A woman holds a phone to record.
Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity Erin Sorensen records the Husker Football team's Unity Walk into the stadium before the game against Indiana in Lincoln, Neb. on Oct. 1, 2022. Photo by Katy Cowell.

Jazmin Bender wasn’t surprised when security stopped her. 

With a camera in hand, an all-access pass around her neck and wearing the same uniform as the rest of the Indiana men’s soccer team staff, she was the only person security stopped to double-check credentials.

It wasn’t the extra verification that bothered her; it was what she believed was the assumption that the only woman in the group was trying to get into the locker room for any reason other than to just do her job. As the team videographer for Indiana University’s athletic department, Bender said credential hawking is just one of the many microaggressions she and other women in sports face daily.

Even in a day and age where 47% of NFL Super Bowl viewers are women and 62% identify as football fans in a Statista survey, the sports media industry still looks the same in many ways. Mostly white, middle-aged men make up the vast majority of the media room. In addition to the lack of representation of women, especially women of color, there are also extra hurdles that women have to jump over daily just to do their jobs.. 

Trailblazers such as sportscaster Erin Andrews have paved the way for women to take a seat at the table and stay there. More and more women are entering the industry since they’ve seen someone that looks like them working their dream job and succeeding. 

Title IX, a law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities, was passed in 1972. It opened the door for more women and girls to play and report on sports for the first time. 

Even with these new opportunities, women in sports journalism weren’t allowed to do their jobs. Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke said while her male peers were given access to the locker rooms where interviews were held, women had to wait outside and hope that a player would take the time to come out of the locker room to talk to them. 

According to Ludtke, most male writers thought the only reason she wanted access to the locker room was so that she could look at naked players. In 1978, Sports Illustrated won a lawsuit against Major League Baseball to allow female and male sports writers the same access to clubhouses, front offices, leagues and coaching positions. Even though Title IX made progress in the courtroom, cultural change has been slower to take effect. 

Sports media has in many ways been a ‘boys club’ since its inception. 

White men have historically dominated the industry, and it continues to retain many of the same masculine hiring practices and culture. For the sixth consecutive report, the 2021 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card gave the gender hiring practices at 100 newspapers and websites a failing grade.  

The APSERGRC report shows that 83.3% of sports editors, 75.8% of assistant sports editors, 82.2% of columnists and 63.7% of upper management are men. Of those same positions, the report shows 79.2% of sports editors, 72% of assistant sports editors, 77.1% of columnists and 80.1% of upper management are White.

With 20 years of experience, AP photographer Rebecca Gratz said she never saw women on the sidelines at the beginning of her career, even though many of her college classmates were women. 

“When I got out into the professional world, it’s like ‘where did they all go?’” Gratz said. “Now I know that they got run out because it sucks when you’re the only woman around, and you have to sit through all the microaggressions thrown your way constantly. Constantly.”

And once women get an opportunity to work in sports, they often face challenges and questions that their male counterparts do not. 

One instance in 2005 stands out to Gratz. While she photographed a Husker football game at Colorado for the Omaha World-Herald, she discovered that there wasn’t a women’s restroom on the press box level.

“I hope they’ve remodeled since then,” Gratz said. “Like seriously?! You’d have to go fight with the line of fans to use the restroom. There wasn’t anything for women working out of the press box because only two women were around. And that was not that long ago.”

The rise in social media and the anonymity that comes with it has put a target on female sports journalists’ backs. Over the past five years, 90% of the 2018 International Women’s Media Foundation survey respondents say that online threats have increased, with 10% experiencing a death threat within the past year.

In collaboration with ESPN, sports reporter Sarah Spain participated in a video where other men read her Twitter mentions aloud in 2016. A sample of the tweets sent to her daily included, “You need to get hit in the head with a hockey puck and killed,” “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” and “I hope you get raped again.”

A hostile work environment with sexual harassment and verbal abuse overlooked creates waves of damage across the sports industry. The victims face emotional and psychological effects that impair their ability to perform their jobs thoroughly, negatively impacting their careers.

Now working as the assistant director of creative video at Northwestern, Bender said she’s had men attempt to mansplain sports to her on multiple occasions while on the clock. 

“‘Do you even like the NFL? Do you watch football? Can you even name XYZ,’” Bender said.  “And it’s just like, no one’s ever gonna go up to a doctor and ask them, ‘Oh, do you even like medicine?’ Why does it matter? It shouldn’t matter. It’s my job, regardless if I like sports or not.”

With a growing trend of inclusion and diversity in hiring practices, some people have used those opportunities as a negative. As a person of color, Bender said that adds another layer of difficulty in trying to navigate the industry’s challenges. 

“I’ve been to places where I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, the only reason why these people are here is that they’re trying to level up on their diversity,” Bender said. “Or ‘this person isn’t going to get fired, because they check off these boxes, and it would be a whole scandal. So they’re only here, and they’re only getting promoted, or they’re only staying in these high roles because they’re a woman of color.’”

As more women enter and grow their careers in the industry, it’s become normal to see a wide range of people with varying backgrounds and to celebrate the experiences they can bring to the table.

“Our generation seems to value diversity, inclusion and equity,” Bender said. “Obviously, I see it as a projection of it becoming a better space in sports media. But also, I’m excited for all the people who are taking the steps to make these changes, to take risks on people and do unconventional things to make sports media a better place.”

Especially at Nebraska sporting events, there tends to be at least five to six familiar & friendly faces of women in the pressroom working in different roles, from reporters to photographers. 

KETV sports reporter Ellie French said she’s found a “sisterhood” among the handful of women that make up the local press pool.

“You just kind of naturally gravitate towards the women in the room,” French said. “All the women that I’ve met here have been really friendly and nice. And we’ve created kind of a girl clique in a sense because there are obviously a lot of men that kind of outnumber us still. But it’s nice to see that there’s a good number of women here. And we all just love talking to each other and picking each other’s brains and going to each other for advice.”