Christine Brennan is an award-winning national sports columnist for USA Today, a commentator for CNN, ABC News, PBS NewsHour and NPR, a best-selling author and a nationally-known speaker. Named one of the country’s top 10 sports columnists multiple times by the Associated Press Sports Editors, she is a past president and current board chair of the Association for Women in Sports Media.
Women’s sports have a pretty good track record of capturing attention for big moments – from the 1999 Women’s World Cup to the latest NCAA basketball tournament. So why do women’s sports still seem on the outside of daily sports conversations?
On the national stage, we have these moments, and there are many more than there used to be which is good news. But then it becomes more regionalized, or just kind of fades away until the next big, big moment. I think women’s sports are in a better place now than they’ve ever been. Today is the greatest day for women’s sports in the United States — until tomorrow. There’s no doubt about that.
On one level, we’re impatient. Those of us who believe so strongly in Title IX and the power of women’s sports, and the success of women’s sports, we want it to happen faster. On the other hand, we have such a crowded sports calendar at a time when everyone’s attention is diverted to whatever they care about.
We all forget sometimes that men’s sports have also had problems. The NBA was in trouble in the late 1970s and the NBA Finals were even shown on tape delay. Then came Magic and Bird. But we don’t focus on that, because that’s a while ago. The other thing to look at is when men’s sports started compared to when women’s sports began. The NBA started in 1946. The WNBA started after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. So, the head start men’s basketball had over women’s is extraordinary. The first NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was in 1939. The first NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament was in 1982. A little bit of a head start, right? We can look at it this way: it’s a 100-meter dash, and the men are close to the finish line and the women have basically just gotten out of the blocks. Can you imagine where we’ll be with women’s sports if this growth continues at the same pace?
Female athletes seem to be driving much of the conversation around cultural change. Why do you think that is?
Women athletes, for the most part, have stayed in college and gotten their degrees before having a professional opportunity — if they have a professional opportunity. I think that they tend to be more educated, more civic-minded and more aware. They’ve also gone through more in terms of the issues – sexism, discrimination, being lightly regarded, being scoffed at — than male athletes have, although that’s getting better by the day.
In the WNBA you had the players on the Atlanta Dream actively working against their owner, Kelly Loeffler, who was running for the Senate. We saw pictures of Atlanta players wearing shirts supporting her opponent, Raphael Warnock. When have we ever seen that before? You have players on the team owned by a woman running for the Senate who are actively campaigning for her rival. That’s remarkable.
I think that shows how these athletes get it. They have not made the money the men have made. They have other interests in their lives, in part because they have to, because they’ll never be billionaires playing their sport. They’re more in tune to the world, I think, because their life hasn’t been coddled, they haven’t had the same sense of entitlement of many male athletes, so they are more aware and I think that makes them better citizens. I’m not saying male athletes are not good citizens. There are some amazing male athletes doing great work, but I think female athletes tend to be more aware as citizens and more outspoken.
Think about Megan Rapinoe at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. When has a U.S. athlete been wearing the red, white and blue, competing on foreign soil and leading the U.S. to victory while having to fend off the President of the United States on social media? Who would have ever thought I would ever say that sentence?
As a sports columnist, did you ever feel like it was an uphill battle to be heard or taken seriously?
I was very, very fortunate. I was launched out of Northwestern University with my undergrad and master’s degrees in journalism into the career of my dreams. I had three summer internships and one fall internship during my undergrad years, so I was ready for this and so confident and so comfortable, and never doubted that I belonged.
I came out of college in 1981, a time when some newspapers still had not hired a woman in their sports department. I was the first woman sportswriter to be hired full time by the Miami Herald. Let’s be honest: if I had been a white male, I would not have gotten that job, because they wanted and needed to hire a woman. Now, the previous summer, I had interned with the Herald, so they knew me. I didn’t feel like it was a gift at all. They saw my work and wanted me back. But if I had been a white male, I would not have gotten that job, and it’s very important to say that.
To me, it’s all about what you do with what you’re given. I took that opportunity and ran with it. How fortunate I was to have such a huge platform right off the bat. I covered the Miami Hurricanes in 1983 when they won their first national championship, and I was the only reporter — the only outsider, frankly — who was there every day from August 1983 to January 2, 1984, when they beat Nebraska and won the national title. Within a few months, I covered my first Olympics in Los Angeles and after that I went to the Washington Post.
I’m so fortunate in that I’ve always been heard. I’ve always been treated equally. I’ve always been given great opportunities, and I’ve never felt that I didn’t have the support of my editors. One of the reasons I became president of AWSM (Association for Women in Sports Media) was because I wanted to fight for those women who haven’t had the opportunity that I had. So many women don’t get those opportunities, or are treated unfairly, or are minimized by a sports editor. I’m fighting for them. I’ve worked hard, but you also have to be lucky. I’ve been so fortunate, so lucky, and I absolutely want to give back every way I can.
What advice would you give to women who are looking to get into the sports media field?
It’s a really hard time and jobs are scarce. Many news organizations are cutting people, cutting jobs, downsizing, and sometimes the news organizations themselves are going away. But what I tell students all the time is that good people will make it, so work hard. Just keep plugging away.
Read everything. Have subscriptions to newspapers, read books, read fiction, nonfiction, whatever you want. And prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime, which is what journalism is. It’s just the greatest thing ever. It’s harder and harder for these younger people to break in, but that doesn’t mean they won’t break in.
One piece of advice I give to all the students I mentor is to use the internet to help find a job. What I would have given to have the internet when I was looking for jobs! Students can search the websites of news organizations, they can send emails — cold, out of the blue emails, which I absolutely encourage.
Before I got my job offer from the Miami Herald, I pulled an all-nighter typing letters on an electric typewriter to 50 different newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times and Chicago Tribune. I photocopied some of my best stories, had my resume typeset and then put them all together with the individual letters in big envelopes and mailed them out. When I tell students that, and I do tell that story often, they’re shocked. And I tell them how fortunate they are to have the internet, but also, you really have to want to work that hard. No one is going to hand you anything.
My advice is to tell students as they’re reading and/or watching stories from around the country, to email that newspaper or TV reporter whose work they really like and start a conversation. Pretty soon, you might be visiting that city so you ask that reporter if they have time for lunch or coffee. Most people say yes to that and now you have a mentor, or at least a connection to that news organization. You have someone on your side. Now, say someone at that newspaper or TV station goes on maternity leave a year or so later, and that reporter you got in touch with remembers you as an impressive student and puts your name forward. You’ve now turned a cold email into a job.
You’re probably saying to yourself, Christine Brennan has lost her mind. Well, I gave that exact career advice to a woman who was getting her master’s in journalism from Northwestern: to just send out cold emails. And guess what? That student didn’t get one job offer. She got two. I use this example all the time. People have to be willing to work for this.
What might be flying under the radar in women’s sports that we should be paying attention to?
Keep an eye on flag football. The NFL is all behind flag football and it’s starting to become a high school sport for girls. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it moving into colleges. If the NFL is supporting something, and it sure is supporting flag football, especially for girls and women, watch out. The NFL can flex its muscles and really push high schools and colleges. I’m all for it, as long as it doesn’t hurt other girls’ sports and as long as athletic directors don’t take away other girls’ sports.
There’s certainly a chance it’s going to become an Olympic sport someday. How does the International Olympic Committee not take a meeting with Roger Goodell on this? I think that’s fascinating. And the NFL realizes the power of women’s sports. They also of course have decided that they want women to be playing a form of football because they want to keep girls and women as fans of the NFL for life. And with the issues of CTE and concussions in the forefront, they’re looking at a safer way for people to play football and still love watching the NFL on Sundays.
Two other things I’m looking at in the next 50 years of Title IX are women coaching women, and women’s sports doing a much better job of reaching girls in underserved urban and rural areas. First, we absolutely must have women coaching women. It’s just unbelievable to me that so many universities have men coaching women in their marquee programs like women’s basketball, softball and soccer. It’s nothing against men. It’s about creating female role models for girls and women. When these male coaches leave or resign, schools have to hire women to replace them. There are so many young women out there now who are in the coaching ranks who need the opportunity. And we want to show our daughters and our nieces and our granddaughters that women can do anything in sports, including coach. If they see only male coaches on the sidelines or on TV, that’s a bad message in terms of the growth for women in coaching.
The second piece is making sure that we reach underserved urban and rural areas with the opportunities granted by Title IX. We’ve nailed the suburbs. We are reaching suburban girls and will continue to succeed where people have money to put their girls in travel and club teams and get college opportunities. It’s an absolutely amazing success. Where we’re missing out is some urban and rural areas. How is the U.S. women’s soccer team that’s about to play in the 2023 World Cup not 50-50 Black and white? It is better than it has ever been, but still not 50-50. We know why. In general, soccer has been a mostly suburban white girls’ sport. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we have to do a much better job of reaching girls of color. That’s the next challenge for Title IX.
As we know, Title IX is not just about sports. It’s about teaching the other half of our population about winning and losing at a young age, about teamwork, about sportsmanship, about physical fitness. Now that girls and women are learning those life lessons as boys and men did for generations, we are seeing the incredible growth of women leaders in our country. Moving into the 2030s, 40s, 50s and beyond, we of course will have women presidents and more than 50 women senators and more than 50 percent women in Congress, as well as more women CEOs and college presidents and the like, and the common denominator for all those women will be that they played sports because of Title IX.