Managing Monday: Advice For Women Who Want To Work In Sports
This Friday, I have the honor of speaking at the University of Virginia Sports Law Symposium. The topic of the panel I’m on is “Legal and Practical Issues for Women in Sports and the Sports Law Industry.” Along with three other women (whose credentials are far more impressive than mine!) I will be speaking for an hour about the issues women face when breaking into careers in sports.
I must say, that when it comes to this, my story is probably somewhat dry. I have not been met with much adversity or sexism. Doors haven’t slammed in my face because of my gender. Rather, I would say the opposite is true. I would like to think that over the last 18 months, the sports world has embraced me. Opportunities have come my way. My peers, both male and female, have treated me with respect and kindness. I’m lucky in this regard, as I know many women before me drove a more difficult path. I’m grateful for the barriers they broke.
That being said, hurdles still exist for women when it comes to working in sports. Today, I want to share a few pieces of advice that I think are relevant for young women looking to break into a sports career.
1. You are a career chaser, not a jersey chaser
The quickest way for a woman to sink a career in sports is to be (or be perceived as) a jersey chaser.
These days, I meet and talk with many people interested in working in sports. Within a couple of minutes of talking to a woman interested in working in sports, I can tell whether she’s in it because sports are her passion or because she’s looking to get hooked up with a player.
I’ll be honest: Since launching RulingSports.com in July 2011, I have met my fair share of professional athletes. I call many of them friends now and have sturdy business relationships with 99.9% of them. Why is this? It is because I have not sought romantic relationships with them. When these men talk to me, they know that although I am a fun and kind person, I am business oriented. I am not speaking to them because of their fame or because I am after their money. I am talking to them because I am a professional interested in sharing their story. End of story.
The easiest way for a woman’s career in sports to get hung up, is by getting tied up with the wrong athlete. I’m not saying that you can never date an athlete if you want a career in sports, but you have to be incredibly careful. I’ll provide an example.
Last spring, an acquaintance of mine said he had someone he wanted to set me up with. As it turns out, this person plays for one of the most successful NFL teams in the last decade. At the time, I was single, so I figured, why not? The player and I exchanged a few emails. Given that he lived in another state, we began talking on the phone. He would call everyday like clockwork when he got out of OTAs. In all honesty, he was a really nice guy who was doing everything right.
Three weeks or so into us talking, he called at about 8:30 p.m. my time and asked me to get on a flight the next morning. A lot of women would probably jump at the opportunity to be flown across the country by an NFL player. I didn’t. I felt like I didn’t know this person well enough yet to be in a strange city with only him, and without my own sleeping accommodations. Even though he seemed to be a nice guy, I thought that doing this would put me in a potentially awkward situation. If things didn’t pan out well between us, I also ran the risk of alienating one of the most powerful teams in the NFL.
I told him I couldn’t take him up on the offer. Within a week, we were no longer talking. Long story short, I’m happy I trusted my head over my heart.
I’ve spent a long time building my reputation. Chances are, you have too. Thus, you need to tread lightly when it comes to mixing business with pleasure. You must think twice (actually, three times is probably best) before jumping into a relationship with an athlete or other person who works in sports. Only go into one if you believe with all of your heart that both your and his intentions are pure and that the relationship has some possibility of lasting.
2. The Katherine Webb Factor
By now, we all know the story of how ESPN commentator Brent Musburger gushed over Katherine Webb’s good looks during the BCS National Championship Game. In response to an apology she received from Musburger, Webb essentially said that she was not offended by his comments, but had they gone further, she would have been.
Some feminists may have been outraged by Webb’s response, but I actually found it very reasoned. The lesson here, is that as a woman, you need to pick your battles. If you want to become outraged over a man calling you beautiful, you can become outraged. This will likely garner you a less than appreciated reputation with other men in the industry. In fact, they will likely coin you with a nickname that rhymes with “ditch.”
I cannot tell you the number of emails I have received from men in the sports industry–players, executives, radio show hosts, you name it–that begin with words like, “Beautiful,” “Gorgeous,” “Dear” or “Darling.” Do I roll my eyes when I see these things? Yes. Am I mildly annoyed? Absolutely. Do I want to quip back with, “Hey, would you respond to my male counterpart’s email by acknowledging him as ‘Gorgeous'”? You better believe it.
But I don’t. And the reason why I don’t, is because to me, the battle isn’t worth it. Yes, their actions are annoying, but I suppose I could be called worse than the words listed above.
However, it is important that you set boundaries. And, if you feel uncomfortable with the words men in the industry are calling you, you need to tell them early on.
For me, any overtly sexual comment is a boundary line for me. Another boundary line for me is when communication extends beyond normal business hours. I am frequently a guest on sports radio shows nationwide. Since I call in to the shows, the hosts have my phone number. There are a handful of hosts who have used my phone number well beyond what is considered a reasonable time to contact someone. How do I handle these instances? First, I do not respond. Second, when I do respond in the morning, I tell them that I do not appreciate them using my phone number for personal purposes or beyond what is an acceptable time to contact somebody. They apologize, I thank them and we move on.
The point here, is that unfortunately, as a woman in a male driven industry, you need to pick your battles carefully. Then, once you have identified a situation as a battle, you need to tread calmly and professionally towards a resolution where you maintain your composure and your business contact. This takes practice, but if you can master it, you’ll hold your place in the industry and be respected.
3. Show What You Know and Play Nicely in the Sandbox
For some reason, I feel like women are less inclined to tout their knowledge and success than men. Personally, I have a hard time vocalizing my successes and bringing them up casually amongst acquaintances. Many of my male peers are very good at this, and I believe that this throws them a windfall.
It’s important for women to feel confident in their successes and to be able to vocalize them to their male counterparts. How you do this is important, as again, you do not want to be perceived as that word that rhymes with “ditch.”
For me, the easiest way for me to vocalize my successes has been to build genuine, professional relationships with men and women in the sports industry. From day one, I set out with the goal of being someone people in the sports industry would come to know, like and trust. I did this first and foremost by just being myself. I had no ulterior motives when I broke into this industry, other than my goal of working in it and sharing my knowledge with others. Because I wasn’t conniving or trying to do something other than what I told people I was about, people embraced me–men and women, veterans and industry newbies alike.
It’s important that when you break into sports, that you come into the circle as who you are. You’ll find that this is a tight-knit industry. That fact can help or hurt you. If you are well perceived in the industry, the interconnectedness of it will drive your career faster than you could believe. If people have ill-will towards you though, you will fight the rest of your career to break through that.
I have found that for me, someone who doesn’t prefer to boast publicly about accomplishments, the easiest way to vocalize my abilities has been through the help of others. As such, it’s important for women to make key and solid connections early in their journey of breaking into the world of sports.
Overall, this journey has been wonderful for me. I have experienced far less sexism in the sports world than I have in the legal world. My male peers have been some of my biggest supporters. I believe this is because they recognize that in me, they also have a supporter.
I’ll end on this note: While many people say that the road women travel to work in sports is difficult, if you make it, you’ll reap many benefits that men in this industry will never enjoy. How do I know? You can ask any of the hundreds of male journalists who waited in a long line outside of the Superdome to get into the Super Bowl, while I breezed by as one of only a handful of credentialed female journalists.