The thing about women Sportscasters is that they all know each other. They have had lunch of course. You might find them in a corner of the local sports bar or at a circular table in the Waldorf, explaining gimmick defenses, quoting the over-under and reciting baseball lore without once referring to an inning as a quarter. They are attractive but not glamorous, they are certainly not stupid, and they don't miss a game. They are much like their male colleagues. Frequently, they are better groomed.
They know two speeds on the stove, high and off. They have either very kind husbands or no dates at all—it's hard to find a guy who can pack a shoulder bag quickly enough. Some of the women sportscasters have children, whom they rescue from the hip of the nearest nanny with arresting ease. They range from ESPN's tall, ebullient Robin Roberts to NBC's tiny, intense Gayle Gardner, the first female sports anchor to appear weekly on a major network. They are knowledgeable, funny and appealing. "I mean, if you knew somebody like that, wouldn't you want her around?" Gardner says.
They have come far from the days when Phyllis George went jogging with George Allen. Or have they, considering that it's 1991 and no longer amusing to refer to women as the sex that burns the toast? Only four women appear regularly on major-network sports television: Gardner, CBS's Lesley Visser and Andrea Joyce, and ABC's Beth Ruyak.
The evidence suggests that their male counterparts will enjoy far lengthier and better-paid careers than they will. Women hold less than 20% of the on-camera sports jobs at ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN, and even that figure is misleading and sometimes subjective, since most women sportscasters turn up only every four years to comment on the events in which they competed in the Olympics. Only one woman, Gardner, is a weekly major-network studio anchor, and her position was in jeopardy earlier this year when NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol decided she was a better feature reporter than anchor. Only one woman, CBS and ESPN tennis analyst Mary Carillo, regularly does commentary from the booth on a men's sport at the championship level. And only 44-year-old Donna de Varona, the first woman to appear consistently on network sports telecasts—she made her debut as a swimming expert for ABC in 1965—has anything approaching the longevity of her male colleagues.
June 16, 1991
No woman does play-by-play, which is considered the breakthrough assignment in sportscasting. Last fall, Visser became the first woman to appear on the set of The NFL Today since George left in 1984. Nor is there any great wave of developing talent. Industry sources estimate there are fewer than 50 women working as sportscasters at the 630 network affiliate stations around the country. When George departed from The NFL Today, she expected to see a procession of women file into the studios. "I'm still watching," she says. "And where are all the women?"
What entitles women to deliver or comment on the sports news? Nothing, really, other than the precepts of equal rights and the fact that women are making up a larger part of sports audiences. In 1971, only 294,000 women participated in varsity sports in high school; by 1989-90, the number had grown to 1.85 million. "Guys do not have a genetic blueprint that allows them to understand or love sports," Visser says. Yet women have encountered a quiet but killing resistance in the three major-network sports divisions. "The whole industry is behind," former ABC Sports executive producer Geoffrey Mason says. "I don't know why. I don't know if there is blame to assess, or where."
Start with the network executives, whose hiring and advancement practices have created a glass ceiling beyond which women cannot progress. CBS Sports has been the boldest in assigning significant roles to women—Visser on The NFL Today, Joyce as last season's College Football Report host and Carillo in the tennis booth—but executive producer Ted Shaker has had to work hard to convince his superiors. "It only makes sense," Shaker says. "We're not doing it to make a point, we're doing it for an audience. But old notions die hard."
If there are any commendations to be handed out, the cable-television networks, and specifically ESPN, should get them. ESPN was the first to put women at anchor desks. Since 1981, eight women have appeared on SportsCenter. CNN followed suit with sports anchor Hannah Storm, in 1989.
Equal pay for equal work is a laughable concept in television sports. Gardner, the highest-paid woman in the business, earns $250,000 a year. The highest-paid men, Al Michaels of ABC and John Madden of CBS, earn upwards of $2 million, according to industry sources. It can be argued that Gardner lacks the range of her male counterparts. Fine. She was hired in 1988 as one of NBC Sports's anchors and its chief feature reporter. She works on air more than any other NBC sports personality. So put her on a par with her NBC colleagues Charlie Jones and Ahmad Ra-shad. She earns approximately $100,000 less than they do.
Yet most network executives profess ignorance of any disparity in pay. "There are none I'm aware of here," says Mason. When told of Mason's statement, a prominent woman sports-caster who did not wish to be named replied, "If you take the three networks across the board, there's no way that's true. And if I complained about my salary, I'd be out of here."
When it comes to pay, prestige and, most important, acceptance, women sportscasters lag behind not only their male colleagues in sports but also their female counterparts in hard news. Ebersol says this is changing rapidly, and he predicts that each of the network sports divisions will have a major female star by the mid-'90s. "The long-awaited revolution and evolution of women in sports television is finally at hand," Ebersol says expansively. But his optimism is greeted by Gardner with an arched eyebrow.
"Picture a room," Gardner says. "It can be a bar, a fraternity, a living room. And there are 30 men in it, sitting around a television, watching football. The door opens, and they turn, and vow walk in. And you're staying. Here's what they think. A) Do we really want her here? B) Can we still do what we usually do? C) Why would she want to be here anyway?"
Legitimate questions. Here's what they might answer.
Because her husband got her the job.
Lesley Visser is a reformed cheerleader whose hair belongs in Madame Tussaud's and whose voice belongs in a champagne glass. That Visser is one of the most engaging people in the business tends to obscure the fact that she is also one of the most experienced and knowledgeable. She spent 14 years as a daily sportswriter for the Boston Globe before she accepted an offer from CBS in 1988. She has covered 10 Final Fours, 12 Wimble-dons, five Super Bowls, five NBA Finals, two World Series and an Olympics. "I wasn't at the dawn of women covering sports," she says. "But I made the breakfast."
Visser, 37, grew up following the Green Bay Packers, the Boston Celtics and UCLA. In the sixth grade, she idolized Billie Jean King, Wilma Rudolph and Auburn fullback Tucker Frederickson. She captained her high school field hockey and basketball teams. She memorized backfields, she listened to Ali fights on the radio. "When I decided I wanted to be a woman sports-writer, which was when I was 12, the job didn't exist," she says.
It still didn't exist in 1974, when Visser was hired by the Globe to cover high school football. Two years later, at age 21, she was assigned to the New England Patriots, becoming the first female beat writer for an NFL team. "I had a migraine the whole year," she says. Visser and Gardner met in 1977, when Gardner was a sports reporter-producer at Boston's WBZ-TV. Forbidden to enter the Patriots' locker room, the two women were relegated to the weight room, where they sat, bored, sweating deadlines or swapping players for interviews. They called it The Wait Room.
The 1980 Cotton Bowl was humiliating for Visser when then Houston coach Bill Yeoman announced, "I don't care about women's rights, I'm not having a woman in my locker room," and marched her out the door. In 1989, New York Jet tight end Mickey Shuler verbally accosted Visser as she entered the locker room at the Meadowlands. "Hey, no women in the locker room," he yelled. Visser, thinking he was joking, smiled and waved. Shuler shouted, "Hey! No——women in the locker room!" Shuler, who had thought he was just following team policy, wrote Visser a letter of apology She hung it on her wall.
Visser has an unfailing humor, usually self-deprecating, that comes from the conviction that despite discrimination, her career has not been the grimmest endeavor in the world. For one thing, it allowed her to meet her husband. Visser spent $250 per night of her own money to stay at L.A.'s Beverly Wilshire Hotel during the 1982 NBA Finals while CBS announcer Dick Stockton courted her. She and Stockton were married eight months later. "We talk a lot of sports, we read the papers from the back," Visser says. "He's the only man I know who can name every starter in every Final Four and also play Gershwin on the piano." The suggestion that Stockton got Visser her CBS job bothers her more than she lets on, but she jokes, "We're so flattered people think Dick has that kind of influence."
Visser is similarly flip about the attitudes of network executives like the one who told her she was "cosmetically correct" for television. Actually, Visser was something of an experiment for CBS, which hired her for her sports expertise and ignored her lack of on-air experience, something she is still trying to remedy.
Visser made a couple of vows when she took the job. First, that she would write all of her own material. Second, she told Shaker, "If you see me going down the rabbit hole, you have to tell me. Because I don't want to be one of those trivia questions who lasts a year."
Visser's first season on the air was a painfully public learning experience. "I handled the microphone like the Ted Baxter of sports," she says. She couldn't get used to hearing the voices of directors and producers in her ear, and she would break off her reports in midsentence. "I was raised with good manners—you stop speaking when someone else is talking," she says. One of her first assignments was a taped interview with Chris Evert, whom she had known for 10 years, at the 1988 U.S. Open. Visser stood by and, at the proper moment, rigidly shoved the microphone at an amused Evert.
"Lesley, is this your first time doing this?" Evert asked.
Visser's stiffness is her lingering weakness on air. Shaker tells her to be more herself. She was clearly more at ease this year in her college football and basketball reports. "Ted gave me time," she says. Shaker may have found a more natural niche for Visser in the conversational format of The NFL Today, on which she has developed a rapport with colleagues Terry Bradshaw and Greg Gumbel. "I don't know if everybody is ready to hear a woman telling them so-and-so is going to run off left tackle," Visser says. "But you know what? They're going to hear it."
Because she's difficult.
Gardner, 40, got her first job as a sportscaster because she hired herself. She got her second job as a sportscaster because a guy died. "It was not because everybody was sitting around saying, 'We've got to get this woman on air,' " she says.
She did not come by her love of sports in any explicable way. "Reincarnation?" she suggests, shrugging. She grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of a liquor salesman and a housewife, and she led a double life: She cut out paper dolls while watching Y.A. Tittle quarterback the New York Giants. "It was this closet thing, this other interest I didn't tell anyone about," Gardner says.
She has held just about every job in the business, both in front of and behind the camera, having started as a talk show and documentary producer in Boston and then having worked in New York City, Detroit and Baltimore, where she got the daily sports anchor job on WJZ-TV in 1983 when her predecessor, Randy Blair, died of a heart attack. ESPN called in 1983, NBC in 1988.
"Look, I didn't come to this with any particular cachet," Gardner says. "I was just a person who grew up in the United States. And when I looked around at the people who were sportscasters, I thought they were just people who grew up in the United States too. So I thought, Why can't a woman do it? I just assumed everyone else would think it was a swell idea."
Gardner is labeled the dean of women sportscasters by some people in the business and temperamental by others, none of whom are willing to be quoted. Virtually everyone had an opinion of her, especially in the past year, when her NBC career appeared to be over. She disappeared from the air for much of last summer and fall amid bitter contract negotiations between her agent, Arthur Kaminsky, and Ebersol. Gardner worked without a long-term contract from January 1990 until last month, when she finally signed a new multiyear deal. No one doubted that she was eminently qualified to be a sportscaster. According to both Gardner and Ebersol, the problem lay in deciding exactly what type. Gardner is adamant that her strength and experience lie in anchoring. "I felt I had worked so hard and so long and fought in the public arena to do this," she says. "And I didn't want to lose the credibility I had built doing it." Ebersol viewed her as an "unsurpassed" feature reporter and showed little interest in her as an anchor.
When asked if the controversy had to do with the fact that she is a woman, Gardner says, "That's a fair question. I can't answer it."
Everyone concerned has been tainted with sexism. NBC Sports executive producer Terry O'Neil came under fire when he dismissed the division's lone female producer. Ebersol was perhaps an easy mark after his famous decision to replace Jane Pauley on Today with the younger and blonder Deborah Norville. Ebersol calls the charges against him and O'Neil "searing" and unfair, yet he acknowledges that NBC Sports must increase its number of women and minority employees; out of a staff of 32, six are women and five are minorities. "In a year you will see that doubled," Ebersol says.
While Ebersol and O'Neil acquired reputations as sexists, Gardner was said to be something almost as insidious: "hard to work with." Industry gossips whispered that she was a tantrum-thrower, forgetting that she got on amicably with her colleagues at ESPN. Since Gardner has been back on air regularly, the rumors have ceased, and, according to others at NBC, she has been pleasant to work with.
"Do I demand good work around me? Absolutely," Gardner says. "Am I a prima donna? No way. Do I show up on time? Yes. Am I prepared? Yes. Do I respect my coworkers? Yes. Have I ever yelled? Who in this business hasn't?"
Ebersol denies that he purposely kept Gardner off the air. He attributes her absence to lack of a sponsor for NBC's Update show. Update finally reappeared late in the fall with Gardner as anchor and Prudential as a sponsor. Ebersol adds that Gardner's role is now clearly defined: host of Update 45 weeks a year, feature reporter and significant contributor to NBC's Olympic coverage. "It just took a settling-out period," Ebersol says. Gardner concurs with a wry smile. "In my case," she says, "it just took longer than usual."
The last hangup in Gardner's contract negotiation was money; Kaminsky demanded a salary more in line with those of Gardner's male colleagues. He did not get it, although he did get Gardner a raise. Ebersol acknowledges that pay imbalance is an industry-wide issue. But he contends that women will not earn huge salaries until they can both host and do play-by-play, the most generously compensated assignments.
"They are paid equally, and yet they're not," Ebersol says. "The few million-dollar salaries are paid to those people whom Madison Avenue pays us to see. When an advertiser buys, he says, 'Is [Bob] Costas the host of the show?' We don't have advertisers asking us if a woman is the host. That is going to happen someday, but it hasn't happened as yet."
Gardner sometimes becomes grim discussing this because "it's not easy to keep walking into a place you know you're not really wanted." She has spent years shrugging off the small, wearying day-to-day instances of discrimination. When she finally achieved a national forum at ESPN and then NBC, she encountered a more subtle kind of oppression: the constant pressure of knowing that she couldn't afford a slip of the tongue, that critics and audiences were watching her far more closely and judging her more harshly than her male cohosts. "The black quarterback syndrome," she calls it.
"It was so hard to pry this door open, and if I mess up I know the people behind me are going to have it that much harder," she says. "Because then there's living proof. They can sit around and say, 'See? It doesn't work.' I don't want to be their living proof."
Gardner has toyed with the idea of leaving the air and returning to producing. However, her sense of responsibility has grown more acute in the last year, and she has resolved to continue on what she calls "this adventure." So she will go on being a constant source of debate until someone decides she is too old or is not attractive enough or has too much Brooklyn in her accent.
"In the end," Gardner says, "I think you really only get as far as you're allowed to get."
Because she doesn't have anything better to do.
Mary Carillo is a cross between Ava Gardner and Henny Youngman. At 34, she is still a long-limbed tomboy with a swagger in her voice. Andre Agassi can't abide her (she accused him on air of "tanking" a set at the 1989 U.S. Open). She once referred to the three Maleeva sisters of Bulgaria as the "gerbils" of the U.S. Open draw. Carillo is regarded by many as one of the few female experts with a strong air presence, a Billy Packer or a Madden. Others wish she would shut up. What separates her from both her male and female colleagues is a natural gift for words. An Agassi passing shot is "sincere," an unforced error by John McEnroe "unpardonable." She is one of the best reporters on her sport, and she brings players to life as characters. "I love giving people their faces and their elbows," she says.
Perhaps the early end of Carillo's tennis-playing career was not such a tragedy, because the only reason she had turned pro in the first place was to pay off an outstanding hotel and bar bill in the Bahamas. Carillo and McEnroe won the French Open mixed-doubles title in 1977, when they were just a couple of neighborhood pals from Douglaston, N.Y., but within three years she had suffered three bouts of knee surgery. In January 1980 she accidentally limped into a television career at the Avon Championships, when a couple of announcers from the Madison Square Garden cable network did an interview with her to fill some time and ended up using her as a commentator for the rest of the night. She played one last Wimbledon and retired after losing in the first round. Then she got a call from a USA Network producer. "They were dredging," she says.
Observers have long waited for Carillo to venture into other sports; even those at rival networks call her one of the most talented people in the business. "She has believability," says Mason. "She can branch out and probably will." In 1992 she will cover women's skiing for CBS at the Winter Olympics and the America's Cup for ESPN. She dabbled in tennis play-by-play last year. "You can't put her on too much," Shaker says.
Carillo, however, is not so sure she wants to have it all. She balances her career with a fierce allegiance to her husband, Bill Bowden, tennis director at the Registry Resort in Naples, Fla., and their three-year-old son, Anthony. She is six months pregnant with her second child, which will make it impossible for her to travel 125 days in 1991, as she did last year. She declined to go to Wimbledon for ESPN last year so she could go snook fishing with Bowden in Alabama. Her interests aren't very conventional. "Don't give me a sport with the word ball in it," she says. She views her television work, with a shrug, as something that's casually enjoyable.
"You know what?" she says. "I just sort of hang around. That's all I do."
In fact, her presence on network tennis telecasts was hard won, particularly on men's matches. She and Andrea Kirby were the first all-women team in tennis when they broadcast a women's tournament together for USA in 1982, but Carillo is skeptical of the event's significance. "When two women talk about a men's match, that will be a big day," she says. The only reason she began doing men's matches was that former USA colleague Al Trautwig insisted on it. After reading background notes and other information she passed to him in the booth, he said, "This should be coming out of your mouth, not mine," and took her to a producer.
Whenever Carillo is called the best woman tennis expert, or anything else with the word woman in it, her normally lively expression settles into a frown. "Yeah, well," she says, "you know what? I don't want to be graded on a curve."
Because she has something to prove.
Every Sunday morning Robin Roberts's mother rises to turn on ESPN and make sure she has chased all of the Mississippi out of her daughter's voice. Sometimes it creeps back in, and Lucimarian Roberts picks up the phone and calls Robin in Bristol, Conn., to say crisply, "You're getting a little lazy with your i's and your e's again."
Apart from those occasional lapses, Roberts might easily be taken for the product of some tony East Coast school. She presides over ESPN's two-hour Sunday morning programming with a straight-backed confidence. Her utter correctness on the air makes her seem older than 30. What's funny is that Roberts is really a slouchy type who lives in jeans, a former college basketball star who is fifth on the alltime scoring list at Southeastern Louisiana University. Her rather regal bearing on air also causes viewers to overlook another fact about her.
"I'm dealing with this 'Oh, by the way, I happen to be a black woman' thing," she says. "An even more exclusive club."
If Roberts gets her precise elocution from her mother, who chairs the Mississippi State Board of Education, she gets her erect posture from her father, Lawrence, a retired Air Force colonel who was a member of the first black flying group, the Tuskegee Airmen. Lawrence was told as a child that they did not let black men fly airplanes, but he sat in his basement and practiced throttling with a broom handle anyway. Robin Roberts says, "I had a father and a mother who were the first to do this and the first to do that and always getting this award or that award, so I figured, well, shoot, I guess I should be a physicist on the weekend."
She began by working her way through the small radio and television stations of Hammond, Hattiesburg. Biloxi and Nashville. "It was harder getting work in those places than it was at ESPN," she says. "I would be very stupid and naive if I said there weren't assignments I should have gotten and didn't. It's difficult for me to sit here at 30 and say, boy, have I been held back. But by my own standards, I was late getting here."
Frequently the reply to her audition tapes was a simple, soul-deadening "You're not what we're looking for." However, by 1988 she was a sports anchor at Atlanta's WAGA-TV. She spent less than two years there before ESPN summoned her, and she has quickly shown herself to be a comer.
"My ambition is just to stay for a while," she says. "We've never had [a woman] stay before."
Because, well, it's kind of a funny story....
Andrea Joyce claims that her 18-month-old son, Jake, has recently begun patting the life-sized poster of Michael Jordan that hangs on the wall of his nursery and calling it "Mama."
Joyce came late to sportscasting, but she came irrepressibly. She started in television in 1977 as that grand old clichè, a weather bunny. She made $4 an hour watching it snow in Colorado Springs. Then she moved to Wichita for a chance to do news for $11,000 a year. "Almost as much as a waitress," she says.
As a newscaster for WDIV in her hometown, Detroit, in 1980, Joyce started hanging around the sports department, partly because she was a loyal Michigan grad, and football coach Bo Schembechler liked to talk to her when he came into the studio to do his weekly show. At WFAA in Dallas four years ago, Joyce finally made the switch to sports, weary of those spine-aching city council meetings and possessed by the notion that the Texas-Oklahoma weekend might be a lot more fun.
Joyce's advancement since then has been almost smooth. "I think I would have more trouble walking down the street in a fur coat," she says. She moved to New York when her husband, Harry Smith, got his job as co-anchor of CBS This Morning in 1987. Joyce did some spot work for ESPN and Madison Square Garden network. ESPN decided against hiring her, to its lasting regret, before she signed a contract to be a sports broadcaster for CBS.
There is something soothing about Joyce. "She's not in my face," Shaker says. She was an able studio host on both college football and basketball last season. That has earned her a role as-a weekend cohost on CBS's upcoming Winter Olympic coverage. While she may never become the lead woman, she is a valuable reporter and studio presence whose strength is imparting information seamlessly. Her easy demeanor on air disguises grueling nights of preparation, up until 3 a.m. reading research files and sports wires. Still, she calls it the easiest job she's ever had and says it pays well, too.
"Me and Harry, it's not like we live in boxes," she says.
While the networks may emphasize a handful of women like these, it is doubtful that women can become widespread or million-dollar presences in TV sports so long as they are regarded as gambles, exceptions and luxuries. Kaminsky contends that what progress has been made in getting women on sports telecasts has come less from the conviction that audiences like them than from a grudging sense of obligation among a few wary, pressured executives who don't actually want them.
"It's the fear of god factor," Kaminsky says. "They feel a societal and legal imperative to get [women] on air, because networks are hypersensitive. They don't want to be called anti-any-thing, white, black, right or left."
Networks are also hypersensitive about money. Ironically, women's status as the cheaper work force may be the only thing that will protect their network jobs should sports divisions fall into even worse financial straits than they are already in. Ebersol must perform an interesting sleight of hand in attempting to hire more women and minorities in the sports division while NBC cuts its overall staff by 20% in the next year. CBS, meanwhile, is described by one rival executive as "the Baghdad of sports television," slashing budgets and salaries. Kathleen Sullivan, recently hired by NBC as an anchor for its pay-per-view coverage of the Summer Olympics, predicts the networks' commitment to affirmative action will be severely tested in the coming year.
"These guys are in a position they've never been in before: They've got no money," Sullivan says. "The industry was willing to make women equal with open arms when it wasn't in financial trouble. But now it has to ask, Are these women necessary and important in the configuration of a broadcast?"
Financially, male Caucasians are considered safer choices, particularly at the affiliate level, where news directors are fearful of offending audiences by gambling on young, unproven women. "Name me three good ones coming up," one network executive says. "You can't." That attitude has hampered someone like Lisa Burkhardt, a 33-year-old at Madison Square Garden network who just moved to New York from San Antonio and has probably driven down every back road in America. At WTVC in Chattanooga, she did straight news for two years after she was told that a survey had found that the older males in the station's audience would not accept a woman as a sportscaster. She learned later from the station's general manager that viewers had never been polled on that issue.
In the last eight years, attendance at NCAA Division I women's basketball games has doubled, to 2.3 million last season. One of the highest-rated sports telecasts ever in the U.S. was the gold medal Duel of the Carmens between Debi Thomas and Katarina Witt at the '88 Winter Olympics. And yet advertisers and news directors continue to assume that women sportscasters are a hard sell, just as they presume ignorance or lack of interest in sports among female viewers. The programming thrown up against Monday Night Football is consistently female-oriented (perhaps justifiably, since ABC's surveys show that MNF's female audience has not grown significantly in the last five years). And to this day, de Varona is one of only a few women who have worked as television sports reporters on the local level in New York City. Kaminsky maintains that no station in New York "would dare" put a woman sportscaster on air now, and his inquiries have met with an unyielding no.
Network executives can argue convincingly that when they are trying to satisfy 250 million viewers and protect millions of dollars, they are under no obligation to broaden horizons. The so-called expert analyst is allowed to be shaggy or offbeat or clownish—or even female—but chancing young or original voices is not encouraged, regardless of sex. So, for the time being, the most realistic avenues for women will remain in cable and hard news, where knowledge and diversity—not just the viewers' comfort—have some value.
"Comfort is very important," Gardner says. "But you know what? It isn't what makes your existence special, or unusual, or creative. If I was a manager with 10 slots open, I would feel it was incumbent on me not to fill them with 10 replicas of myself."
Audience acceptance is a particularly sensitive topic for women sportscasters when the issue of personal appearance enters the discussion. Sullivan has constantly been advised to dye her prematurely gray hair. "If I don't, I'm considered belligerent," she says. Gardner must guard against weight increases and her Brooklyn accent. Carillo played a wicked joke on Visser at last year's U.S. Open tennis tournament by telling her that in the control truck, "They say they'll have to live with your hair."
Though de Varona, a mother of two, remains incandescent at 44, she wonders when she will outlive her usefulness at a network that already favors the attractive, competent 30-year-old Ruyak. "Am I still going to be attractive in the business?" de Varona says. "Jack Whitaker is. But I'm competing against younger women now." So, perhaps, is Gardner. Ebersol has made no secret of the fact that he covets CNN's Storm, a talented 29-year-old who will probably be the beneficiary of a network bidding war when her contract expires next year. "Can you be a 55-year-old woman sportscaster? We don't know," Gardner says.
Unwillingness to experiment with women has told most heavily in the play-by-play booth, the place where experience counts most and is most difficult to gain, and where an uneducated voice sounds the silliest. At ABC from 1977 to 1981, Kirby was a highly regarded feature reporter getting nowhere trying to break into play-by-play. She won a concession when ABC put her in an audition booth for Monday Night Baseball, but she didn't get the job. "Because I wasn't the best one," she said. "I could have been as good, but I just didn't have the background." On Dec. 27, 1987, Gayle Sierens became the first woman to do play-by-play for an NFL game, broadcasting a Seattle-Kansas City contest for NBC under then executive producer Michael Weisman. It was an interesting experiment and one that was not repeated, partly because Sierens decided to switch to straight news. "Truthfully, even I thought it was strange to hear a woman's voice doing it," she says. Agent Ed Hookstratten, who represents George and Visser, predicts that women won't succeed at play-by-play until "the guy with the six-pack who wore spikes accepts them."
Even the mildest of network experiments, like George's debut on The NFL Today, in 1975, appears more daring in that light. As Hookstratten describes it, George was "a piece of showmanship" on the part of then CBS Sports president Bob Wussler. "She was never intended to be a sportscaster," Hookstratten says. "She was a personality." So it was fashionable, for a while, to regard the role that George played as a setback for women: She was too pretty, her work was too soft, her role demeaning. However, George was something of a breakthrough. She made it acceptable for a woman to appear on a Sunday football show, and did so gracefully in the face of hate mail from high school football coaches and some initial sneering from male colleagues in the studio. "I think I cracked the door," she says. "That's all you could do. There was some heat at first. But I'm not taking any credit. Others pushed it open."
George defends the work she did as interesting and personable. If nothing else, she made the female voice in sports less discordant to male viewers. "She went where no one went," Visser says. "And you know what? She was good. Everyone liked her." Now 41 years old and a mother of two, George is considering reentering broadcasting and is curious to see what has changed.
The progress can only be described as hiccuping. "It seems like we go in waves," Kirby says. De Varona has experienced more of that than anyone. In the early years she traipsed around the country, taking any sort of on-air work. She called stations to see if anyone was sick or on vacation, and she worked for union scale. "It took me years to get off the pool deck," she says. Gradually she built a base in Olympic events other than swimming and is now more broadly versed than most ABC reporters. But she has never become the voice she aspires to be, particularly after doing some critically acclaimed reporting and host work at the '84 Summer Olympics. "I don't feel the rewards came after that," she says. "You do good work, and then wait and wait for another good assignment."
While they are waiting for progress, most women in the business debate whether they are wiser to agitate or to keep silent. "It's hard enough to just do your job and keep the peace," de Varona says. A summary of their status: They continue to be judged more critically than male colleagues for what they wear, say and do; they are given fewer prestigious assignments; and they are paid less. They are tired of being exceptions in a supposedly enlightened modern industry.
"It's too easy to play the victim," de Varona says. "We're making progress. It's coming. It's just taking longer than I ever thought it would."