, shows that the sports media are also implicated in a system that turns a blind eye toward sexual misconduct.

The media narrative, however, often misses the forest for the trees. As Sarah Banet-Weiser wrote in a recent post for Fortune, “The media focus has been on highly visible celebrity men—those men who occupy important positions of power […]. The news stories emphasize the individuals involved rather than the structural underpinning of all these industries.” Some of the findings contained in my dissertation research, which includes one to one interviews with 10 female sportscasters, begins to help us see how sexual misconduct (in particular, sexual harassment) both informs and is informed by the structural underpinnings of the sports media industry.

Early in her career, Paula (the pseudonym for a reporter/anchor for a regional sports cable network (an RSN) in a large Western U.S. market) experienced an episode in which a college football player she covered, a “big man on campus” type, propositioned her for a date and, upon getting rejected, gave curt responses during interviews and spread rumors that she had been sleeping with his teammates. This is illustrative of a hostile work environment, which all American employers are legally obligated to investigate.

Getting propositioned by athletes, Paula said, is still commonplace for her, despite being married and covering a professional football team. “I always get hit on by the rookies until other people are like, ‘She’s married. Just don’t try. We’ve tried. Don’t try.’ And it’s just kind of frustrating.” According to Paula, coaches behave this way, too, and often act professionally at first before later making an advance. Because of the innuendo in which many of her interactions are couched, she stated that she has never had a strictly platonic interaction with a male source.

Aside from the legalities of some of Paula’s experiences, there are industry implications as well. These sorts of interactions can make it challenging for female sports journalists to obtain information for stories that their male colleagues can get without the expectation of dates and/or sexual favors in return. As one unnamed reporter told Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, “The implication is always clear, always just beneath the surface. […] As competitive and as driven as I am, there have actually been moments in my career where I had to be OK with taking an ‘L’ on a story because it wasn’t worth dealing with the nonsense.”

Sometimes, women are required to cover an athlete or coach who has previously behaved inappropriately toward them. Hannah, a reporter and anchor for an RSN in a small eastern market told me the story of an assistant coach of a team she covered who stalked her by continuing to send her messages on social media despite her requests that the messages cease. Hannah thought the messages started innocently enough, including comments like, “Hey, pretty girl.” But then the coach started asking her what she was doing on weekends and where she lived before demanding that she see him outside their professional relationship. When she blocked his Facebook and Twitter accounts, he used his organization’s Twitter account to continue his advances.

When Hannah reported the stalking to her director, they approached the team’s head coach, who saw to it that the stalking ended. Although the head coach was embarrassed, he admitted that Hannah was not the first reporter to be approached by his assistant. Making matters worse, in Hannah’s view, was the fact that her director obliged the head coach’s impassioned request to have her continue to cover their games. “My sports director, [despite] how uncomfortable I felt, and how much I asked him not to send me to these games, he sent me, literally, every other day for two weeks straight to cover this team.”

This is far from the only harassment Hannah has had to endure, but it is the most egregious case. Taken together, interactions like these can have an impact on the way women see themselves within the industry. “It almost makes me feel like they’re undermining my [credibility],” Hannah said. “Like, ‘Oh, because she’s a woman, I can speak to her this way.’ […] So, it kind of [makes] me feel like my [credibility has been] taken away a little bit, because they don’t see me as anything more than, just, ‘a face,’ so to speak.”

At a micro level, these stories are appalling. But it is also important not to miss the forest for the trees as it relates to the structural implications of episodes such as these within sports broadcasting and sports media. With women already viewed as “less than” within sports and sports media, forced to navigate double standards of appearance and sports knowledge, the sexual harassment that female sports reporters routinely face serves to ensure that society perceives women in the industry as working on the periphery.

Women caught in these situations, Paula’s in particular, face a catch-22: choose not to interact with a source who the reporter knows will expect a date or sexual favors in return – and watch a male colleague cash in on a story that could have advanced her career and improved the status of women in the industry overall – or give in, endure humiliation and shame during and after the act, potentially lose her job, and risk being branded as the poster child for the overstated stereotype that women are in the industry to meet men. This was one of the narratives after Jessica Moran, former Boston Red Sox field reporter for NESN in Boston, resigned her position amid rumors she had engaged in an amorous relationship with Red Sox manager John Farrell.

This double bind is emblematic of the argument I make above, that sexual harassment in the sports media industry both informs and is informed by the industry’s gendered structural underpinnings. If this is to change, the onus is on male athletes, coaches, and men in the sports media industry to not only stop harassing female sports reporters, but to work to change a culture that has, as evidenced by Hannah’s story, heretofore taken a laissez-faire approach to the issue.

Guy Harrison is an Instructor of Telecommunication Studies, within the Sports Broadcasting Track, at Youngstown State University. He is currently completing his doctorate at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. His research examines gender, race, and politics in sports media.