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Amid Andrews trial, female sports reporters open up about safety

Amid the Erin Andrews trial, female sports reporters reflect on their own experiences with staying safe on the road. 

During her years working on the broadcast teams for the Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates and MLB Network, Trenni Kusnierek estimates she traveled about 150-200 days per year. That schedule meant hotel stay after hotel stay and Kusnierek recently recalled for one harrowing incident in 2008 while covering the Brewers for Fox Sports Wisconsin. After returning from dinner with friends while covering the Brewers in Philadelphia, Kusnierek noticed a stranger had followed her from outside the Hilton Penn's Landing hotel, through the lobby, and on to her elevator. By chance, Prince Fielder and another Brewers player happened to be on the elevator with them. Kusnierek made eye contact with the then-Brewers first baseman. Her unsaid words: This guy isn’t with me and I don’t why he’s on the elevator. 

“I can still remember the lighting in the lobby, the look of the elevator, and the carpeting in the hallway of the floor I got off on,” says Kusnierek, who is now an anchor and host for Comcast SportsNet in Boston. “I was scared. Why would this person get on this elevator and try to pretend he knew me? He was talking to me as though we were together. I gave Prince a look like I don’t know this guy.”

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Fielder, picking up on the signal, got off on the floor Kusnierek was staying on, walked her to the room, and then got back on the elevator. Kusnierek doesn’t know what happened to the man—he disappeared into the night. “If Prince and one of his teammates had not been there, I honestly don’t know what would have happened,” she said.

Erin Andrews’s lawsuit and trial this month against the Nashville Marriott (Andrews is suing the hotel for allowing a stalker to book the room next to hers and surreptitiously film nude videos of her in 2008 while she worked for ESPN) has not gone unnoticed for front-facing women in the sports media who travel regularly for work. Last week I contacted seven women who appear on television regularly (ESPN’s Josina Anderson, SNY’s Kerith Burke, Fox Sports reporter Laura Okmin, SportsNetLA Dodgers host and reporter Alanna Rizzo, NBC Sunday Night Football reporter Michele Tafoya, YES Network’s Yankees reporter Meredith Marakovits and Kusnierek). With them, I discussed the topic of security while on the road. I was curious if what happened to Andrews changed their approach about where they stay, what they do at hotels, or produced any new travel precautions for them.

“I don’t have a lot of say in where I stay or what hotel chains my company uses,” said Burke. “I do remember feeling sad and scared after what happened to Erin. I travel with Band-Aids to put over the peepholes. I prefer to join a coworker at the hotel restaurant or bar so strangers don’t approach me as much. There’s a noticeable difference when I eat or drink alone. I don’t like hotel rooms on the first floor. I don’t like rooms by the elevators. Depending on the length of my stay, I don’t get maid service because I don’t want anyone in my room except me.”

“I am very cautious,” said Rizzo. “I never post on social media where the team is staying. I used to stay under my actual name at hotels but this year that will be changed. There have been several occurrences when savvy fans have located the team hotel and have called my room asking me for a date or for money for their fundraisers.”

Marriott rep allegedly played Erin Andrews hotel video for friends

“Sometimes I can be in multiple cities, up to three times a week to handle work assignments I’m given,” Anderson said. “As a result of the heavy travel, there are a number of precautions I try to take that are very common. Specifically in hotels, when possible, I try to be mindful of not having the room cleaned unless I’m in the room. Additionally, when I remember, I remove luggage identification tags on the personal items remaining in the room. I also try to minimize manual transactions and documents that leave personal information behind. Those things are just basic measures. But I do think it’s highly important to surround yourself with a trusted nucleus of individuals and to minimize any random interactions in the course of travel.”

“I make sure when I open the hotel card, no one can see it,” said Okmin. “Most people open it in the elevator to check their room number or get the key ready and anyone standing near you can read the room number. 

"If I'm charging something to my room, I never say the room number aloud. I also pay attention when I'm checking in at the front desk. If there's people around, or anyone that puts my radar up, I make sure I tell the person who's checking me in not to say it out loud. One time they did say it and I asked if they could change it because there was a situation that made me feel uncomfortable. As a younger woman, I wouldn't have done that. I wouldn't have wanted to look 'high maintenance.' But now I listen to my gut and encourage all the young women reporters I know who travel to do the same. I’m also always aware of who I'm in an elevator with, as well. If someone makes me uncomfortable, I won't get out on my floor. One time someone got in after me and said, 'Hello, Laura Okmin' and didn't say anything else. He didn't push a button. I got out on my floor, he followed, and I turned back before the door shut and went down to the lobby and changed rooms. It could've been unnecessary and paranoid but if it helps me feel safe and sleep better it's worth it.”

Breaking down latest in Erin Andrews’s Nashville Marriott lawsuit

​Kusnierek said until Andrews’s privacy was violated, she never worried about hotel peepholes and never thought about someone overhearing her room number. But after what happened to Andrews, she recalled one instance where a hotel clerk announced the number of her room while a big crowd was around. She immediately asked for a different room. Kusnierek said she now always makes sure her door is locked when she’s in her hotel room including the deadbolt and chain. 

“It really wasn’t until that happened that my mindset changed,” Kusnierek said. “Not that I would walk through my hotel room unclothed but given bathrooms are often next to the front door in hotels, I always walk along the inside wall to get changed. I am very cognizant of whether I would want someone to see me in a bra or underwear or towel wrapped around me, so I cover up and think about that. I get dressed in places in the room where I don’t think there is anyone who can see me.”

“I will share something I noticed recently at a hotel I stayed at in the Marriott chain,” Burke said. “At the front desk for check in there was a sign welcoming the elite Marriott members in the gold or silver tier. Under each tier was the guest’s first name and last initial. That was concerning. For anyone with an unusual name, that’s an announcement to everyone walking in the door that you’re staying there. Nice tool for stalkers…Generally, someone always knows where I am. Someone I trust always knows which room is mine. The people who need to know have my check-in and check-out times. That said, Erin Andrews probably took plenty of precautions and still had a devastating experience. It’s very important to remember she had nothing to do with what happened to her.”

“Just after the Andrews incident, I was covering a game for ESPN in Oakland,” said Tafoya. “My hotel room had a balcony, and when I walked out onto it there were two men sitting there in a balcony adjoining mine with absolutely no separation between us. No railing, no nothing. We were sharing a balcony, which meant that they had 24/7 access to the glass doors of my room. Obviously those doors locked and had curtains, but that didn't ease my mind at all. I checked out of the hotel. That was the one and only time I called my employer's travel department to complain. I don't share information about where I am staying.”

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“I feel very safe,” Marakovits said. "The YES Network and the Yankees have always made security a top priority. But in my first year at YES I had an incident with an overzealous fan who would not stop contacting me. It started off with emails to an old email account. It progressed to him obtaining my personal cell phone number and contacting my place of employment etc. He would tell people he was my uncle, boyfriend, husband, you name it. That was alarming enough, but when he started to make threats against my family I became very alarmed. He kept saying he was going to show up at different stadiums and/or my parents' house. Unfortunately, you don't know if the threats should be taken seriously or if it's just someone with too much time on their hands trying to scare you. I chose to err on the side of caution. That situation was handled quickly thanks to [team security] Mark Kafalas and Ed Fasthook. The YES Network encouraged me to let them know immediately if I ever felt unsafe or if I had any more issues of this nature. Luckily, when he would call my place of employment and hotels for info, it was never given out.”

Marakovits and Rizzo agreed that those employed by teams (or covering them for the host broadcaster) have extra security apparatus and structure in place. Tafoya also benefits from being part of a major network with resources. 

“I am in a unique situation in that 95% of the time I am traveling with the Yankees,” Marakovits said. “I bus from the stadium to the airport, then get on the team plane. When we arrive at the next destination, I go right from tarmac to another bus then to the hotel which is already secured. I check in with such a large group that keys are distributed ahead of time (usually on the bus). There is not much of a check in process on my end. Upon arriving at my room I always do a once-over. It's something I've done since I started traveling a lot [she also traveled with the Philadelphia 76ers from 2011–2012]. I just kind of look around and get familiar with my surroundings to make sure nothing looks off to me. I can't say I even know what I'm looking for but I feel more at ease if I stick with this routine. In addition, the 'do not disturb' sign goes on my door immediately and usually does not come off until I check out. I shut the blinds partially because we get in at 3:00 am and I don't want to wake up at sunrise but also because it's another layer of privacy. From my experience traveling with a team is a giant advantage both logistically and when it comes to security it takes a lot of other factors out of the equation.”

“Personal security on the road is not a major concern for me,” Tafoya said. “I feel fortunate that NBC provides ample security from the time I land in a city to the time I leave. But it wasn't always that way. As I was working my way up in this business and had assignments in smaller college towns, we often stayed at hotels that were not very secure at all. There were times I felt vulnerable in those locations.”

ESPN denies claims it was unsupportive of Erin Andrews

Most of the women spoke with had at least one story of significant uneasiness on the road. Anderson said that she is particularly focused in stadiums and arenas on the road. As a field reporter, people often ask for pictures and she is happy to oblige, but “you have to also be mindful of what’s going on, so at times I’ll keep my hands low or behind me in pictures to be protective of personal space.”

Okmin said there was someone who called her hotel room every week at all hours during an NFL season. “I would talk to operators each week and ask if they could help me with that,” Okmin said. “Could they write down if it was coming from inside the hotel (what room number) or outside, and if outside, could they write down the phone number? You can always travel under different names or put your phone on private, which I started doing, but I really appreciated any operator that would help me. Some would say no—they would just block my calls so no one could get through. But usually the women operators loved to help and took it seriously.”

Kusnierek brought up the impact—and the major downside—of using social media regarding traveling on the road.

“People are obsessed with knowing everything about everybody,” Kusnierek said. “While I recognize this is a way to connect with fans, for me there are limits. With the exception of posts from stadiums (which you can figure out where I am based on the MLB schedule) I do not post the location of my hotel, house, etc. If I'm off enjoying the day prior to work and want to Twitter/Facebook or Instagram something, I post anything regarding a location (restaurant, movie, shopping) after I leave.”

Burke recalled one story where she got a glimpse of what life is like for Andrews at events. “Years ago, I got a glimpse at a college football game at what people shout at Erin,” Burke said. “Two young guys who honestly resembled Beavis and Butthead in the way they were hunched over and snickering, 'Hey Erin, we loved your video!' They made sure I was within earshot, they said it again, and they howled with laughter. I don’t look like Erin aside from being a blond white woman, but these two jerks weren’t deep thinkers. My face got flushed with anger that they thought this is a funny thing to say to her in the workplace. I cannot imagine how often she hears cruel things while she’s doing her job. Getting frequent reminders of a terrible experience from the worst kind of people must be excruciating.”

Josina Anderson, Laura Okmin, Alanna Rizzo, and Michelle Tafoya.

Josina Anderson, Laura Okmin, Alanna Rizzo, and Michelle Tafoya.

The noise report

( examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. All the women interviewed for the piece above understandably had empathy for Andrews. Kusnierek said she was particularly ticked reading about the allegations of a West End Hotel Partners hotel executive (they are part of the lawsuit) showing footage of Andrews’s video to friends as the trial proceeds. “Men are still dismissing what happened to her and making light of it and making a joke of her trauma,” she said. “ That stuck out the most to me. It reinforces this feeling that the onus is on the victim to prove she was victimized.

Erin Andrews says she will never get over stalking incident

“One thing I’d like to address is the skepticism about why Erin would want to relive any of this when she said it wrecked her so much,” added Burke. “First of all, how someone processes their naked body on display without their consent is none of your business. Furthermore, healing is an incremental process. After feeling gutted and powerless, there is a power that returns when you get to share what happened to you, in your own words. She has described powerfully her anxiety, fear, and trust issues that resulted from this incident. It was also striking to see Erin’s testimony that she doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else. If there’s a measure of comfort she can find by trying to prevent future violations, I hope she gets that comfort.”

Added Okmin: “Erin's situation absolutely raised my antenna. It should raise every woman's, not just ones who are in the public. The person who taped her said he taped many women without knowing who they were. It absolutely will affect me in staying at Marriott Hotels and how I view them. When their defense argued, in essence, that Erin's fame and bank account benefited from the experience. I was disturbed and disgusted. Would they have preferred her to crawl into a fetal position and stop living her life? Would that have made it better somehow? The fact that her video was watched by one of the hotel reps publicly after watching her break down in court? That made me absolutely furious—enough to take my business elsewhere.” 

1a. If you want a sense of how Andrews was covered when this happened in 2009, I’d suggest reading this from The Washington Post and this from The Week. ESPN has denied claims they were unsupportive of Andrews after the stalking incident as well as the notion that she was forced to do an interview before getting back on the college football beat. I tracked down a story I wrote on August 31, 2009 about Andrews discussing what happened on The Oprah Winfrey Show after being tipped she would do Oprah. The web link is dead but here is the piece for some perspective:

ESPN reporter Erin Andrews, who was secretly videotaped in the nude while alone in a hotel room, will discuss the incident on The Oprah Winfrey Show on Sept. 11, has learned.

The segment was taped last week and will be the only in-depth interview Andrews gives on the subject. The five-minute video, which appeared to be shot through a hotel room door peephole, was posted on the Internet last month and quickly taken down.

Andrews's attorney, Marshall Grossman, said last month that Andrews, 31, planned to seek criminal charges and file civil lawsuits against the unknown cameraman and anyone who published the material. "While alone in the privacy of her hotel room, Erin Andrews was surreptitiously videotaped without her knowledge or consent," Grossman said in a statement. "She was the victim of a crime and is taking action to protect herself and help ensure that others are not similarly violated in the future."

Andrews will be reporting from the sidelines Thursday when ESPN televises the college football season opener between South Carolina and host N.C. State. She last appeared on the network as part of its ESPY Awards broadcast July 19. Network officials, who will accompany her to N.C. State, said she had a scheduled vacation through September and was not off the air because of the taping incident. ESPN said it will not address the incident during the game broadcast. The entertainment show Inside Edition attempted to get credentialed for the game but was turned down.

ESPN has not reported the story on its airwaves, though company officials have addressed the issue. "Erin has been grievously wronged here," ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said last month. "Our people and resources are in full support of her as she deals with this abhorrent act."

As I wrote on Twitter, ESPN’s public editor would be wise to do some digging to see if any network officials made doing an interview a prerequisite for Andrews getting back on air. I can tell you that it’s something women employees at ESPN would want to know. I think Andrews was definitely encouraged by management to talk—for many reasons, including ESPN’s wanting to correct a false narrative that one its employees did this for publicity—but I also believe Andrews and her team had the final say on where she talked. I also know there were many at ESPN who had her back, including some longtime staffers in PR. It’s not a black and white thing.

1c. Given everything I read and heard from the trial, I think Andrews was clearly violated by the Marriott at Vanderbilt University. Her anguish came off as genuine to me and my thoughts are compounded by knowing and working with so many women who travel weekly covering sports. I think she will win her case, and I think she deserves to win it, too. Her fame and income and opportunities have gone up significantly since 2009 but that’s irrelevant to me. No amount of money can secure the loss of peace of mind on the road.

[Update 5:40 p.m.: A jury awarded $55 million on Monday to Andrews in her lawsuit.]

2. Bud Collins, the veteran sports journalist who died last week at age 86, was a remarkable commentator whose work spanned decades. SI senior writer S.L. Price, who saw him for decades while covering tennis, wrote a fantastic tribute piece as did SI's assistant managing editor and tennis writer Jon Wertheim.

2a. Why do major sports networks trot out people who get consistently negative social media reaction? The answer here.

3. Episode No. 45 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Fox Sports 1 reporter Julie Stewart-Binks, who covers world soccer for the network and has previously worked on various studio shows as well as the update desks. Stewart-Binks is also a sideline reporter on Anaheim Ducks games. 

Bud Collins's sportswriting was foundation of career, legacy

In this episode, Stewart-Binks, born in Toronto, talks about the differences between working in the Canadian sports media (she worked at CTV) and American sports media, how competitive the business is for women in their 20s, working with and becoming off-air friends with New York sports-talk host Mike Francesa, the future of MLS on television, the direction of FS1 heading forward and more. 

Stewart-Binks also talked in-depth about the segment on Whitlock’s House Party by the Bay during Super Bowl week when Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski performed a lap dance on her. She answers multiple questions from those who criticized her, including Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune and Lindsay Schnell of SI. Stewart-Binks also addressed whether she felt pressure to be provocative given the direction of her network, and whether or not she agreed with Ryan’s premise that “every me a female in sports media acts inappropriately or unprofessionally it unfairly reflects on all females in sports media.”

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• From Sally Jenkins: Broadcaster Debbie Antonelli didn’t see limits in son Frankie, who has Down syndrome. She saw potential

• You want to read something amazing quotes? Check out this Roy Bount Jr. piece in SI on Reggie Jackson from 1974. 

The New York Post’s Joel Sherman on Shannon Forde, a longtime Mets PR staffer who passed away from cancer at age 44. 

New York Times columnist Michael Powell on corruption and neglect at SMU.

Non sports pieces of note:

• Via New York Times writer Jesse McKinley: Tensions simmer as a small town seeks answers in a boy’s killing.  

• Via New York Times Magazine: The Plot to Take Down a Fox News Analyst.

• This will be the ugliest Presidential election of our lifetime. Worth reading from Amy Chozick and Patrick Healy. 

• Via The New Yorker: How to be a critic in an age of opinion. 

The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi on New Jersey governor Chris Christie: When does it stop being just politics and start being a moral disgrace

• Via The Wall Street Journal: How Putin’s embargo is reshaping Russia’s cuisine.  

• What happens to journalists when no one wants to print their words anymore?

Thunder miss another opportunity against Stephen Curry’s Warriors

5. The thrilling overtime victory by Golden State over Oklahoma City on Feb. 27 drew 5,322,000 viewers, the most-watched NBA regular-season telecast on any network since 2013 (non-Christmas). ESPN said the telecast peaked with 8,065,000 viewers from 11:15-11:30 p.m. ET. TNT’s coverage of last Thursday’s Warriors–Thunder game averaged 3.6 million viewers, tied for the most-viewed non-Christmas Day game on cable season-to-date (tied with TNT’s Warriors-Cavaliers game on Jan. 18).

5a. The AP reported that Ian Darke signed a multi-year agreement to remain with ESPN as the company’s lead play-by-play commentator for soccer including ESPN’s English-language play-by-play commentator for the UEFA European Football Championship 2016 in France (June 10–July 10).

The network said Darke will continue as ESPN’s primary voice for U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams’ matches, including FIFA World Cup qualifiers, and other tournaments and international friendlies. The new contract extends through 2020.

5b. The ESPN public editor examined the network’s Deflategate coverage.

5c. This was a terrific interview by both subject and questioner: Fox's Ariel Helwani talks with Conor McGregor after McGregor's stunning loss at UFC 196:

5d. HBO offered a statement on Manny Pacquiao’s anti-gay remarks: “Next month Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley Jr. are scheduled to meet in a Pay-Per-View bout.  We have an obligation to both fighters and, therefore, will proceed to produce and distribute that event. However, we felt it important to leave no uncertainty about our position on Mr. Pacquiao's recent comments toward the LGBTQ community. We consider them insensitive, offensive and deplorable. HBO has been a proud home to many LGBTQ stories and couldn't approach this event without clearly voicing our opinion."

5e. The Boston Globe, owned by Red Sox principal owner John Henry, broke the story that Comcast SportsNet Red Sox reporter Jessica Moran resigned from her job amid questions about the nature of her relationship with manager John Farrell.   

Winter Report Card: Red Sox reload with David Price and Craig Kimbrel

One interesting note from Gayle Fee in a Boston Herald piece on the subject: “For those of you keeping score, [Red Sox team president Dave] Dombrowski is married to former sports reporter Karie Ross and the two began dating when she covered the Marlins and he was the team’s general manager. Her station said they had no problem with the arrangement. Dombrowski also defended it at the time, telling the Sun Sentinel, “In the time we’ve been dating, I don’t think anyone can point to an instance where Channel 4 had an advantage or got a story because of our relationship.”

5f. SiriusXM will broadcast games from 29 NCAA Division I college basketball conference tournaments this postseason, including live play-by-play of 154 men’s and women’s conference tournament games.

5g. NBC said last Wednesday’s Blackhawks–Red Wings game averaged 848,000 viewers, NBCSN most-watched regular-season game since 2013 excluding opening nights.

5h. Longtime St. Petersburg Times columnist Hubert Mizell passed away at 76

5i. I’d urge you to read this from ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, on loss and grief, a year after the death of his son.