Sports journalists with added balls

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: One of the biggest changes in the 60 years since the Sports Journalists’ Association was formed has been the gradual, some might say slow, appearance of women sportswriters, photographers and broadcasters. Here, NATASHA WOODS, until recently the chief sportswriter of a national newspaper, says that a woman’s place is in the press box

There is a spell each year when I’m suddenly in demand. I presume the same thing happens to other women who write about sport for a living. My email inbox is flooded with requests from media studies students – invariably young women – who’ve had the not so novel idea of writing a dissertation on females working in a male-dominated industry.

As long as their requests are not littered with poor grammar – which tends to bring out the Lynne Truss in me – I’ll happily share my experiences. However, I usually preface my replies with a gentle let-down. Because if they are expecting tales of the terrible sexism or discrimination I’ve suffered, or my long battle for acceptance, they are going to be sadly disappointed.

No, that’s it. I’ve thought long and hard in preparation for writing this piece and I’m struggling to come up with a single incident that’s ever left me offended, disheartened or embarrassed. Actually, the more I think about it, this isn’t really an issue at all.

It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman, that I’m English too, and that the majority of my work involved covering football in the west of Scotland, a region not exactly free of the odd bigoted attitude. The point is, as I so keenly tell those would-be sportswriters, if you demonstrate you are good at your job then you’ll earn respect, regardless of gender or any other label pinned on you. Ergo: I was able to become the chief sports writer of a national Sunday newspaper in Scotland.

And then Jacqui Oatley had her moment.

COULD YOU HAVE HAD MORE of a furore over a female voice talking about football? And all because Jacqui, pictured, became the first woman to commentate on a Premiership game for Match of the Day. It was as if dear old Auntie Beeb had used the Tardis – the vehicle which had rescued its Saturday night schedule – to whisk us all back the days when real men drove Cortinas and liked women who drank port and lemon rather than pointed out the flaws in the offside law.

“I am totally against it, and everybody I know in football is totally against,” fumed Dave Bassett, the former Wimbledon manager. “The problem is that everybody is too scared to admit it.” Yes, remind yourself this was all happening in 2007, not 1977.

What interested me about the negativity surrounding Oatley’s debut was that I presumed it would make a few waves, but not the torrent of sexist nonsense which ensued. After all, the likes of Gabby Logan, Clare Balding, Hazel Irvine and Sue Barker are all fixtures on our televisions screens. I didn’t think anyone batted an eyelid nowadays if they tuned into football and it was Gabby presenting, rather than, say, Des Lynam.

Just look at Sky Sports News. Flick to that channel and you are as likely to see a female face as a male one reading the headlines. And pick up the Guardian, or the Telegraph, or indeed the Sun and you should spot a woman’s byline somewhere in the sports section.

OK, so a SJA survey found that less than 10 per cent of British sports journalists are women, but that’s probably still 10 times better than when I started in this job. It’s by no means an impressive statistic, but it is what I call progress, even if the fall of one of the last remaining bastions – like Match of the Day – provoked such a ridiculous outcry. I’ve always told myself that the good thing about dinosaurs – like Mr Bassett – is that they are destined to die out sooner rather than later.

But still the Oatley thing got me thinking. Maybe I’d been too blase in the assessment of my own career. Maybe it wasn’t all plain sailing. And maybe it still isn’t for those starting out now.

I WANT TO TAKE YOU BACK to 1994 and a short story which had a big impact on my life. I was a business writer at The Scotsman in Edinburgh and I’d been in journalism for seven years, covering everything from the most boring planning committee meetings to major crime stories.

However, if you’d asked me what I loved more than anything, the answer would have been sport. I guess that’s the legacy of having a sports-mad father. I don’t think he cared whether his first-born was a boy or a girl; they were just going to love sports like him.

Anyway, that was me – growing up wanting to be Mick Channon in the days when he was famous for playing for my beloved Southampton rather than training champion racehorses. Sadly, I even had a hair cut just like him. Tie that into my love of newspapers – and devouring every word written by the likes of Hugh McIlvanney and Ian Wooldridge – and you’d have thought I would have started in sports journalism rather than switched to it later on.

But I guess when I was training – and trying to master 100 words a minute of shorthand – my local newspaper wasn’t ready for a woman football writer. Or maybe it was and I just didn’t have the nerve to ask for the job.

Then Andrew Jaspan took over as the editor of The Scotsman and asked for suggestions from staff about how he could improve the newspaper. I said he should appoint me as a sportswriter. He asked me for a meeting and we had a conversation in the back of a cab on the way to some Edinburgh Festival event the newspaper were sponsoring. It lasted all of 10 minutes.

And when we arrived back at the office, he simply walked me over to the sports editor – who I knew by name, but not much else – and announced I was going to be the desk’s new football writer.

That was Jaspan; instinctive, slightly mad, and most definitely in the moment. And remember this was the mid-1990s when football was desperately trying to shake off its traditional image and was keen to embrace the female fan along the way. Jaspan saw the synergy.

Was it tokenism? Yes, undoubtedly there a touch of that. But my then editor knew I was a decent journalist. And what was the worst that could happen? Well, I could have been a disaster and crept back to the business desk to write about mergers and acquisitions for the rest of my career.

I GUESS WHAT FOLLOWED – the Olympic Games, the international football matches, Wimbledon, IAAF World Athletics Championships and ICC Cricket World Cups – suggest it ended up being a good call. But thinking back, I was very fortunate; fortunate to have worked for the right editor at the right time. And fortunate that my first colleague, as I entered the Scottish football writing “pack”, was a bloke called Hugh Keevins.

I remember the first time I met Hugh. It was in the Glasgow office of The Scotsman. All the other journalists sat at identical desks, with identical computers, and there was Hugh, stationed at the far end, almost dwarfed by this massive wooden desk that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Ark. It had the inky patina of long seasons of transfer stories and player interviews. It may have been a throwback to past times, but thankfully Hugh wasn’t.

He was my passport into the pack. And anyone who has worked in sports writing knows, whatever the rivalries between newspapers, you need to be accepted by the pack or you’re going to have a very hard time. Hugh didn’t bat an eyelid that I was: a) considerably younger than him, b) English, or c) a woman. For that I have never – and probably will never – be able to thank him enough. If he’d been a misogynistic old bastard (and there were a few of those around at the time), I doubt very much I’d be writing this piece.

Before I get carried away with fond reminisces, I should point out that Scottish football, and football writing, in that period wasn’t solely populated by an army of “new men”, helpfully smashing away at the glass ceiling to allow women like myself to advance. The Scottish Football Writers’ Association kept tying itself in embarrassing knots with annual ballots over whether women should be allowed to join – “nae burdz” becoming a familiar rallying call for those who, for whatever bizarre reason, believed allowing membership to anyone lacking a Y chromosome would somehow undermine their august organisation.

It took until 1998 for the first woman to be allowed to join, a certain Michelle Evans who was at that time working for the Glasgow Evening Times. And even when that hurdle was overcome, it took another six years for the SFWA to finally drag itself into the modern age by allowing women guests to be invited to its annual dinner. Yes: 2004.

That was a decade after I’d made my first trip to Hampden, which had been an experience in itself. That was long before the £63million facelift which was to transform Scotland’s national stadium, and back then the old press box was an enclosed wooden structure which hung out, high over the pitch, like some ancient eyrie.

My most vivid recollection of my first experience of Hampden was that the press box stank of men’s piss – I guess the football that day wasn’t that memorable. I wish I could put it more politely, but the fact was there was one loo in the place, the door to it didn’t shut properly and, surprise, surprise, there wasn’t an alternative for the ladies.

Not that there were many of us there that day. In fact, although I’m prepared to stand corrected, I think it was only me. But that was pretty normal for the first few years of my sports reporting career. Standing out, I felt, did me a few favours however. Players and managers tended to remember your name for a start, because there was something unusual about a female being at a press conference or conducting a post-match interview.

As for sexism, I’m sure there may have been a few comments behind by back, but I never faced any overt discrimination because of my gender – well, apart from not being allowed to join the SFWA, which, given the bigoted views of some of its members, I actually considered something of a badge of honour.

So occasionally the odd steward at a ground might have scrutinised my accreditation a bit longer than he would have a male colleague, but I tended to overlook that, figuring they were new to it too.

A FRIEND AND FELLOW JOURNALIST handed me photocopies of a few pages from a book in the early days of my foray into sportswriting. I kept them for years, despite the fact they grew increasingly dog-eared and tatty. I tried to dig them out before I sat down to write this, but, to my genuine sadness, they seem to have been lost somewhere in the passage of time.

The extract was from a book by Susan Fornoff – the Lady in the Locker Room with the Oakland Athletics. I’m not sure if it was meant to inspire or intimidate me, because it concerned this particular journalist’s battle to be accepted in that most testosterone-filled environment of professional baseball. Two things always struck me about the passages I read. The first was that they were brilliantly and viscerally written; it was as if you could almost smell the joy of victory and taste the pain of defeat. That was the kind of sportswriter I wanted to be.

The second thing was that it made me extremely aware of how fortunate I was to be based on this side of the Atlantic, where the nearest you get to a “locker room” is standing in some muddy corridor outside a dressing room, waiting for someone to emerge – at least partially clothed – to give you their pearls of wisdom. Or, more typically, the first cliche that pops into their head.

The reason I mention this is that, by-and-large, the system in Britain has protected me from worst excesses of vulgarity and sexual innuendo that those ground-breaking women writers in America suffered as they stepped into locker rooms full of naked men.

I remember interviewing Ally McCoist after a night match at Kirkcaldy, when he had his modesty wrapped in the smallest of towels, and while that provoked a few giggles, it was light-hearted banter rather than anything crude or offensive. I’ve never experienced anything that has made me feel genuinely uncomfortable. I like to think that is because I have worked with some very good people, and also that I’m not bad at what I do.

I’ve seen young male journalists get a harder time than me, because this is an industry where you do have to be seen to be earning your spurs. That I was in my mid-20s when I switched to sport, and therefore wasn’t wet behind the ears in any sense, undoubtedly helped. For journalism, whatever your field, is not a profession for delicate souls as anyone who has worked in it knows.

Still, I’m not naive. I know of women who have faced cynicism and criticism that their male counterparts have not. I’ve seen football message boards featuring attacks on female writers based on sleazy and spurious suggestions that they may have slept with this player or that manager. I doubt that Martin Samuel or Shaun Custis have ever been accused of similar in pursuit of a story.

But if there was one area which caused me problems early on, it was probably that of the coverage of women’s sports. Because if there was a piece to be written on women’s football, or hockey or whatever, the request always seemed to find its way on to my desk. I fought against that, not wanting to be pigeon-holed, yet at the same time I’d admit to feeling some guilt over my actions since I also knew that if I didn’t cover it, it was very unlikely any of the men on the desk would give it any publicity.

Any survey on the coverage of women’s sport in our national newspapers, unfortunately, might well show little has changed there. But, from my perspective, much has changed since the first time I entered a press box.

SUE MOTT, JANINE SELF, AMY LAWRENCE, Eleanor Oldroyd, Lewine Mair, Louise Taylor … I’m not going to name them all, but you get my drift. Whether it is writing, broadcasting or presenting, there are more women sports journalists out there than ever before.

What interests me is where the barriers still have been broken down now Match of the Day has been emancipated. Ginny Clark was the sports editor of Scotland on Sunday for a while, but I don’t believe any national newspaper in England has, or has ever had, a female sports editor. And while the broadsheets in England have high profile female writers, the red tops have not followed suit in anything like the same numbers. As for Scotland? Well I’m still waiting for one of our tabloids to appoint a full-time female sportswriter. Maybe it is just a question of the right person at the right time.

But I think it will happen. And maybe one of those keen young students working away on their dissertation will be the one to do it. Because, whatever Dave Bassett thinks, balls are not a prerequisite for being a sports journalist.

After a sportswriting career that had spells at The Scotsman and Sunday Times, Natasha Woods took voluntary redundancy from the Sunday Herald recently and is now “considering her options”

To read previous articles in our series TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT, including McIlvanney on Best, Arlott on Laker, Coe and Ovett and Newcombe on Wimbledon, click here

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