Four women sit at a table in a room with bad lighting, separated from the 130 students in the audience by 20 feet and 20 years of experience. The women talk about their backgrounds in sports media. They share struggles about everything from men who don’t think women can cover sports well harassing them online to “groupie culture,” where women interested in dating players are ruthless to female journalists entering locker rooms. The panelists are lively, but most people in the room are fiercely aware this forum, ‘Say No to Sexism in Sports,’ wouldn’t be happening had it not been for events across the Ohio University communications program over the past several months.
Students across campus have known about the problem for years, while officials and those in charge missed it. Despite rising enrollment numbers for females in the journalism school, women are often treated as second-class citizens in their extracurricular activities. Women interested in covering sports face a particular barrier. For women, trying to break into a male-dominated field is hard enough, but Ohio University men made the challenges even harder to overcome.
Photo by Brady Menegay
It began with the Ohio University campus chapter of Associated Press Sports Editors. In mid-February, 11 male members and one female member of APSE took a trip in a university van to a sports reporting “training camp” in Nashville, Tennessee. On the way home, the woman went in a different car, and the men drove together.
Over the course of the drive, the men began to discuss the female member of APSE. She wore “enticing” clothing the day before, according to one man in the car, and they began to talk about her clothes and compare her to other girls they knew. It wasn’t an atypical conversation for the group, and most of the people involved thought nothing of it as they left. It wasn’t until a student brought up what happened in passing to APSE adviser Justice Hill, and Hill took immediate action.
He resigned as the group’s adviser, effectively disbanding the campus chapter over the scandal. He sent an email to several students, telling those involved that “for men to talk about female colleagues as if they were hookers reflects poorly on each of (them),” and that he refused “to tie (his) name and (his) reputation to a leadership team that is ignorant and sexist.”
A week later, officials from WOUB, the public broadcast station for the area surrounding Athens, Ohio, and a training place for journalism and communications students at OU, were tackling an almost identical problem in their sports department.
Students working at WOUB have a history of creating lists of their “Top Three,” the three people in the newsroom they think are the most attractive. It’s a tradition going back as far as a decade, those involved say, and “everyone participated regardless of gender.” The practice primarily serves to pass time on car rides to events, when the seemingly endless hills and one-stoplight towns of Appalachia aren’t enough to hold anyone’s attention.
The problem hadn’t come to light, however, until station leaders learned of group text message that existed only for men “for the primary purpose of discussing sexually their female colleagues, according to a report from the station to the university’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance. (The university will only provide heavily edited versions of that report, citing FERPA protection for the students involved, but an unredacted version of the report was leaked to the media.) This marked the beginning of an internal investigation, where paid staff members of the station found out women working in the sports department “had been excluded from at least one radio program” and how “the alleged prettiest female got the opportunities over those considered less attractive by the male student leadership.”
According to the report, officials learned of conversations between men so vulgar, women felt they had to leave the room. They learned about men rating women “on attractiveness and ‘bangability’” in front of other women, about women who received promotions “based totally on their appearance and perhaps their willingness to be sexually involved with the show’s leaders,” about women who knew all this was happening and left the program entirely—and about those who stayed despite being uncomfortable, just to have a chance at being on-air.
A few weeks later, leaders at the station required students to attend a meeting if they wanted to be a part of the sports department during the next academic year. 75 people attended, but few who were at that meeting want to speak about it after the fact. If they do, they don’t want their name used: Students fear their association with a station that made headlines across the state will end up hurting them when they search for jobs. Professors worry a school with a sexism problem will make it hard to recruit new students. (The station’s broadcast licenses are in Ohio University’s name, after all.) Officials worry about the reputation of the station as a whole.
Those who know what happened say it was unlike any other meeting. Well, not quite, some correct themselves—it took place where these meetings always do, in Studio A of WOUB’s third-floor newsroom, and everyone who was there were the people who were always there. Compared to a typical meeting, though, this meeting was much more intense.
This meeting was “authoritative and in-your-face,” a marked change from the traditional gatherings of chattering college students. Mark Brewer, the unimposing-yet-stern chief operating officer of WOUB, told every student in attendance if what a certain few did on campus had been tried in the real world, it would have led to lawsuits over sexual harassment.
He spoke deliberately, not once stopping to let his disappointment show. Brewer said it was unacceptable, what had happened, and it was a problem in sports journalism as a whole. Before letting students leave, Brewer required everyone in the room to send him an email saying which students should not have leadership roles. Students, all volunteers for the station, had to include in the email any discrimination they witnessed or personally faced.
Students sent emails to Brewer, but many were unable to name involved individuals or otherwise declined. Several students said while they heard inappropriate things or of a group text, they weren’t able to name specific names. Many of the emails, obtained by public record request through the university, were too heavily redacted to pull specifics. Almost 25 of the emails, however, named problematic students.
One email is from a woman who felt betrayed when her mentor, a man she “considered a close friend,” started to make “comments about wanting to have sex with me and talking about other parts of my body in a group message with a few other male WOUB members.” From that point, she writes he “consistently flirted and made me feel uncomfortable,” and while she didn’t want him to be in trouble, she thought he shouldn’t be able to hold a position of leadership. Other students reported things they saw happening to their friends, and some went as far to own up to their own indiscretions.
That night, Brewer wrote in an email to colleagues how some students would be given a chance to improve their behavior after a suspension, while others would be “purged” that week, “never to return.” The firings started two days later.
Photo by Brady Menegay
For those around the country with similar experiences, what happened at OU is not surprising. For Molly Yanity, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University and a former sports reporter, this behavior isn’t unexpected. She says the problem goes to show “hegemony at work.” Hegemony, the dominance of one social group over another, is overwhelming in sports media. According to the Women’s Media Center’s 2015 “Status of Women in the U.S. Media” report, men make up more than 90 percent of all sports reporters, and the Women’s Media Center finds the number of women in sports journalism has dropped over the past five years.
“We excuse the behavior or let it go, we turn a blind eye to it, and the problem gets worse,” Yanity says. “Men do things and women try to ignore it, but it just keeps telling men that whatever they did, both good and bad, is acceptable even when it isn’t.”
When she worked as a sports journalist, Yanity considered herself lucky for working with professionals, people who didn’t sexualize or marginalize her. Others oftentimes don’t have the same realities. Even when they do, it’s not always co-workers women have to worry about: Coaches, players and especially fans are often aggressive toward or even harass women, especially on social media. Some female sports reporters Yanity knows often receive rape or death threats. Yanity, who was a participant in the panel at Ohio, says students don’t typically act out to that extreme, but women still have to handle the inappropriate words and actions of colleagues.
“Students have a different culture when it comes to interacting with people. Go out and watch people on a Saturday night. You’ll know what I’m talking about,” Yanity says. “Problems can arise when students are put into a professional environment, and that culture can’t always be separated.”
The behavior is far from isolated to just Ohio University. Claire Hansen, a sophomore journalism student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, wants to be a beat writer for sports, but she says most of the jobs in sports journalism are geared toward the entertainment side of the topic, such as sideline reporting or other on-camera activities. She is a part of the Daily Northwestern, the newspaper at her university, where she has worked on the sports desk since joining the paper her freshman year.
“I knew coming into campus as a freshman that sports was something that I really wanted to focus on,” Hansen says. “I had grown up playing every sport out there, and it was just a big part of my life.”
Hansen says she never experienced blatant sexism, but rather she comes across subtle problems she can attribute to her gender day after day. She’s never felt excluded from her team, but she has noticed that the male leadership won’t ask her opinion on things, and she says it has been hard to feel like she’s “truly a part of the team.”
She felt perhaps it was just part of being a newcomer, but she recently noticed that this year’s male freshmen don’t seem to have the same problem. The men feel comfortable enough to joke over email with the leadership and to ask questions when they come up. The new women don’t do that.
This year, Hansen covered the football beat—a coveted spot when it comes to writing about her Big Ten athletic program. She found people would try to explain things to her as if she didn’t understand or would be surprised when she did. Intentionally or otherwise, people would end up talking down to her or treat her differently, something she believes is because of her gender.
“There’s another girl on my team, and when we were both in the press box at the same time, we’d play a game called ‘how many women in the press box?’” she says. “Without a doubt, it’s always less than five. There can be 60, 65 men reporters and then four of us maybe. You always just feel like you stick out like a sore thumb.”
She says she feels like she has a lot to prove, and that trickles into everything she does. She keeps a close eye on what she wears and how her clothes could be perceived. She researches thoroughly before doing anything rather than be caught off-guard and looked upon as “just another silly girl.”
When Mark Brewer and other paid WOUB staff members (none of whom would respond to request for comment) uncovered the patterns of discrimination and harassment—patterns confirmed by the emails students sent him at the end of the mandatory meeting—the management took advantage of what the report says is their right as an organization “to purge WOUB of people who we feel help create a hostile and/or threatening environment for women.”
Purge they did: eleven students were permanently fired from their volunteer positions at the station and will never be allowed to return. Five students were suspended but are eligible to reapply for their positions at WOUB during the next academic year and seven others can keep their roles but have been “put on notice to improve their professionalism or they will be terminated at WOUB.” One student was suspended pending an investigation but has since been cleared.
Now, people involved with APSE and WOUB are left to handle the fallout. Students are changing academic advisers over the scandal. Some lost internships or scholarships. Involved students can no longer check out camera gear or audio equipment from the equipment room at the school. Hill says APSE will start again in the fall with a new leadership team—this time, a woman will serve as president.
It’s little comfort to the women involved with WOUB. Several now fear their positions are undeserved, that they’re only getting the jobs because the men are gone and not because of their own merit. Some of the women say it’s for the best the men are gone. Others think the purge will only make the remaining men treat women worse.
A former WOUB volunteer and current Ohio University student, a male, also feels the problem will only grow.
“They got rid of some of the bad people, yeah, but there’s still some really problematic people there,” he says. “The problem went on and on for years, and it just festered, and no one said anything. I think the station thinks by punishing these 23 bad eggs, their reputation can be stainless again. That’s just not how it works. There are female offenders and offenders among the executives and even guys who still just aren’t good working there. The move felt a lot like a publicity thing to me because it probably isn’t actually going to solve the problem.”
To combat the issue on an institutional level, officials in the communications program plan to create more programming aimed at promoting diversity and awareness, Hill says. The school is also working to start a chapter of the Association for Women in Sports Media, an organization dedicated to help women combat the very problems seen at OU. The panel will likely become an annual event.
Photo by Brady Menegay
This year’s panel ends with questions from students. Students worry about how to solve the problem of the prevailing sexism seen in younger generations (join Ohio University’s mentorship programs, one panelist says; “teach your kids to not to be assholes,” says another) and how to work to eliminate it at the collegiate level.
A student, one of only a few women in the semester’s sports reporting class, asks what she can do to shut down crude and hateful commentary from colleagues. The panelists have several suggestions, but Yanity offers advice that leaves several in the audience nodding in agreement.
“Changing the dynamic is on men,” Yanity says to the entire audience. “Women work hard, and they deserve a place at the table, but changing the dynamic is on men. Men might think, ‘Why would I want to change the dynamic when it works so well?’ They need to do this because it’s time. Men don’t run the show anymore. Women are consumers of sports too, often at higher rates than men, and they work just as hard. There’s really no reason not to give us a chance.”
Editor's note: The author moderated the Ohio University panel, "Say No to Sexism in Sports," by invitation of the event's coordinators. The author was not involved in planning the event.