As the NFL season approaches, many fans will have questions about things like injuries, rookie contributions, quarterback controversies, and roster cuts. However, one question remains unanswered about the NFL and its media coverage: Why are there no female play-by-play announcers for NFL games?
Women tend to be relegated to doing sideline reporting and to the studio. There are only a handful of female play-by-play announcers or expert commentators for any male professional or college sport. It’s one of the few remaining glass ceilings to be cracked in journalism, sports and society.
I can understand why a woman wouldn’t make a good expert color commentator for NFL games. There has never been a female player in the NFL, and it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Maybe a few years down the road, there might be a female kicker who would be good enough to kick in the NFL. The best color commentators are those who have played the game at the NFL level and can relate to what the players are going through. Sorry, but the Lingerie Football League doesn’t count.
However, there’s no excuse for not letting women do NFL play-by-play. Most of the NFL play-by-play announcers are wise men with skinny arms (to paraphrase Game of Thrones) who never played a down in the NFL, let alone big-time college football.
One of the few female trailblazers in play-by-play sportscasting is Doris Burke, who, in addition to being a sideline reporter, also does play-by-play and color analysis for men’s college basketball and the NBA.
“It’s a big deal to call NBA games, because it’s the highest level of basketball in the world,” Burke, a former point guard at Providence College in the 1980s, told the New York Times in 2008.
In addition, Beth Mowins does play-by-play for college football on ESPN. Suzyn Waldman calls New York Yankee games on the radio, and Mary Carillo announces men’s tennis. Pam Ward had done play-by-play for ESPN college football for 11 years, but was demoted in May.
Other notable female sportscasters include Erin Andrews, Leslie Visser, Michelle Tafoya, Hannah Storm, Linda Cohn, and Suzy Kolber. It was recently announced that Andrews would be leaving ESPN to go to Fox Sports, where she will host a weekly college football game day show.
NBC’s Gayle Sierens did one game as a play-by-play announcer in 1987, and Leslie Visser did one game as a color analyst in 2001 on Westwood One/CBS Radio.
In commenting on the frequent criticism that she received, Ward told Sports Illustrated, “… I do feel I am the only broadcaster who has to be perfect, and nobody is perfect. And even when I don’t make mistakes, people perceive them to be mistakes or biases. I’ve even had people tell me I was criticized for doing a game I did not do. It is absurd. I know it is part of the culture now, but I think the best way to deal with it is to ignore it. I think it is pathetic and mean-spirited and it did not deserve to be addressed … ”
In 2011, Alex Flanagan, a female sideline reporter, told USA Today, “I always laugh. Our industry is filled with a lot of sports reporters who have never played the game of football. So what’s different between you as a (male) sports reporter, or sportswriter, who never played the game of football, and me as a female who has never played the game of football, in knowing the game of football?”
Unfortunately, women sportscasters must meet a higher standard than men. Most people assume “Oh, she’s just a pretty blond. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” They often get stereotyped as dumb eye candy and sometimes aren’t taken seriously as sports experts. They’ve been harassed and disrespected. Remember the Suzy Kolber interview with Joe Namath? Or reporter Ines Sainz being harassed in the New York Jets locker room? The Erin Andrews peephole video? However, many women are sports fans and follow sports religiously, unlike the old days when stadiums were filled with men with hats who smoked cigars. Earlier this month, a female referee officiated an NFL preseason game for the first time.
Chastity Melvin, a WNBA player who recently became the first woman to attend Syracuse University’s Sportscaster U along with several NBA players, told the Syracuse Post-Standard that, “It’s a big change, and it’s a change that’s been needed. Men are able to talk about women’s sports because they know the game. If you’re a woman and you know the game, you can do it, too.”
Women have come a long way in sports, as evidenced by the 40th anniversary of Title IX this year. It’s time the NFL and the networks that cover it keep the ball rolling.
Larry Atkins, a lawyer and a journalist, teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, NPR, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others.