Guest column: Women can write sports, too

By Jana LeBlanc
February 04, 2014

(Editor's Note — Jana (Childres) LeBlanc graduated from McPherson High School in 1980, where she was the sports editor and photo editor of the school newspaper "The High Life" under the tutelage National High School Journalism Teacher of Year, Jackie Engel. 

She won a William Allen White Award in Journalism for her sports column "Beyond the Score" and placed second in Sports Feature Writing at the Kansas State Scholastic Press Association Awards. She also interned at "The McPherson Sentinel" with Sports Editor Steve Sell. She lettered in cross country and track at MHS and was one of the first female members of the school's organization for lettermen, "The M Club.” 

Jana graduated with a BS in Medical Technology from The University of Kansas in 1984. She currently lives and works in Lenexa. From time to time she is going to provide sports commentary for our website.)

Last November, Rob Neyer —  a baseball columnist for SB Nation —  said, "In my experience, the relative dearth of women covering sports is due not to a lack of opportunity, and not to prejudice, but rather because a relatively small number of women grow up wanting to be sportswriters."

I don't believe that statement is true. I believe the truth is that while many women may dream of becoming a sports journalist, they fear the misogynistic attitudes of men like sports radio host Damon Bruce, who ranted on air blaming women for the Miami Dolphins' controversy between Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.

In his rant he stated that "very few" women are good at sports commentary and that sports "is a man's world." Have the attitudes concerning female sports journalists not improved in the 34 years since I became the first female sports editor of my high school newspaper? Why would I ever consider returning to writing about something that I love — sports?

As a child I loved the NFL. Fran Tarkenton was my hero. I cried when the Vikings lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl. I would watch Raiders games just to see Ray Guy punt. I bet my dad a quarter per game every Sunday. I usually won. Brian's Song (the original — not the remake) is still my favorite movie.

I also learned to love basketball because, well, I grew up in McPherson with the amazing Roundhouse and the legendary boys basketball coach Jay Frazier. Mike Henson was my track coach in junior high. He coached my 4 x 100 relay team to a third-place finish in the State Junior Olympics.

I can still remember how fast Jocelyn Bentley of Topeka ran her anchor leg against us. Little Steve Henson (Mike's son) would tag along at practice. I remember being in awe of the Wichita Heights basketball team when it came to play in the Roundhouse in 1977. It went 25-0 that year and is still regarded without question as the best team in Kansas history. I even snapped a picture of them when they were in the tunnel on their way out to take the floor. They stopped and posed for me. I was hooked. I knew what I wanted to do right then and there. I wanted to be a sports journalist.

There was some precedent for women in sportscasting at that time. Mostly pretty, fluffy-haired, ex-beauty queens lacking backgrounds in journalism, like Phyllis George. During Olympic sports the networks would roll out female ex-Olympians to do commentary. In 1979 my favorite channel at the time, ESPN,  even added the first female sportscaster of any national television network, golfer Rhonda Glenn. Things were looking up. When my high school journalism teacher, Jackie Engel (National High School Journalism Teacher of the year in 1980) asked me if I wanted to be sports editor of the high school newspaper. I knew my dream was on its way to being fulfilled.

I got my own column — "Beyond the Score" — and delighted in finding just the right angle of a story to pique the reader's interest. Jackie submitted one of my columns about the cross county team (the previous year of which I was the only female member) and it won an award. I even got an internship at The McPherson Sentinel, which basically consisted of calling around Central Kansas and getting the scores and stats for the games that the editor, Steve Sell, could not attend. 

Still, I noticed that frankly there were no female role models in the world of sports writing. Despite the fact that I had television experience from making shows for the local cable affiliate, I had no desire to go into broadcast journalism. I chose a safer route when I started college. I majored in Science. Science pays the bills.

Then one day a few weeks ago I heard a quote from Oprah's Life Class —  "What do you believe is possible" and "How will you make it real?"  It made me think about how I had taken the safe route and how I had not pursued my dream. As luck would have it, I reconnected with Steve Sell and he opened up the door for me to pursue my dream once again.

 With the advent of the Internet, the opportunities are numerous for a woman's take on sports to be expressed. Women like Amy Nelson, Molly Solomon and Michelle Beadle are pushing their way through doors that have only just become available. Now instead of working in a dying media like print, women can blog and podcast to an audience so much greater than they ever dreamed possible. While the prejudice against females in sports journalism may still exist, I do see less acceptance of those who espouse misogynistic viewpoints. True, Damon Bruce was only suspended briefly for his controversial comments last year, but the backlash that followed on Twitter was a sign that such viewpoints will no longer be embraced or even tolerated.