Friday, July 19, 2024
Homemy-turnI was called "little Black girl" and treated like a gimmick

I was called "little Black girl" and treated like a gimmick

I thrust open the door to the news director’s office startling him. He was typing, back to the door, and he jumped at the abrupt sound as I poked my head inside.

“You’re probably going to get a call about me today,” I warned, before pulling the door closed.

I marched back to the sports office, sweat stains at my station-issued polo shirt’s collar and armpits. I carefully sat down the Beta camera and tripod, almost 60 pounds of equipment, onto the floor and sank back into my desk chair.

It was the second week of Texas high school football two-a-days and I’d been in the August heat at noon to cover the story. An all-district female soccer player at one of the area high schools was trying out for the varsity football team as a kicker.

I’d been tipped off by a viewer about her tryout that had her small, evangelical town buzzing. The superintendent and high school principal were excited for the coverage when I called to set up interviews. The football coach was not.

“I’ve got guys that have been on varsity for four years that you haven’t covered,” he huffed with his hands on his hips as I set up my camera at practice. “I get it. I know it’s a story-“

“If you know it’s a story, then what’s the problem?” I questioned.

“I don’t want this to be a gimmick.”

The thought that women and girls in sports were gimmicks or diversity hires wasn’t new. No one prior had said it to me, though I was a novelty in our neck of the Piney Woods in August 2008.

I’d been the first female weekend sports anchor and sports reporter in the Tyler, Texas ABC affiliate’s history when I moved from being a general assignments reporter to sports in 2005.

I made history as the first female sports director in East Texas television history—50 years of TV broadcast in the market—in 2007.

The coach tried to keep his voice low as I watched his face redden. I felt, no matter how angry he was, I had no choice but to remain composed, unless I wanted to be labeled with the angry Black woman stereotype. Even if my own anger was warranted.

I’d been excited when the day began: A female sports reporter covering a potential female football player.

It was the first time I’d truly met resistance with a coach while I was doing my job. Most coaches and players, like the viewers in East Texas, had been welcoming, even when I didn’t look a thing like the faces that had come before me for five decades.

In a 2022 survey, the Pew Research Center found that the whitest and most male-dominated beat in journalism is sports, with 82 percent being white men.

Seventeen years ago, I was placed in a role to change the minds of East Texans on what a sportscaster looked and sounded like. Our news director encouraged me to flash my smile as much as possible to win them over.

“Show that charm and those dimples,” he said.

I couldn’t imagine a news director saying the same thing to a male.

It was fact and not fiction that I had no margin for error as my male colleagues. If I gave a wrong score or said the wrong name of a player, even if that was what was provided to me, I was scrutinized and received ten times the comments my male co-anchor did through viewer emails and on forums.

He shared a message board post with me. “She seems like a nice lady,” a man wrote, “but I don’t like how she reads scores.” He shrugged. “I didn’t realize you read scores any differently than anyone else,” he stated.

“Welcome to the world of local TV news anchors,” the news director included in a message from a viewer he forwarded to me.

“She’s a thin girl but that blouse she was wearing last night, one of the buttons was hanging on for dear life. Tell her she doesn’t need to wear it again.”

I’d been wearing a black button-down, long-sleeved dress shirt with a collar.

I believed to be credible to viewers, I had to convey my sports knowledge when talking over highlights, but also carry myself in a way that fit with a societal definition of intellect for a Black woman at the time: Relaxed, straightened hair, clothes that were never body contouring or clingy, and speaking without a trace of Texas twang.

This extended beyond work hours to trips to the mall, movie theater, and grocery store. There were times I wanted to be defiant and rebel against having to be “on” whenever in the public gaze, but I knew I represented far more than myself. I had something to prove.

As the first female sports director in our viewing area, I had to fight against the rural East Texas stereotypes that women are expected to be Christian and meek as I made waves and stepped into fieldhouses (which are by their very nature “boys’s clubs.”)

Encounters like the one with the coach were few, but when I did have to stand my ground, many, like him, seemed surprised.

A local sports radio guy, the big wig in town, called and berated me after I aired a story about a popular head football coach leaving for a school in the Beaumont area.

He’d been the first to report the story, but I had a good relationship with the coach and picked up the phone and called him. When the coach confirmed with me that he was going to submit his resignation, I shared his direct words with our viewers.

“Who reported it first?” He screamed into the phone. I acknowledged he had but that the coach had been willing to talk to me. I hung up the phone puzzled.

Was it that I followed up on his report or that the coach had been willing to speak to me and declined all other interviews that angered him?

The reality of Friday night lights in Texas and the rabid fan dedication also brought with it a strange level of ownership by viewers. Some thought it was appropriate to email me about my red lipstick or question who I was dating (often the wrong assumption that I was dating an athlete as a woman in sports).

At the grocery store one day I heard: “There’s the little Black girl that does sports on Channel 7.”

I was at the checkout counter, and though I was accustomed to being recognized by viewers, the wording caused me to look back at them. It was an elderly white couple and they were smiling. I was a 27-year-old woman then.

I did what Black women often have to do, which is chalk such comments that reduced my accomplished career to being the “little Black girl” to ignorance.

Sports broadcast news is not glamorous. Sweating on turf fields where the temperature peaked at 115, being pelted by hail during rain storms, or my hands going numb in sub-freezing temperatures, then coming back to the station and putting on my face for the cameras was quite the demand seven days a week during football season.

The news director pulled me aside once to tell me my hair looked “unkempt” in a ponytail.

It was 102 that day when I covered football.

I felt welcomed by most communities while an innate fear manifested in others. I’d drive two hours east through windy county roads in the black of night to stadiums where Dixie played as part of the school fight songs. Some of these same towns have been labeled sundown towns. I strutted onto the sidelines to conduct interviews with my head held high.

There were benefits that I hadn’t expected. I made friends with the coaches’ wives. The ladies in numerous press boxes fed us catered meals of chips and beef-filled queso or chili on cold winter nights, giving me extra.

Revolting as I found it, I sampled possum chili to the delight of a small-town cook who began bragging to everyone within earshot that I liked his cooking.

I weaved through fans sitting on the grass for interviews during big games where the stands were at capacity. It brought me joy to hear my name called, see their smiles and enthusiastic waves as people told me: “You do a good job.”

In the wake of my hiring, within a year, two other stations in town hired female sports reporters.

If my competence on the job did anything, I hope it showed that women know Xs and Os and when we take up space in such a male-dominated field, it’s not a gimmick. It’s because we belong.

Women belong in sports media, team front offices, and on the fields and courts. Women belong in sports.

Maya Golden is an Associated Press-winning and Emmy-nominated freelance journalist in Tyler, Texas where her foundation, 1 in 3 Foundation, serves East Texas. Her memoir, The Return Trip, is set to be released on November 14 from Rising Action Publishing Co.

For Salon, she’s written about fandoms and healing, for Insider, she’s written about sex addiction, and for Black Girl Nerds, she’s written about PTSD and Guardians of the Galaxy.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at myturn@newsweek.com.

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