RealClearSports Interviews Christine Brennan

RealClearSports recently interviewed Christine Brennan, best-selling author and award-winning sports columnist for USA Today.

RCS:  You've enjoyed a 28 year career in which, among other things, you've won numerous awards, written a best-selling book and were the first woman to cover the Washington Redskins.

Why have you been able to continue to have success over a such long period of time?
Christine Brennan: Well, that's a nice thing to say, I appreciate that. Twenty-eight years, wow, that's a long time, yet in some ways it feels like it's been about a year.

I certainly think one of the reasons why anyone has success is because they love what they're doing. To be able to cover sports and talk about issues in sports and travel around the world and be able to be at big events is just a dream come true.  I know that sounds a bit Pollyannaish for someone who's been doing this since April of 1981, when I started at the Miami Herald, but I love it more today than I did back then.  I appreciate what I have,  I never take anything for granted.  I throw my heart and soul into everything I do.  I think for anyone to have success in anything, you've got to have passion, and you have to care deeply about it. Sometimes it has to be all-encompassing. I know for me I don't even use the term 'job' or 'work,' because this is what I love to do and there's not one day that this is drudgery, it's just a delight.

Another reason, I think, is because I've been able to evolve from a beat writer back in the '80s, to covering the Olympics which I love more than anything, to becoming a columnist, as you know.  So I've been able to kind of change and do new things and see things in a bit of a different way.  I'm not sure I'd be a very good beat writer today, though.  I can't imagine covering the Redskins today, day in and day out.  I don't think that would be where my interests would lie.  So you evolve and you change and you get to do the things you love to do within that wonderful framework of sports media. 

I've also been able to do things other than write for a newspaper: television, radio, books, speeches. In some months I do more speaking than writing.  I love doing all of that.  I've been able to carve it out exactly as I wanted. I often ask students:  'What would you want to do, where would you want to be, what would you want to do with your career?'  When I ask myself those questions, the answer is 'This, exactly this.'  So I feel so fortunate to be able to have what I have, and I appreciate it and I work hard to keep it that way.

RCS:   Among your most enduring legacies is to womens' sports. But in a recent column you wrote about the financial troubles of the LPGA. In these tough economic times, what does the womens' tour have to do in order to survive?

Brennan: That's a really good question, and I think it's an important question -- and not just for people who care about women's sports, but for anyone who has a daughter, or a granddaughter, or a niece.  That pretty much covers everybody. I think about how we are going to look at some of the challenges facing women's sports, vis-a-vis creating role models for our daughters. We as a society have come to believe very strongly in having women play sports at a very high level, from little five-year-old soccer on up. Yet as a society we have not yet embraced supporting women's professional sports to the degree that we support men's professional sports.  I'm not sure we'll ever get there, and I'm not sure we even need to get there. 

Men's sports have had a huge head start. I love men's sports, lots of people love men's sports, and if that's what they want to watch and spend money on, that's fine, of course. With the economy today, there are only so many dollars to go around, so women's sports like the LPGA are suffering. I think some people support women's sports for altruistic reasons, the idea being to spend money on it because it's important for your daughter to have a role model. But altruism only goes so far. Most people buy tickets because of the entertainment value, and that's where men's sports dominate. Whether it be the LPGA, or the WNBA, or Women's Professional Soccer, I would hope we as a society can say we should continue to support them all.

But in this economy it's very difficult.  So the LPGA is going to take some hits that the PGA isn't going to take because it's so much bigger and richer.  But I do think the LPGA is going to survive, and I certainly hope the WNBA and WPS survive.  I hope we continue to give our daughters the opportunities to see role models in professional sports, women who look like them, and women who are achieving great things. Girls growing up can see women not only playing sports, but women coaching and women owning the team, and that's important. So it's a bigger issue than just the LPGA to me. It's about what we as a society would like to have for our daughters in the future.
RCS: You were very kind in a recent "Best of" issue of the Washingtonian to recommend RealClearSports. But we have to admit -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that you are one of few women to do so. In fact, despite consistently featuring well known women writers like yourself, Jackie MacMullen, Karen Crouse, Jemele Hill and Jennifer Floyd Engel, 97% of our readers are men -- and other sports media outlets show similar demographic breakdowns.

Do you have any advice for how we can attract more women readers?

Brennan: I wish I did. I think that what's happened is women who love sports -- be it a 60 year old or a 40 year old or a 20 year old -- probably go to a certain site, and feel very comfortable with that site, whether they're women's sports-related sites or maybe newspaper sites. I haven't done any surveys on this, but knowing my friends, knowing their habits if they care about a team, they might go to a newspaper site for that team or maybe even go to the team site itself.

I think what we've seen in general is that women are participating in sports more than ever before, but what we have not yet seen is women becoming spectators and consumers of sports in vast numbers the way men are. I'm a realist. At the end of the day I know that some of my biggest "fans" criticize me for being some kind of radical feminist, so it would probably shock them to hear I'm a registered Republican. I love Big Ten football as much as anyone, for instance. But I also want women's sports to succeed, and I want women to support women's sports. So far, women are not consuming sports like men have for generations. And maybe they won't. I don't know. 

But I do think we need to wait another generation or two to be sure, which of course is not what you want to hear. It's not what your sponsors want to hear. It's certainly not what women's leagues want to hear. But here's what I wonder: is it possible the typical 40-year-old woman today is not yet the huge sports fan her daughter might one day become?  The 40-year-old very likely did not grow up with sports her whole life as her brother did. A 40-year-old would have been born in 1969. Title IX was signed by Richard Nixon in 1972, but it didn't really have much of an impact for 5-10 years, at least. So what I'm saying is the emergence of women in sports has been going on really for only the last 25 years or so.

But let's look at the 10-year-old girl today with the total sports immersion we have now for both girls and boys in this country. When she grows up, when she's 40, and she and her husband are looking at their checkbook and he says he wants the ticket package for the Maryland men's basketball team this year, will she say, "Great, and I want the package for the Maryland women's basketball team?"  Is that when interest in women's sports is really going to hit, say 30 years from now?

It's probably more of a cultural question, and I don't mean to get all sociological and cultural on you here, but I wonder if it's going to be awhile for women to feel that sense of entitlement that sports is a birthright for them just the way it has been for men for generations.  I don't think most women who are currently in their forties or fifties have felt that. I always have, but that's because I had my own personal Title IX in my father, who threw a baseball with me in the backyard, who took me to Toledo Mud Hens and Detroit Tigers baseball games, to University of Michigan and Toledo football games. I'm 51 years old, I was born in 1958, well before Title IX, so I'm very unusual for my age. So maybe it's just going to take another generation or two. I don't know if that's a great answer to your question but it's the only answer I have. And a long one at that, eh?

RCS: Title IX, for which you've among the strongest advocates, remains a controversial topic. Is it unreasonable for critics to believe that Title IX could evolve so that it continues to encourages women to participate in sports, while also recognizing that a higher percentage of men are passionate about sports?

Brennan: I think Title IX has been a very good law.  I think you could make a case that it's the most important law in our country over the last 40 years. A lot of people would argue for Roe v. Wade, which was a Supreme Court decision, not a law per se, but I think the important point is the way women are being empowered through sports, and the major role women are going to play in politics and corporate life and all facets of leadership in our country and the world, due to the lessons they learned on the playing fields due to Title IX. They are learning about winning and losing at a young age, learning about teamwork and sportsmanship. Whatever that girl you see in the kitchen each morning is going to become -- a mother, a doctor, a lawyer, etc. -- she will be better at it because she played sports. Obviously, I'm a big fan of Title IX. I personally feel it's been a very good law, but I totally understand those groups that are very concerned about what they would call the "unintended consequences" of Title IX.

I'd rather look at the choices and decisions made by athletic directors. Title IX has been the law of the land for 37 years, and athletic directors have had 37 years to implement it, but for quite a few of those years, some athletic directors must have thought it was a recommendation, not a law.  So when women athletes or their parents saw blatant inequality and found nothing being done about it, some went to court. And they won every time. So the ADs then had to slash and burn the so-called men's minor sports, or men's Olympic sports, and no one wants that. That is just heart breaking, when the men's golf team, or the men's swimming team, or men's track and field or wrestling is eliminated.  But I don't think we can blame a great law for the poor decision-making of athletic directors who somehow didn't understand that Title IX meant it was time to get working to create opportunities for women as well as for men.

That said, most schools are not cutting men's sports and have found a balance and are working towards compliance with a law that is extremely popular with all Americans, not only girls and women, but also especially with the fathers of athletic daughters. One of those fathers happens to be the new President of the United States. President Obama and his administration have made it crystal clear that they're big fans of Title IX and that they are going to work to strengthen the law, not weaken it. This clearly is a law that's here to stay.

RCS: Back in February, we interviewed Tony Kornheiser and asked how much he missed writing. He responded, "I miss writing enough that I wouldn't do it anymore.  I can't cause I'm no good anymore.  I do all the major media mediums. I do radio. I do TV. I do newspapers. I respect print more than anything else."

Do you also have a greater respect for print journalism than broadcast journalism?
Brennan: I look at them differently, but yes, I do.  I'm a print person first and foremost.  I agree with Tony, who happens to be a friend and neighbor of mine. We worked together for 12 years at the Washington Post, and even went on vacation together with some other journalist friends to China after the Seoul Olympics in 1988.  I've never laughed so hard on a vacation in my life. I think Tony is a great writer, and I wish he were still writing.  That's his decision, of course, but I miss him in the newspaper. 

Writing is the thing I respect most. That doesn't mean I don't respect television or radio or speeches or the other things I do. I try to throw myself into all of those with all of my energy and passion.  But writing has always been first and foremost for me.  It probably always will be. Mike Wilbon and I have talked about this over the years. We were the same year at Northwestern, Class of 1980. Mike always says that we shouldn't tell people what class we were in, that they then can do the math and figure out how old we are. Isn't that funny?

Anyway, over the years, Mike and I have talked to students at Northwestern and when they say they want to be on TV, that they want to do what Mike does, or, to a lesser degree, what I do on TV, we smile at each other and Mike says, "Well, write for twenty years and come back and talk to us."  That's what Mike did and that's what I did.  It's all about the opportunity to learn how to report and write a story, about the lessons learned through writing, and the ethics and the serious journalism that we've been able to practice. So, yes, print has always been my foundation and something I care very much about, and it always will be.
RCS: Similarly to Kornheiser's sentiments, you wrote in Best Seat in the House, "Your appearance becomes paramount on TV. In print, the only thing that matters is what you write. You can sit in your sweats all day and no one cares what you look like. But on TV, even in the news divisions for which I often work, how you look does matter."

How much should appearance matter for broadcast journalists?

Brennan: I went on in that section of the book to talk about going on PTI from a rooftop at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, with the wind all of a sudden kicking up and my hair going sideways. And Kornheiser says on the air, "That's okay. At least you have hair."

I think it's just that TV is a visual medium, for men and for women.  People are looking at you, so they notice things.  I wish it were all about what you are saying on air, but that's not always the case. Why does the President wear makeup for his press conferences?  I put makeup on every time I'm going on air. Everyone does. There were times years ago that I would be rushing to get to a location for ABC News and getting ready to go on air and someone would suggest I take a minute or two to get made up because if you didn't, people wouldn't notice what you're saying, they'd only notice what you looked like. The advice I received early on was that you don't want to distract people from the words you're going to say.

By the way, that's not sexist, that's true for both men and women. That's just the way the business is, because it's so visual. So I respect that -- even though I wasn't into makeup very much in high school, so my sisters get a real kick out of that now.

RCS: We have to ask you about the Erin Andrews situation. When you were on CNN's Reliable Sources, you said that a quote from you gave during a radio show, for which you've since received a good amount of criticism, was taken out of context and amplified. Most importantly, you said you were talking about yourself. So let's put the quote in context and ask a different question. "It's worked for me for 25 years. If you trade off your sex appeal, if you trade off your looks, eventually you're going to lose those. And I'd like to have a very, very long career."

For young women starting in the business now, is it possible that this is unrealistic? If, for example, Erin Andrews isn't willing to use her sex appeal, won't ESPN just find someone who is?

Brennan: First of all, thank you for getting the quote right.  I think you're the first person who did, and that's very nice of you to do that.  I really appreciate that.

I also want to say, in case there is anyone out there who hasn't heard me say it, that what happened to Erin is terrible, and I support her completely. You wouldn't know it from some of the internet and TV coverage of my comments, but the first words out of my mouth on that radio show in North Carolina were that what happened to Erin was "gross" and "despicable." I'm not sure why news organizations and internet sites didn't report that.
Now, to your question. Since I'm not doing any hiring for any network, I have no idea why certain people might be hired, and for what reasons. But I do know this: Erin Andrews is smart and talented, and to me, that's why she should be on the air.

There is a very simple thing  I fall back on, and it's advice I've probably given to thousands of women now, young women I've mentored, young men, too, for that matter, in speeches at colleges, in e-mails, things like that. The advice is to simply rely on your talent and your brains. I so believe in that. I would think that most parents would say that to their daughters or their sons, to focus on being smart and talented and good.  If you happen to be good looking or not, who cares?  Focus on being a person of substance.  Whether you want to be a teacher, a doctor, a journalist, whatever -- be smart. Work hard.  Those are some of the things that are just so ingrained in me.

I think Erin does a terrific job on air. As I said, she's smart, she's talented. That's what's important. I wish her the best because she's been through an awful experience.

RCS: In a recent interview, Bill Simmons was asked about the future of journalism, to which he replied, "I'm terrified. I think it's going to hell in a hand basket. The emphasis is on quantity over quality and immediacy over accuracy; the newspapers have made it worse by trying to speed up their immediacy online over just kicking everyone's asses with better writing and reporting."

Do you agree with Simmons? Is journalism "going to hell in a hand basket"?

Brennan: I'm concerned, so yes, I would agree with Bill on the general point he's making.

Two weeks ago, I got a bird's eye view of what can happen when the blogosphere takes something and runs with it without any context or without anyone taking a deep breath and saying, "Wait a minute here. Can we step back for a second and look at what someone said and look at the whole interview and not cherry-pick pieces of it?" But there's no time for that on the internet. And that can be troubling. That said, I'm a "big kid," as my late father used to say, and I certainly can handle any criticism that comes my way.
The irony is that I love the internet. I started my own website in early 2006, and I think I was part of an early wave of print journalists to do that.  I love e-mail, I enjoy talking with readers and interacting with them. I love our technological world.

But my concern also comes from what I've seen happen in that world. I hope we don't lose sight of the difference between trained journalists and those who are not trained. By no means am I saying that people can't blog or give their opinion, not at all. But what I am saying is we all need to be careful and take a step back and remember that there are people who have been trained for years to do this, to report and commentate. It's a wonderful gift we've been given with the First Amendment to speak our minds in this country, and I hope we don't abuse that gift.

RCS: If an aspiring young sports writer, who had competing job offers for a beat writer position at the Washington Post and a position at Deadspin, came to you for advice, what would you say to him or her?

Brennan: I'd probably stick with the dinosaur and say to go with the Washington Post.  That's not out of any disrespect for Deadspin. I'm just really hopeful that as the way we get our information evolves, many of the major media outlets that have been a part of our lives for generations will continue to be a big part of our lives. I would hope the Washington Post is one of those, as I hope USA Today is. Whether people are reading the paper or looking at the phone in their hand, I hope they still seek out some of our great media institutions.

At the same time I totally understand if that person would say "No, on second thought, I think I'll go to Deadspin," and I would pat them on the back and tell them good luck and congratulations and hope that's the better choice for them. So I'm not standing here with my feet stuck in the mud saying no to Deadspin. I'm just saying that I still hope that there's a place in our world now and in 10-20 years for the trained journalist at the major media outlets we've come to know and respect over the course of our careers.

RCS: Alright, last question. Who were the two pitchers involved in the only double no-hitter in baseball history?

Brennan: Toney and Vaughn.  That's a good one. I love that.  As you know, I started my father-daughter memoir, Best Seat in the House, with a story about answering that trivia question on a radio station in 1969 and winning two tickets to a Cleveland Indians game. I can't ever forget the answer to that question, can I?

By the way, that's Fred Toney and James "Hippo" Vaughn, from the Reds and the Cubs, respectively, back in 1917. Thanks for asking.


Author Archive