Sam Ponder on motherhood, football; misogyny among hockey media
Scout Ponder completed her 59th flight last Friday, a 938-mile journey from Minneapolis to Dallas, which likely places her among the nation’s leaders in plane trips for five-month-olds. The aforementioned baby girl, born Bowden Sainte-Claire Ponder but nicknamed after the narrator and protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, has accompanied her mother, Samantha Ponder, from Fargo to College Station to Oxford to a host of other college football hotbeds throughout the fall. The elder Ponder is ESPN’s lead sideline reporter on the network's Thursday night college football broadcast as well as a member of the traveling College GameDay caravan. And she’s had quite the ride as a working (and first-time) mother.
"What other baby has been to Manhattan, Kansas, and Starkville, Mississippi, in the same year?” Ponder said, laughing. “She’s hit all the college towns. But there was no thought in my mind to leave her at home. I had a commitment to fulfill with work and I love my job, but to be gone four days a week from her -- when the season started she was only five weeks old -- I could not fathom leaving her home and then checking in four days later. It’s been a challenge but also an incredible adventure. This whole traveling thing has an extra dimension when it’s the two of you running through airports with a stroller. I don’t know how I lucked out so much because I have a baby who likes to fly. She is awesome on the plane. Sometimes we’ll see a pilot on the way out and he’ll say, 'Is this her first flight?' and I’ll say, 'Shoot, she’s flown almost as much as you have probably.'"
Over the last four months, mother and daughter have flown from Ponder’s home in Minneapolis to the site of ESPN’s Thursday night game. At each game site, the pair is joined by Cindi Steele, Sam’s mother, who flies in from Phoenix each week (the Ponders, not ESPN, pay for her to go) to help out with Scout. The three generations of Steele women then travel together to the site of College GameDay. Cindi and Scout usually stay inside the hotel during games given the weather. But for the Nov. 27 game between LSU and Texas A&M in College Station, Scout came for the pregame and made fast friends with LSU coach Les Miles.
"Les Miles talked to her for, no joke, maybe 30 minutes before the game," said Ponder, 28. "He loves kids and has kids of his own. She spit up and he was wiping her face. He was amazing. I was interviewing him a couple of hours before kickoff and my mom was standing off to the side holding Scout. He comes up to me, points and says, 'Is that your daughter?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Bring her over. Isn’t this so much better than the job?' He is just one of those coaches that sees the big picture and it was just really cool to talk to [him] about family and having a perspective beyond football."
Ponder says she has been careful to make sure Scout doesn't interfere with either of the ESPN productions. She praised the GameDay staff for its support and care (Scout travels from town to town with an embroidered blanket given to her by Desmond Howard and his wife, Rebkah) and said there have only been a handful of times where child care issues arose. In a recent case, Tom Rinaldi stepped up for her for a College Football Live assignment during Iron Bowl weekend.
"From the moment Sam told me of her plans and arrangements for traveling with Scout, I had no concerns or issues," said Lee Fitting, the executive producer for College GameDay and one of the network’s point people for college football coverage. "She told me that it wouldn’t be an issue and I took her word for it. Most weeks I don’t even realize that Scout is with us -- that’s how little impact it has on the rest of us. I have no idea how Sam does it, though. I have a hard time getting from point A to point B during the season."
"I don’t want to take the kindness they have shown me for granted," Ponder said. "We try and keep to ourselves as much as possible. Everybody from Lee Fitting on down has [been] really patient with me, and as anyone who is a new parent knows, those first few months are a roller coaster ride. I am genuinely grateful for ESPN and I am not just company line-ing it. I called [senior coordinating producer] Ed Placey in July because I was not going to be able to make something because I did not have child care for that day. I’ll never forget what he said. He said, 'She is only little once.' To me as a mom, it made me realize they get it and they were willing to stick with me."
The toughest thing for Ponder this fall, she said, is knowing that Scout is away from her father, Christian Ponder, a quarterback for the Vikings and a former Florida State football player.
"That’s been the biggest struggle internally for me in all this is knowing that my job is keeping my husband from seeing his daughter," Ponder said. “When they are at this age, they grow so fast and change so much. The first time she rolled over, I think we were in Oxford and he missed it. Now, some of that might happen at home when your husband is at work and I try not to focus on that too much. I am grateful for FaceTime. But as soon as he is done in January, he will get to spend tons of time with her, which is the benefit of the NFL as crazy as their schedule is.
"Having those months off, he can be with her all those months. One of the greatest joys of motherhood for me is seeing my husband interact with that little girl because he is the greatest dad and genuinely wants to spend every minute he can with her. They already have such a cool relationship."
Ponder said she has spoken with fellow ESPN college football reporter Heather Cox about juggling motherhood and work, and when ex-volleyball player Gabby Reese was a guest picker for GameDay in Tallahassee last September, the three shared stories on an ESPN bus about traveling with babies. ESPN reporter Shannon Spake, who has twin boys, has also been a source of support.
"There are a lot of women who have done it and usually they do it quietly," said Ponder, who will be a guest host on ABC’s The View on Dec. 17 and will be hosting and reporting from the Rose Bowl and national championship game. "We’re figuring it out as we go along, and I think you have to be comfortable with your choices. There is such a stigma on both sides of being a working mother, and you can fall into the trap of what you think everyone else thinks you should be doing instead of what your instincts and standards say you should do."
Like many new parents, Ponder said she questions everything she is doing with Scout, including whether airport runs are hurting her immune system. But so far she has been a happy baby.
"If I ever got to the point I thought I was compromising that, I’d hang it up quickly," Ponder said. "My concern is ultimately her well-being and whether I am doing a good job as a mom. Obviously, you get all sorts of different responses. I have had people walk up to me and say things to my face about my parenting and mothering. One time I had a lady ask me if this was her first flight and I made a joke out of it as I usually do, saying she’s a long pro at this. The woman said, 'You know, that is terrible for a baby. The immune systems are not ready for this.'
"One of the things I have learned is some of the most judgmental people have been other moms, and there have also been a ton of moms who have been very supportive and encouraging. I think a lot of people see how they did it and it worked for them, and they assume that is what works for everyone. I told my doctor I was feeling guilty about having her out so much and he said, 'There are two things that you have to do. You have to love her and you have to feed her.' I was like, 'Okay, I can do those things.'"
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. The Packers' win over the Patriots on Nov. 30 drew 30.9 million viewers for CBS, making it the most-watched Sunday telecast of the 2014 season and the most-watched Sunday regular season game on any network in seven years. (The Patriots-Colts game on Nov. 4, 2007 was watched by 33.8 million on CBS.) CBS said the 17.6 rating for the game was the highest for an NFL regular season game on any network in three years. The game peaked with 36.2 million viewers between 7 and 7:30 p.m. ET.
1a. The NFL Network’s Dec. 4 game between the Cowboys and Bears delivered an 8.0 overnight rating, the third-highest overnight rating ever for the network's Thursday Night Football broadcast.
1b. CBS said its games through the first 13 weeks of the NFL season have averaged 19 million viewers, up one percent over last year’s 18.8 million viewers and up seven percent from 2012's 17.8 million. The network said the 19 million viewers is the highest number of average viewers for the first 13 weeks of the season for the AFC television package in 27 years.
1c. CBS NFL analyst London Fletcher, a former Redskins linebacker, went off on Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett on the CBS Sports Network's That Other Pregame Show (video here). An excerpt:
"Why does Jim Haslett still have his job as defensive coordinator after five years of ineptitude at the defensive coordinator position? He is clueless as a defensive coordinator. He lacks attention to detail. He lacks feel on how to call a game. Some of the calls he used to call when I was playing were head-scratching. They were so bad I used to change them … Mike Shanahan recognized early that this guy does not know what he is doing. And he tried to help him out … And what does Jim Haslett do? He threw [Shanahan] under the bus just like he throws everybody under the bus, players and coaches included. He is a guy that does not know what he is doing. And the Washington Redskins and Jay Gruden in particular better watch his back and get Jim Haslett out of the door, because he’s probably back stabbing Jay Gruden like he did everybody else, like he did to Scott Linehan in St. Louis and like he did to Mike Shanahan in Washington … This is a guy that would take the ’85 Bears and turn them into a mediocre defense. He is clueless. He has no idea what he is doing. Believe me. I had a front row seat for four years."
2. The SEC Championship Game on CBS drew a 7.7 overnight rating, the highest-rated college football championship of the weekend. The ACC's title game, Florida State-Georgia Tech, averaged a 6.9 rating on ABC.
2a. Alabama’s win over Auburn averaged 13,529,000 viewers on ESPN, the network’s most-viewed regular season college football game on record (since 1990), surpassing USC at Ohio State in 2009 (10,586,000 viewers).
2b. As is par for the course with high-profile women on sports television, Ponder gets hit with the worst of social media. She says sexualized content comes her way on Twitter on a daily basis.
"It is daily because of the sheer numbers of people you are dealing with," Ponder said. "I personally mute or block those people because they are usually repeat offenders. I don’t like seeing it. I am fine knowing it is out there and that there are people who want to say crude or vulgar things, but I choose not to look at it for the most part. But when it is someone with a picture or a description [of who they are], I always have such a hard time when it is a father. If you have kids and then you talk to someone else’s kid in that kind of way when you are watching a football game, it is hard for me to understand. But it is reality, and it’s not the majority of people. But it is also not five people. There are a lot of sick and vulgar and angry people out there and you can’t pretend they don’t exist. Once in a while I respond to it but that is because of my own lack of control."
2c. Ponder’s parents founded M.A.D. Ministries, a faith-based organization out of Phoenix, that provides college scholarships, housing, education, spiritual guidance and athletic training for young people. Ponder’s father, Jerry, is currently living in Bethlehem, Israel, and Jerusalem, where he's the basketball coach of the Palestinian National team and an assistant football coach for the Jerusalem Kings in the Israeli Football League (the league is sponsored by Robert Kraft’s family).
3. Two hockey writers, the Denver Post's Adrian Dater and Awful Announcing's Steve Lepore, were fired by their respective media organizations last week in part for social media abuse of women (Lepore’s harassment was serial). You’ll find stories on Lepore here and here and Dater here. In late August, Harrison Mooney, who wrote for Yahoo's Puck Daddy, was also fired for similar actions. Hockey writer Anna Gallegos, who has written for SI.com among other outlets, tweeted last week that she was disappointed that media-specific sites had not addressed the above mess, so I asked her if she would offer her thoughts for this column. Her piece is below:
With three male hockey reporters and bloggers fired in four months for social media harassment, sexism in hockey journalism is a culture problem that goes way beyond the poor choices of a few.
The creepy Twitter messages sent by Adrian Dater, Steve Lepore and Harrison Mooney to various female fans and bloggers highlight that women in hockey are treated as a novelty. In the NHL, women are more likely to be ice girls than analysts, online we’re avatars instead of fans.
Hockey has always been a sport dominated by white men, but female fans and bloggers are finding their own voice on social media, which is a shock to the status quo. And strangely, the hockey community and the media have been so slow to embrace this. The NHL and AHL teams work closely with the You Can Play campaign to reduce homophobia in hockey and increase LGBT participation, but there has never been a wide-scale campaign to actively engage women in the sport.
However, the media are doing female fans a disservice as well by allowing press boxes to remain a boys club. Out of the 293 members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association I've been able to independently confirm, only 23 are women. That’s seven percent. I’m sure that there are more than 23 female hockey bloggers out there, but they’re missing from the most prominent websites; Yahoo’s Puck Daddy employs one female staff writer, Jen Neale, while neither The Hockey News' Post-to-Post blog nor NBC's Pro Hockey Talk publicly lists a regular female staffer or contributor.
Giving women the chance to write isn’t the cure-all for hockey’s misogyny problems, but it’s a chance to show that we’re fans who love and know the game. Give us a platform and men will see that having a pretty face and a hockey jersey isn’t an automatic OK to flirt or ask for more.
Beyond this, however, both men and women have the responsibility to create a safe space for fans online and to call out creeps.
As an aspiring professional hockey writer, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been easier to keep silent about sexual harassment. Until now I’ve never said a word about the dirty remarks made about my body by male fans, members of the media and the occasional unwelcome advance from a player when I was an AHL reporter in college. Why? Because I didn’t want to lose my press pass or be labeled a liar or worse by men who had years of hockey experience over me.
Maria Camacho and Toni McIntyre exposing Dater's and Lepore’s unprofessional actions is a huge stride for women in hockey. Their willingness to publicly call these men out unfortunately opened them up to more personal attacks, but more importantly showed that harassment is not, and never will be, acceptable. Hopefully, more women will feel empowered to speak out about their own harassment and their right to be hockey fans.
Dater and Lepore deserved their firings because they should have known that what they were doing was disgusting and unprofessional. Even with these guys being out of a job, this issue isn’t over and misogyny in hockey is not something that can be smoothed over with a Zamboni.
3a. Lepore’s actions were particularly disturbing on a personal note. I never socialized with him but I did see him at various sports media events and he appeared to be a hard-working guy who loved sports media and hockey. Last year I sent out two tweets on his behalf here and here, and told the editors at Awful Announcing (who called me about him) prior to his hire that I thought he had nice potential as a media writer. I was one of the people Lepore wrote to last week apologizing ("You stuck your neck out for me and I behaved terribly in private when I should've been working on my career. I know I don't need to apologize to you because I never hurt you like I did the people I did this too [sic], but I'm sorry that I let you down.”). I don’t write this with any self-flagellation notions because I made a call based on work-related thoughts, nor does this even register compared to the experiences of the women above. But it sucks when you vet someone and it bites you.
3b. Dater wrote a Facebook post that discussed his personal issues. It’s worth reading as a window into a life on the road covering sports.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s Michael Farber wrote a sensational profile of Canadiens star P.K. Subban.
• Impressive work by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffer Brady McCollough on the evolution of Mario Lemieux.
• Strong final column from ESPN’s departing ombudsman, Robert Lipsyte.
• Patrick Hruby, for The Washingtonian, on the football helmet rating system.
• The Inside The NBA crew had a 10-minute discussion about Ferguson last Thursday.
• Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer Prize-winner Lane DeGregory writes on football in Pahokee, the poorest corner of Palm Beach County, Fla.
• Via Outside Magazine: The Allure Of The 5-Minute Beer Mile.
• How Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise got to repay the man who saved his life.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Interesting New Yorker piece on how the public is impacted by the uniforms worn by police.
• This Chris Rock Q&A with Frank Rich is sensational. Worth your time if you have yet to read it.
• Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi, on farm workers being exploited in Mexico.
• Via the Moscow Times: How to disappear in the Internet age.
• The Washington Post on the Rolling Stone/UVa. story, debunking some of the facts in the RS article.
• A farewell column from The Washington Post's longtime book critic, Jonathan Yardley.
• 100 Notable Books of 2014, as selected by The New York Times.
• Remarkable New York Times story of a previously unidentified American doctor with Ebola and how he survived the disease.
5. Longtime Fox Sports executive Scott Ackerson, the coordinating producer for Fox NFL Sunday for 17 years, will retire in March. He’ll then serve Fox Sports in an advisory capacity. Of note here is that Ackerson is currently the executive overseeing Fox Sports Live and America’s Pregame. His successor will face the same challenges Ackerson did: How do you gain audience against SportsCenter?
5a. NBC Sports added Kyle Petty to its upcoming NASCAR race day broadcast team on NBC and NBCSN. Petty will work alongside host Krista Voda as an analyst during pre- and post-race shows surrounding Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series coverage.
5b. The MLB Network says it will televise more than 45 hours of live coverage over five days (starting Sunday) at the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, including interviews with managers and general managers throughout the league. That’s the most live coverage of the Winter Meetings in the network's six-year history.
5c. Here’s ESPN’s Winter Meetings plans.
5d. NBC Sports Radio will debut a new three-hour program next month featuring Mike Florio. "ProFootballTalk Live with Mike Florio" begins Jan. 5 at noon ET.
5e. Props to The V Foundation and ESPN for their grant of $100,000 to fund pediatric brain cancer research in honor of Lauren Hill, the Mount St. Joseph's University women's basketball student-athlete.
5f. Lipsyte gave an exit interview to The Big Lead upon the end of his 18-month ESPN tenure.
5g. Univision said it averaged 847,000 total viewers per match for the 2014 LMX Apertura regular season, nine percent higher than NBC’s EPL coverage for the same time frame.
5h. The América-Chivas Súper Clásico on Nov. 1 had 2.1 million total viewers, the most-watched soccer match in the U.S. since the World Cup concluded across all networks.
5i. Classy move by Redskins PR here for Bryan Burwell.