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Dress code: Women are still a soft target

Illustration: Jim PavlidisWhen one of the pioneers of women in footy media first approached a leading club of the time to ask if she would be allowed into the changerooms, where post-match press briefings were conducted then, she was told by the players she would be welcome – as long as she was wearing what they were wearing. That was only half a working lifetime ago, and you can just about hear the sniggering still.  
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In fact, it never died. In 1990, Lisa Olsson, a Boston Herald reporter, was sexually harassed by New England Patriot players in their locker-room, and ridiculed by management when she complained. Eventually, they were punished, but the fans gave her such a hard time that News Corp arranged for her to move to Sydney, where she worked for the next eight years. I’m sure — I know — many women reporters who could relate.

And still. Late last year, there was cricketer Chris Gayle’s power play against Channel 10 reporter Mel McLaughlin. This week, a Tennessee court heard again the story of Erin Andrews, a sidelines reporter and sportscaster with ESPN. In 2008, a pervert rigged a peephole in a hotel room to film her undressing, then when he couldn’t find a buyer for the footage posted it on the internet anyway. He picked his mark because she was attracting a lot of attention in her job. He went to jail for a while, but she lives with the humiliation every day still, because every day someone reminds her. She is in court seeking damages from the hotel for its complicity.

It is a horrible story per se. But the incidentals are just as disturbing. The footage was viewed 17 million times on the internet and despite the efforts of authorities apparently can still be accessed. What does that say about our prurience? Other instances of harassment by players, officials and fans were detailed. Reportedly, ESPN told Andrews the only way to put the drama behind her was to appear in an interview explaining that it was not a promotional stunt. Implicit in this is the network cared at least as much about its own image as hers. ESPN also was accused of using camera angles to present Andrews salaciously. The network denies this.

Sexism remains an issue in sports media because the presence of women in the ranks still has not been normalised after all these years. It varies from sport to sport. Sometimes, it is sheer weight of unequal numbers, sometimes it is a lingering attitude. Cricket, where I spend much of my working life, is especially bloke-ish. That is hard enough as a working environment.

But it also means that women periodically are forced onto a front line where they would rather not be. McLaughlin only wanted to be a sports reporter. So did Andrews. Instead, they found themselves at the centre of campaigns. McLaughlin’s discomfort was plain to see. She wanted it all just to go away, which was fair enough, since it should never have happened into the first place. Andrews wanted it all to go away, too, but in the US, no one would let it. I know many male reporters have been pummeled in interviews, but none who have been made to squirm as McLaughlin was, or put upon like Olsson and Andrews were. I know none who were advised to take their clothes off in the dressing room, titter, titter.

Of course, television is a visual medium. You cannot but help notice how the people on it look as well as what they say. It is all part of the gig. I don’t doubt that looks are considered by even the most enlightened television bosses when employing women. I know, for instance, that the late John Sorell, who ran the highly successful Channel 9 newsroom in the 80s and 90s, liked his male sports presenters to look a bit rough around the edges, because he thought that was what people expected of sports journalists.

But that’s beside the point. All, men and women, have jobs to do and should be allowed to do them without being made to feel marginal, apprehensive, belittled or threatened. In none of the above instances had the reporter done any more than to go about her job. She was a soft target, the sort you might think any self-respecting professional sportsman would be embarrassed to take aim at, and yet they could not help themselves.

You could widen the argument to include all who work in sport. It is why latter-day efforts to foster the involvement of women at all levels – board, staff and auxiliary – are so important. Quotas and minimums might seem artificial and tokenistic, but at least they set the ball rolling. It is one thing to talk about respect and responsibility, another to live it. I don’t know for certain that a gentler polity would prevail if women were in charge of the world — we might be about to find out! — but I do know that there should never be another Erin Andrews case, and that men should be as adamant about that as women.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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