Fighting for equality in sports journalism

Written by Lissa Albert and Tim Abdiyev

Jessica Rusnak in a media scrum in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room. Photo courtesy Chantal Poirier

Their numbers are growing, yet women continue to face harassment in the male-dominated field

When Jessica Rusnak was a rookie reporter for Montreal’s English sports radio station, she found herself at a post-game press conference after a 5-4 loss, asking then-coach of the Montreal Canadiens Jacques Martin what she knew was a tough question.

“Jacques, what’s the thought process behind having Mathieu Darche on the power play and having a guy like Erik Cole on the bench?” Though it’s always a risk to openly challenge a coach’s decisions, Martin’s response was not what Rusnak had expected. “He put me on blast about how many goals Cole scored on a power play last season, how I should do my research,” remembers Rusnak.  “I’m someone who hates getting in trouble. I didn’t know what to do. I chose not to do anything.”

Stu Cowan, then-sports editor for the Montreal Gazette, decided that the  bullying of a young reporter by a hockey coach was newsworthy. His post-game article defended Rusnak and expanded on the reasons he felt her question was valid. Even though reporters are not supposed to be the story, Cowan felt the need to shed light on the exchange.

“I made it a story because I don’t think Jacques Martin would have done that if the question had been asked by a man. And not just any man, but an older man, a veteran reporter,” he says. “I also do not believe he would have done that had [veteran reporter] Chantal Machabée asked the question.”

Rusnak, now more experienced and in her third year in sports on CBC’s Daybreak, says the field is still limited for women and it’s apparent in the scrum after games. “There are four women at the event. It’s like, wow – there are so many of us! And that’s four out of twenty-five guys!”

Rusnak cites the often-used excuse by program directors that there are no women available. “It drives me crazy,” she says.  “If you’re not looking, you won’t find them. If you’re looking to buy a condo and you go to the place with only single-family homes, you’re not going to find condos there.”

One example she gives of a veteran reporter who isn’t being used is CBC’s Cassie Campbell-Pascale, who works for Hockey Night in Canada. Campbell-Pascale was the captain who led the 2002 women’s Olympic ice hockey team to a gold medal in Salt Lake City. She serves as a rinkside reporter on CBC. Her job is to preview the game during warm-ups and host the local show which is broadcast only in the arena. There is no national airtime for a rinkside reporter, and yet, according to Cowan, that is the job most offered to females in the field. Rusnak believes Campbell-Pascale is being wasted in this small role, and that it is a huge oversight on the part of CBC. “Why not have her sitting there with Elliot Friedman and Nick Kypreos to break down the game on a Saturday night between periods?” she asks.

Robyn Flynn, a sports reporter at TSN 690, has experienced the same frustrations. Being a woman in this field is limiting, of course – there’s still that perception that this is a man’s world,” she says. “You’ll see women in sports but they work the sidelines, they do weekends, they work part-time. The ‘big’ slots, the big ‘talking heads’  are all men. Until we punch through that glass ceiling, I won’t say everything is fine and dandy.”

Rusnak feels that no matter how big or small the opportunity, any exposure could be enough, but often nobody gives women this chance. “Even just to take a risk saying, ‘you know what, let’s do one show’,” she says. “If it sucks it sucks.”

Flynn’s experiences, especially when she’s expressed an opinion, have been thoroughly horrifying. “Straight reporting is one thing,” she says. “But as soon as you have an opinion, they attack you.”  The resulting texts sent to the station, and posts to her social media ranged from mild to downright violent. “The gender threats. ‘Go back to the kitchen,’ and ‘I hope you get raped.’ Those kinds of things.”

While Flynn has not been the recipient of what the police deem “credible threats,” she has been shaken by the vitriol and violence. “Someone wrote, ‘I hope you get raped with a hockey stick. Until you die.’ And I did report that one – it really bothered me.”  She has, from time to time, temporarily deactivated her social media accounts to stop the attacks. However, that doesn’t stop the comments from bothering her. “People say to ignore it. But you don’t have amnesia. It’s going to make an impression. You can’t defend yourself, you just have to take it – the minute you engage, it escalates. And everyone says it’s your fault because you chose to say something in the first place. It goes away eventually,” she says, “And if I leave Twitter, they win. My sticking around bothers them more than their remarks bother me.”

Harassment on the job is ongoing. Megan Robinson, sports anchor at Global News in Toronto, has also experienced more subtle forms of hostility. “I was subjected to a lot of comments from my superiors that were very inappropriate,” she says.  She had expected it, but because she wanted the job so badly, put it in the back of her mind. Robinson ended up tolerating what she felt she needed to, in order to get ahead in her job, though it was never easy for her. “I’ve been whistled at in locker rooms. I’ve had hotel room keys thrown at me by athletes.” Robinson recalls the time a male colleague made romantic advances toward her. “He felt that was appropriate,” she says.

Kayla Grey reporting on the set of Sports Centre for TSN. Photo courtesy Instagram @kayla_grey

Offensive comments from male superiors were also the experience of Kayla Grey, currently a sports reporter with TSN in Toronto. In July of 2014 she was hired at Global News in Winnipeg, but was given a job different from the one she thought she had been offered. When Grey brought this up to the news director, she got an answer she says shocked her. “He told me that someone like me should be happy actually to have this job. Period. And when I asked him to clarify, he repeated himself. So I left. I don’t think I would have been okay if I’d stayed.”

Despite the sexism and narrow field, it looks like there is light at the end of the tunnel. Flynn, whose dream as a young child was to be a play-by-play announcer, says she is very optimistic about the future for women in sports reporting. She enjoys the camaraderie she experiences in the Montreal market. Along with Rusnak, and CBC reporter Andie Bennett, Flynn has felt like part of a cohesive group. She says that they have banded together to combat common misconceptions about women in sports reporting. It is the support network they have formed that continues to bolster the confidence and careers of the slowly-expanding group of women in this city.

“There’s a stereotype that there will be a cat fight, and women will all trample each other to get to the top, but it’s nothing like that. It’s a sisterhood. Helping each other,” says Flynn smiling. “Any time one woman succeeds, we all succeed.”

There’s still room for improvement, as Robinson notes, and one factor is simple semantics. “The way that women are still spoken about should change. I’m a female sports anchor instead of just a sports anchor. Because you are not saying ‘he’s a male sports reporter,’ you’re just saying he’s a sports reporter. I think that this narrative needs to change. Just that small change makes us equal.”

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