Yesterday I shared how disgusted I was with a gross tweet and post from NESN about Jonathan Toews’ girlfriend. I said I was disappointed in a legitimate sports network posting something that objectified her and presented her as some sort of possession. My thoughts inspired this question from someone on Facebook:
“Sarah, I guess I’m a bit dumbfounded. Considering the steps you took early in your career to get noticed in the sports world, I’m just confused. The arguably NSFW photo shoots, the Super Bowl date stunt, etc. were examples of essentially putting yourself out there willingly for objectification. Do you regret those early career decisions? What caused the change of heart? Or is it more a resentment that it was needed in the first place? …just seems like feigned outrage or surprise that a sports network uses attractive women to drive traffic, while at the same time earlier in your career you yourself used (willingly I can only assume) your physical features to advance your career in the same industry. So I’m genuinely asking if you’ve had an epiphany or change of heart and what the future holds? I ultimately agree with your original comment that the article is stupid and creepy.”
The comment made me really angry, and not just because blogs objectifying WAGs have almost nothing to do with the career paths of female reporters. It made me mad because comments like that, and judgmental tweets asking how I can be a “feminist” if there’s a picture of me in a low-cut shirt on the internet (don’t even get me started on that), prove how unaware most people are of the expectations for young women in this industry. And it made me mad because I’m so sick of being judged for a Super Bowl stunt that most people know nothing about, they just read a salacious blog post or two about it years ago and assumed the worst.
Because of all that, I’ve wanted to do a podcast about this topic for awhile now. I’ve wanted to talk about how hard it can be for young women to navigate the sports industry and explain how easy it is to get caught up in what you think the bigwigs and people hiring and fans want. So here’s my very long-winded, off-the-cuff response. I hope to get the chance to speak more about the issue — and about my career path — at length sometime soon.
“Okay, I’ll sit down and take time to write some of this out, because I hate leaving stuff unanswered and letting false information go without clarification. First of all, it’s not feigned outrage. Toews’ girlfriend is just his girlfriend, she’s not an athlete, she didn’t do or say anything worthy of a story. The post is idiotic and treats her like a possession he earned (and tells other teams to “look into getting her” so they’ve got a chance at the Cup). It’s clickbait, objectifying s**t that I would ignore on a blog or TMZ but it doesn’t belong on an actual sports network’s site. When legit sites pull this crap we have to call them out because it creates a terrible atmosphere for women – reporters, WAGS, everybody. Secondly, she’s not trying to advance in the sports industry, she’s not even asking to be involved in stories about him, so it’s not at all related to a female reporter playing up her physical attributes to get a job. So that’s that.
As for me, the only time I’ve ever done a gig where what I looked like was the focus in any way, was my very first on-camera job, the “Fantasy Sports Girl” gig. That was with Jim Rome’s ESPN producers on a high-tech set and I got writing and hosting credit. I was working as an extremely low-paid PA and AP, not making any inroads auditioning for on-camera gigs in LA. This was an incredible opportunity to work with big producers on a high budget and the only drawback was I had to wear low-cut shirts while I delivered fantasy football news. When you’re just starting out and you don’t know any better, you take a great opportunity when it’s in front of you. When no one will give you a break and then a big-time producer hires you and you get to write the content and host and you just have to “be hot” like every other woman you see in the industry, then you think “I guess this is how the industry works” and you do it. I guarantee if men wanting to get into sports could get a big break but it involved delivering the info shirtless they would do it. Absolutely would do it. Society doesn’t work that way. We don’t need our male sports reporters to be good at their jobs AND eye candy, they’re allowed to just report. So yeah, it wasn’t ideal, but that FSG gig is what got me my first interview in Bristol (didn’t get it that time) and both of my first two on-camera jobs in Chicago. Unfortunately, it happens all the time. (See: Susannah Collins getting her first big Showtime gig because of a slightly frisky YouTube series.) I wish that weren’t the case, I would love to say just sending out my writing samples and hosting reel opened doors, but it didn’t.
On every blog site and sports site that I frequented back then I realized one thing in common – every woman reporter I saw was gorgeous. I almost quit, thinking I didn’t have a chance to make it against people like that and knowing I didn’t wanna be some hot chick people ogle, I’ve always wanted to be the funny chick. My whole life, I wanted to be on SNL. So I continued to do my Second City improv stuff and my writing and decided “eff it,” I’m going to be the funny girl. I’m going to make a space for myself in the sports world as the funny chick – not the bubbly sidelines reporter and not the serious anchor. At the time, there was no Michelle Beadle, there was no one doing what I wanted to do. But I decided to try to make it happen anyway. If I had a crystal ball and knew I could just keep plugging along writing and doing improv and auditioning and I would end up at ESPN I would’ve done it. Unfortunately, I can’t necessarily say that would’ve happened. Maybe if I’d been a journalism student and known a more standard path, I would’ve tried it, but I was a wanna-be comedian/actress who eventually realized I should have been in sports all along and made the switch in LA, where, especially back then, every minor, making-your-way-up gig from weather girl to sports reporter was done in a clubbing dress.
The unintended consequences of the Super Bowl stunt – 40+ interviews with sports outlets, was that I got my wit and knowledge out in front of people who hire, and I spent every interview focusing on the Bears, the breakdown of the games and proving myself to not be the “attention whore” chick that many of them assumed me to be. I changed a lot of opinions and earned myself some fans in the industry, who I continued to stay in touch with after that, sending them stories I was writing for blogs, etc and making sure they remembered me in case a job opportunity came up. Did a lot of random publicity and a photo in a Halloween costume as a Bears cheerleader get my foot in the door? Sure seems like it. Did it get me jobs writing and on radio (NOT visual mediums) at the biggest sports company in the world? No. Do people get national radio shows because they’re attractive? No. F*** it if this sounds conceited, but I’ve gotten where I am because I work hard, I’m smart, I’m funny and I have a different voice than a lot of other folks. There are a million better looking women than me trying to get these jobs, so using my physical appearance as an “in” ended when I stopped doing the Fantasy Sports Girl gig and moved home to Chicago to try to work in a town where they give a s**t if you know your sports, rather than hiring the hottest thing around.
Yeah, it sucks now that those 6 or 7 FSG photos in low-cut shirts from 10 years ago still come up because of SEO optimization and “listicle” blogs electing to using those photos in stories. It sucks that YOU see this bulls**t objectification of an athlete’s girlfriend and think of me, especially considering that I’ve spent so many years now putting the focus on my intellect and my sense of humor and my hard work and my strong voice. Ever since I got to Chicago and got my first job writing and reporting, I’ve put all the focus into being smart and funny and knowing my shit. I learned the ropes and got confident enough to stop letting comments about what I looked like in every single video get me down or tempt me into wearing certain things to get people to like me. I fought–and still fight—the awful knowledge that knowing what I look like is important in this industry, even if I’d rather people focus on what I’m saying. The older I get and the more I work in this industry, the more I see how b.s. it can be, especially for people just starting out. So it’s not so much an epiphany as it is being in a position to say “eff off” if someone wants me to be something I’m not comfortable with or isn’t “my brand.” I didn’t have that luxury before. I was a kid just starting out, so I wasn’t immersed in sports and the industry the way I am now. I didn’t have a voice and confidence in myself to take a stand against s**t.
Once things started to pick up after the Super Bowl and FSG I turned down offers for stuff like a Playboy Radio show and other gigs that weren’t who I wanted to be, because I’ve never wanted to be a “hot girl,” I’ve always wanted to be the funny girl (and I can’t compete with the likes of the Erin Andrews of the world, anyway, so trying be “hot” was never going to get me very far). I focused on trying to find a REAL gig and wanted to see what I could bring to a story and how I could make it different from everything else. The industry is already way better now than what it was when I was just starting out. And now that I’m in a position to have influence, I want to speak out against people assuming every attractive women reporter can’t also be smart and good at her job. I wanna help make things better, because I can.
I can’t go back and not do that FSG job and I can’t sit down with every person who doesn’t know s**t about the Super Bowl thing (in this article you can read a long-winded version of the truth) and tell them the real story. I can’t erase a couple cleavage-y pictures from FSG floating around or explain that some glam photos are headshots from when I was an actress. I can’t keep repeating to people the details of the last decade, I can only keep doing what I’ve been doing for years now – which hasn’t been the least bit about what I look like and has always been about what I’m saying. I can keep working hard, using my voice for what matters, making people laugh and trying to help other women trying to make it navigate the waters and not feel stuck.
So yeah. That’s not all I have to say, but it’ll have to do for now. Until the people doing the hiring stop seeking out only young babes and until the people doing the clicking and reading stop wanting a photo gallery of a QB’s girlfriend in a bikini over a researched story about said QB’s throwing motion or his visits to hospitals or whatever, then we’re going to have to keep fighting and we’re going to keep finding smart, talented women who have to get their big break doing stupid mindless b.s. What Keith Olbermann said awhile back about women in sports applies to women in life. Every sexist joke and sexist show, every indignity and objectification, and every desire to reduce women to their appearance contributes to a lack of respect and a failure to treat women as people instead of objects. As long as that exists, it’s hard to blame young girls for buying into the system. That’s what they see and they don’t yet know that it doesn’t have to be that way.”