Pregnant and on-air: Women in sports media on managing job, motherhood
For women seeking advice on how to juggle a sports media career with motherhood, we direct you to NFL Network anchor Amber Theoharis, who is due with her third child at the end of August. Two years ago Theoharis nearly gave birth to her second child, Kamryn Olivia, on the set of NFL Total Access. As for the delivery of her first child, Dylan Mattea, well, that’s a remarkable story.
While working as the Orioles sideline reporter for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network in late August 2010, Theoharis started feeling stomach pains when covering the team in Chicago. She was scheduled to fly with the Orioles to Anaheim after the White Sox series but after consulting with the Orioles’ trainer, she decided to fly back to Baltimore to see her doctor. That’s when she received the news: She was in preterm labor—at a way-too-early 24 weeks. The paramedics were called and she was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center on Sept. 1. “They thought I would lose the baby because they thought she was too young to make it outside,” Theoharis said.
Theoharis was determined to keep the baby inside her for as long as she could. So for the next five weeks, she laid in the same hospital bed without moving. She described it as being upside down at a decline. Said Theoharis: “Every day they said she was going to be born, and every day I said, ‘No she’s not. I’m holding this baby in.’”
(The Frederick News-Post has a remarkable account of the pre-and-post-pregnancy here.)
Dylan Mattea Buchler eventually came 12 weeks early, weighing just two pounds, 10 ounces. (Theoharis said her daughter’s first diapers were about the size of one graham cracker square.) She stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for five weeks and upon returning home, Dylan had a heart and lung monitor attached. At one news conference, Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters to pray for Theoharis. For six months, Theoharis stayed home with Dylan, watching her every move.
“I went through that six months just trying to give her a chance at life,” said Theoharis. “I then had the realization that my dreams had not changed. Even going through all that, I still wanted to finish what was at that point 10 years of working really hard. I wanted to finish that pursuit I started out of college, and I felt I was a better mom when I had work. When I was pregnant working the baseball beat, the toughest part was the travel, being at the hot ballpark and still trying to walk around to get interviews done. Now I think the biggest challenge is fatigue because I have two small children. You are trying to do everything a stay-at-home mom would do when you are home and also trying to keep your career going, which you are still just passionate about. Also, being a studio host—and I know this might sound petty—it’s finding something that fits you and finding different camera angles. I’m standing up with 300-pound guys and you feel you weigh 400 pounds. You are standing in heels and your balance is off.”
If you are a regular watcher of sports television, it’s common to see pregnant women delivering (or covering) sports news. As far as women at high-profile places, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jade McCarthy (due Labor Day) and Theoharis (due Sept. 3) are currently on air as they near their due date. SportsCenter anchor Lisa Kerney gave birth to twins on May 26 (her third and fourth children) and will be back on the air this week. ESPN college football reporter Sam Ponder traveled last season to her College GameDay assignments with her 14-month-old daughter, Scout. They are just a handful of women in the sports media who have dealt with pregnancy and post-pregnancy issues.
“Being pregnant involves a lot of stuff that has to happen on a schedule, but I had a job that involved heavy travel and a lot of covering breaking news, so everything just became a whole lot more of a juggle,” said CNN sports anchor Rachel Nichols, the mother of toddler twins. “You're trying to eat regular meals, but you find yourself in an airport at 1 a.m. I remember once leaving a frantic message for my doctor that just said ‘I have to reschedule my appointment, Aaron Rodgers suffered another concussion.’ After I hung up, I realized I probably should have provided a little more explanation.”
“I got pregnant when I worked for another outlet, and I could definitely sense some trepidation about whether I'd continue in the business,” said ESPN and espnW columnist Jane McManus. “I think they were trying to figure out how much to invest in me if there was a chance I was going to leave the business. When my two girls were two toddlers, I felt like my assignments were affected. I could never say with certainty it was because of the kids, but I think some people at the paper looked at me differently. I have always loved being a writer and eventually my career got back on track. My youngest is 10 now and a lot has changed. Women have worked through pregnancy from visible positions in sports media. You need a supportive partner to make it work, and there is always the pull between career and kids. But if you love what you do, it's really rewarding.”
“I have had people walk up to me and say things to my face about my parenting and mothering,” Ponder told this column last December. “One time I had a lady ask me if this was her [Scout’s] 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.’”
ESPN’s Sage Steele said traveling for work was challenging, especially in 2005, her final season as a Ravens beat reporter when she had a three-year old and a one-year old and was pregnant with her third child.
“I was exhausted for obvious reasons and remember hoping the season would come to an end sooner rather than later,” Steele said. “My husband's decision to become a stay-at-home dad after the birth of our first child allowed me to continue working unique shifts and traveling. We didn't want a nanny in our home, so I changed jobs after the 2005 season in order to ensure a more consistent schedule. Ten years later, I still miss being a beat reporter, but I also know that my decision back then to be home more with three very small children was a no-brainer. I did some NFL sideline reporting in the preseason shortly after my first two children were born and there were several memorable road moments. I was still nursing my first child and will never forget the officials who gave up their private room at halftime so I could have a “clean” place to pump! I also have hysterical memories of traveling on the Baltimore Ravens team charter and locking myself in the lavatory so I could use my breast pump ... only to have players banging on the door wondering why I was taking so long. One time I got so frustrated that I ‘explained’ why by opening the lavatory door and showing them two bottles of freshly pumped breast milk (aka ‘liquid gold’). Needless to say they were grossed out and never bothered me again.
“I truly don't remember any outwardly negative experiences during any of my pregnancies. If anything, the men with whom I worked were extra helpful and considerate, and seemed to truly respect what I was doing in ‘their world’ while trying to balance so much mentally and physically. I have such fond memories of having a ‘moment’ doing NFL or NBA highlights on live TV and randomly laughing during the highlight as my unborn baby kicked me in the ribs or pressed down a little too hard on my bladder with his or her tiny feet. Those moments make me smile all these years later and will always be a great reminder that I can truly handle anything that comes my way while on the air.”
The same issues that impact travel can also impact those with studio roles. Kerney said that about 11 weeks into this pregnancy, she wolfed down a grilled chicken wrap so she wouldn't be starving during her anchoring of the 8 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter.
“Bad move,” said Kerney, who along with her newborn twins has a 3 1/2-year-old and a 21-month-old. “For the next three hours I was making a plan in my head to rip off my mic and Usain Bolt-it to the ladies room so I wouldn't become the latest viral sensation for hurling on air. Pregnancy is a crazy existence. You never know what's going to happen from moment to moment. The next day, I shared our news with one of my bosses and swore off night shows for the rest of my pregnancy. As I got bigger and the babies took up more and more space, they also took away room for me to breath, which became challenging with the quick pace of SportsCenter, especially when we're rolling from highlight to highlight. I had to strategically play up the ‘dramatic pause’ so I could dramatically cover my mic and take a deep breath.”
Interestingly, even in a social media age where women in sports media and elsewhere face an endless barrage of appearance-based comments, the women I spoke with said they were less body conscious while being pregnant versus not being pregnant.
“Being pregnant actually made me a little less worried about that stuff,” Nichols said. “I was making two human beings from scratch—at the same time! If someone chose to be critical of that process, instead of impressed, that was definitely not a ‘me problem.’”
“I've embraced the belly,” said McCarthy. “For most women in general, I feel like the most challenging time is the ‘in between’ time, when you haven't shared that you're pregnant but your shape is changing. This time, I lost weight because of how sick I was. Truthfully, it's been over the last few weeks that people have stopped me and said ‘Whoa! Look at you! When's the baby coming?’ In all seriousness, I could pass on the shopping for maternity clothes. But aside from trying to find clothes, I don't feel any additional stress or concern about my look. I'm proud that my family is growing with a son or daughter and that means growing myself.”
“I remember being so proud to be pregnant that I probably wasn't as self-conscious as I should have been,” Steele said. “Again, it was a different era—long before the Internet was as prevalent and invasive as it is today. I was certainly aware of how much weight I was gaining—exactly 33 pounds with each of my three kids—and I did my best to keep it in check considering that old adage that the camera adds ten pounds. Today it would be much different. All the standing-up shots and walking and talking that SportsCenter anchors have to do make it very important to wear appropriate clothing, both aesthetically and logistically.”
“I have been working in television on camera for 15 years, and being a female in sports you are used to being judged for your looks,” Theoharis said. “It’s just a reality being in a visual medium. But if you are worried about what people thought about you, you would not have made it. The women who make it in this business feel good about themselves and will not be defined by what other people think of them.”
Theoharis said the NFL Network has been supportive throughout her pregnancy (the women I spoke to at ESPN said the same thing about their employer) and treated her as they would any other employee. “I have always considered myself pretty tough and go with the flow, and I don’t want them to change my duties and ask me to do less because they think I need it,” said Theoharis, who plans to return to work Nov. 2. “But if I go to them because I need a break, I would hope they would be understanding of that. I think the best way to approach it is to let the pregnant woman at work let you know that she needs a break and not take duties away from her, because then we feel like we are losing the positioning we fought so hard for.”
(In case you were wondering about Dylan [below], Theoharis said she has caught up with kids her age physically and loves school, riding a two-wheeler, swimming and soccer. “This is the kid doctors told me wouldn't have muscle tone, would always be small and probably not be that athletic,” Theoharis said. “I never let their predictions for her be the standard I set. Those predictions were based on percentages. She's not a percentage. I always treated her like a normal child. I will always be humbled by how close I was to losing her and I find so much joy in the little things maybe parents of healthy children take for granted.”)
Kerney will back on the air this Thursday and viewers can see her throughout August on late-night SportsCenters.
“I live my life in two lanes: work and home,” Kerney said. “My social life will exist down the road and I'm totally O.K. with that. When I give myself, I do so wholly and with everything I have. Being a mom is the greatest blessing and my children give me the most euphoric bliss and love. But I know for me to be the best mommy for them, I need my creative outlet as well. I am incredibly passionate about my work and immerse myself while I'm present at work. As a mom of three daughters, it's important for me to show them the value of hard work, independence, accountability and going after your dreams. When I'm home, I'm mommy in my sweats, no makeup and a messy bun changing diapers, shuttling to camp and school, playing dress-ups and baking cookies. I am realistic about what fulfills me and that is family and work. I've never been more happy.”
One of the additional layers of the work experience for mothers working in the sports media is what happens after the kids are born, especially for those women who travel for their job.
“Anyone who works and travels will tell you it gets exponentially harder after you have kids,” Nichols said. “Are you going to bring them with you when they're very young, especially if you're breastfeeding? How do you juggle childcare if your travel isn't always on a set schedule? My toddlers are little enough that I haven't had to deal with them being crushed by me missing things like soccer games or school plays, but I hear that's coming, and it'll be one more thing to figure out how to navigate.”
“I knew I couldn’t be a beat reporter for a team and travel with a baby,” said Theoharis. “I made a personal decision in order to pursue my career and be a Mom. Everyone told me when I was pregnant with my first child, ‘Oh, you are going to change and once you put that baby in your arms your dreams will not be the same.’ Well, they put that baby in my arms and I love that baby to death but if anything, I wanted to keep continuing with my career because I had a daughter and I wanted her to see that your dreams don’t end the day you have a baby.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories.
1. The NBC Sports Group will air 105 regular-season NHL games in 2015, including its season-opener doubleheader on Oct. 7 on NBCSN featuring Rangers-Blackhawks at 8 p.m. ET and Kings at Sharks at 10:30 p.m. Last year’s opening-night presentation of Bruins-Flyers averaged 956,000 viewers, the most-watched NHL cable season opener on record.
Highlights of the NBC Sports Group’s upcoming NHL schedule include the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET on NBC (Canadiens at Bruins at Gillette Stadium), the 2016 NHL All-Star game on Jan. 31 in Nashville on NBCSN and the annual Stadium Series. This year’s Stadium Series features Blackhawks-Wild on Feb. 21 from TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota and Red Wings-Avalanche on Feb. 27 at Coors Field.
In total, the NBC Sports Group will air 12 games on big NBC and 93 games on NBCSN. The 105 regular-season games are the most ever scheduled across NBC Sports Group heading into the season. All games will be streamed live via NBC Sports Live Extra.
The 2015-16 regular season schedule on NBCSN will feature 24 Wednesday Night Rivalry telecasts and six Wednesday late-night games featuring Western Conference teams, including the Kings, Sharks and Avalanche. NBCSN will also air 12 Sunday Night Hockey matchups beginning on January 10. Matchups include Penguins-Capitals, Lightning-Bruins, Blues-Wild and Maple Leafs-Red Wings.
The Blackhawks, Rangers, Penguins, Red Wings, Wild, Avalanche and Blues will each make 12 appearances across NBC and NBCSN, the most among teams. Rangers-Penguins, Blackhawks-Wild, Capitals-Flyers, Penguins-Capitals and Kings-Sharks are the most featured regular-season matchups, each appearing three times across NBC and NBCSN.
One last fun note: NBCSN will air top NHL draft picks Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel when the Sabres host the Oilers on March 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
2. Last week ESPN’s E:60 received a news and documentary Emmy nomination for “Carmen: A Survivor’s Story,” a remarkable 16-minute feature produced by Mike Farrell and reported by Jeremy Schaap on Carmen Tarleton, who in the summer of 2007 was brutally attacked by her estranged husband. (He doused her with industrial strength lye, which burned over 90 percent of her body; her two daughters were witnesses to the attack.) One of the elements of her healing process was watching the Patriots. It is a story I cannot recommend more highly and I emailed Farrell, an E:60 feature producer who came to ESPN last year after working at TSN in Canada for nine years as a feature producer, for some background on how the piece came together. This is something you will not regret watching, as difficult as it is to watch.
SI.com: How did the story come to you?
Farrell: Our executive producer Andy Tennant had read a print article about Carmen a few years ago and was fascinated both by her story and the strength of her character. Once the Ray Rice situation and the NFL’s domestic violence crisis came to the forefront of the sports world, we decided it was the right time to bring Carmen’s story to the ESPN audience. Admittedly, the “sports angle” of the story was tenuous, but given the landscape of the sporting world at the time and the focus on domestic violence, we felt it was valuable, and potentially even educational, to give voice to a survivor’s story.
How long did E:60 report the story?
This particular story was a significantly shorter timeframe than a traditional E:60 feature. From green light to broadcast it was less than a month. We felt it was important to get the story on the air as soon as possible to maximize its relevance and impact. We wanted to reach the widest breadth of sports fans possible while the issue of domestic violence was still at the forefront of the social consciousness.
Green-lighting and producing this story was a risk. We had several conversations about this and acknowledged internally at E:60 that in reality this was not a sports story. Yes, Carmen was an NFL fan, and yes, she played softball, but really the essence of her journey had very little to do with sports. But as a show, we consciously try to broaden our horizons and tap into bigger cultural and societal issues. The fact that this piece has been nominated for a News Emmy Award is validation that sports networks don’t need to just stick to sports.
So much of this piece is how the viewer feels when he/she sees Carmen's face. How and why did you decide to open the piece as you did?
We needed to establish our sports angle right off the bat, which is why we decided to open with the scene of Carmen and her boyfriend watching a Patriots game. It was fascinating to me that given what she had been through, she was still such an avid NFL fan despite all the league’s domestic violence scandals. In terms of the way we shot it, we purposefully framed the shots so as to not show her face right away. I wanted to create a tasteful mood of mystery for the scene and eventually reveal what she looks like. The goal was to establish that this lifelong Patriots fan has gone through something unimaginably painful, and it has something to do with domestic violence, but we don’t really know what happened. The reveal of Carmen’s face in the interview setting was a powerful moment in the piece, followed by the sequence of shots that portray the three stages of her appearance. I wanted to foreshadow her journey while at the same time creating a sense of bewilderment for the viewer, so he or she would be asking, “What happened to this woman?” That question would then be answered as the piece played out.
How did you determine when to use footage of Carmen after she was attacked (from the hospital, in rehab, etc…)?
The overarching priority when it came to how much footage we would use of her disfigurement was this: We needed to treat Carmen with the dignity that she deserved. We needed to strike a delicate balance between properly conveying the horror and pain that she experienced, while at the same time not being gratuitous. I think we did just that. Carmen herself will even agree that those images are difficult to look at, but we felt it was important to show them, and to show the depths of her despair, so that her journey to emotional and physical health resonated as truly incredible.
You come away from the piece thinking you have truly experienced someone extraordinary. What was it like being around her?
I feel that the word inspiration gets thrown around way too often, especially in the sports feature business, but Carmen is truly that: She is an inspiration. She was completely comfortable in her own skin, and that feeling was contagious; it immediately put myself and the crew at ease. The very first time I knocked on Carmen’s door, she opened it in a tank top and immediately pulled me in for a big bear hug. I knew she was testing me, to see how I would react, and I reached right back and gave her a big squeeze. That set the tone for the entire shoot.
I often feel like when you are working with a truly incredible subject like Carmen, the production process becomes easy. You don’t have to work to make her “look amazing on TV” because she actually is just amazing. All you really have to do is put a camera in front of her and try not screw it up. She is a physical and medical miracle, an emotional role model, and one of the strongest people I have ever met.
2a. After two seasons of airing on Fox Sports 1, Fox NFL Kickoff will move to big Fox, setting up a two-hour NFL pregame block on Sunday. The first show will come Sunday, Sept. 13 (11 a.m. ET), immediately preceding Fox NFL Sunday.
“With interest and demand for NFL programming at an all-time high among both consumers and advertisers, the time is right to move Fox NFL Kickoff to the network, making it more widely available than before," said Bill Wanger, the executive vice president of programming, research and content strategy for Fox Sports, speaking in the non-human way sports TV PR departments enjoy using for executive statements.
This is an interesting move, given ESPN and NFL Network have enjoyed relatively little challengers in the 11-12 p.m. ET hour outside of their own in-house programs. I’d expect ESPN’s Sunday numbers to drop a tick in that hour.
2b. Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo was first to report that ESPN will debut a new Sunday edition of NFL Insiders that will replace the first hour of Sunday NFL Countdown at 10 a.m. ET. The move is part of a multi-year extension for Trey Wingo. He's the logical heir to Chris Berman on Countdown, but logic doesn’t always find the sun in Connecticut.
2c. Along with re-signing Wingo, ESPN re-signed Suzy Kolber to a long-term extension. As part of the deal, ESPN named Kolber as the new full-time host of ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown pregame show. Kolber will travel to the site of each week’s MNF game where she will appear alongside Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis and Steve Young. She will continue to host weekday editions of ESPN’s NFL Insiders. The Sunday edition of NFL Insiders will feature Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen and Louis Riddick along with Wingo.
2d. Some of you asked why Fox Sports 1 and NFL Network talent (Molly McGrath and Chris Rose) are currently appearing on ABC’s (part of the ESPN-Disney family) BattleBots. I’m told by ESPN sources that ESPN opted to pass on using its own sports talent to front the show. Thus, it had no issues when ABC Entertainment opted for Fox Sports talent.
3. The 12th episode of the SI Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features ESPN commentator Bomani Jones. In the podcast, Jones discusses why he believes 10 p.m.-1 a.m. ET is the best slot in radio, how he prepares for Highly Questionable and his ESPN Radio show, how race plays into sports-talk, where the line exists on Twitter when debating with colleagues and the public, how he was guided by his parents (both '60s activists and college professors), what his ESPN future holds and much more.
From Jones: “The most difficult thing as a black dude doing radio is convincing the PDs (program directors) or anybody else that you are not going to scare the white folks. That’s a huge thing, and I have no fear of that, and it normally takes some people in charge to recognize that and the audience I normally attract is decidedly an American audience.”
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Tremendous work by Brian Burnsed on an NCAA lacrosse player's long fight with addiction to painkillers.
• From Scott Cacciola of the New York Times: 120 guys tried out for the Korean Basketball League in Vegas.
• Vin Scully on life and lessons from his rookie year with the 1950 Dodgers.
• The Povich Center for Sport got Frank Deford to write about his career.
• Washington Post writer Kent Babb profiled Chip Kelly.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• An expert’s must-see guide to the half-a-million amazing historical videos the AP just put online.
• Five views of 2 World Trade Center from the amazing graphics people at the New York Times.
• Via New York Times Magazine: A prodigy grows up to become one of the greatest mathematicians in the world.
• Terrific reporting by Christian Science Monitor writer Kristen Chick, who followed Syrian refugees on a 1,500-mile journey to a better life.
• The inside story of how two New York prisoners made their escape.
• From Carl Schreck: The adventures of Soviet singer/actor/poet Vladimir Vysotsky in Hollywood in the late 1970s.
• From New York magazine: Thirty-five women speak about being assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the culture that wouldn't listen.
5. Last week HBO announced that former ESPN commentator and writer Bill Simmons had signed a multi-year deal with HBO to host a new weekly television series for the network that will air on the main HBO service, as well as the HBO digital platforms HBO GO and HBO NOW. HBO said the show, which will debut in 2016, will feature stories and guests from across the sports and cultural landscapes.
HBO will be Simmons' exclusive television home, which signals that he will land elsewhere for his digital writing. His agreement with HBO begins in October. A spokesperson for Simmons declined comment on future places of employment for the commentator.
5a. Deadspin writer Greg Howard broke the news last week that the longtime sports writer Howard Bryant has been tapped to reboot “The Undefeated,” the still yet-to-be-launched ESPN website on race and sports.
As noted here in June—and by others with ESPN sources—a change in front-facing management was likely to bring talent back in the fold who refused to work for previous management. On Saturday Bryant tweeted that L.Z. Granderson, Jemele Hill, Bomani Jones and Michael Smith would be contributing to the site.
As for the future of The Undefeated, ESPN president John Skipper has repeatedly said the project is of considerable importance to the company. It’s also important to sports journalism as a whole. ESPN has more resources than any other sports media outlet to provide young writers of color the opportunity (and a healthy wage) to pursue interesting and thought-provoking pieces on the intersection of race and sports. Here’s hoping they make it work.
5b. The latest It's Sports Stupid podcast with Maggie Gray gives our thoughts on who should be SI’s Sportsman of the Year and whether Becky Hammon will ever be a head coach in the NBA.
5c. I’ll have some thoughts in Monday’s column about ESPN jettisoning Colin Cowherd but start with this.
5d. Richard Sandomir of the New York Times on ESPN’s talent drain and Stephen A. Smith’s nearly $3 million salary.
5e. The industry trend: Jim Wyatt, the longtime Titans beat reporter for The Tennessean, took a job with the Titans.
5f. Buffalo’s WIVB had a 30-minute tribute for the late Van Miller yesterday if you want to watch.
5g. Here’s ESPN’s coverage plans for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.
5h. This ESPN MyWish segment with John Cena is truly awesome.