March 7, 2024

Hall: How I learned to embrace being a female reporter

The Canadian Press

On the eve of International Women’s Day, I’m mulling over the meaning of labels.

The ones I slap on others, without their knowledge, without their permission. And the ones I carry myself.

For much of my career, I inwardly shuddered when people referred to me as a “female sports reporter.” I mean, yes, it’s an accurate description. I’m a woman, and I’m a sports reporter.

But I dodged any questions on the matter like a young Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons bouncing off would-be-tacklers on punt returns.

“What challenges do you, as a female sports reporter, face that your male colleagues do not?” radio hosts from Montreal to Vancouver asked numerous times over the years.

My answer was prepared and ready to go. I wanted to be judged only on the merit of my work; I wanted to blend in with my colleagues. I deplored the mere suggestion of being the “token” woman in the press box.

“I don’t think of myself as a female sports reporter,” I replied like a robot. “I think of myself as a sports reporter. There is no difference.”

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I called an audible on the line of scrimmage this past November as the first woman called to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, in the media wing. Through the passage of time, I realized that I was not being of service to myself or others by glossing over the fact that I am indeed a female sports reporter.

If I remain silent about the highs and lows of my career, that’s not helping women breaking into the business today as they navigate their own challenges — including the disturbing rise of social media attacks against media figures.

For me, I am forever grateful to the female sports journalists who blazed the path before me in Canada, including Joanne Ireland, Lisa Miller, Judy Owen, Lori Ewing, Donna Spencer, Rita Mingo and my mentor, the late Christie Blatchford.

After six years covering news, I moved over to sports in 2001 as a CFL beat writer with theEdmonton Journal. My rookie season was tough.

When training camp opened, the late Don Matthews was head coach of the Edmonton football club. The intimidating Matthews barely spoke to me — which was troublesome considering I needed to quote him every day in my stories.

For the first two months, one player, who shall remain unnamed, dropped his pants any time he saw me. At first, I honestly thought the elastic on his pants must have given way. After the second or third time, I realized it was: a) intentional and b) for my benefit.

I felt lost until one day, in Hamilton, the drawer-dropper did an obscene dance, of sorts, behind me while I was conducting a post-game interview.

It was a steaming hot afternoon at Ivor Wynne Stadium, and I stood outside the locker room to collect my thoughts before huffing and puffing up the stairs to the press box.

“Is everything OK?” linebacker A.J. Gass asked. “Are you all right?”

I stared at him blankly.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“Well, if you are never not OK, you come talk to me and let me know,” he said.

Things changed at that moment. Nothing like that ever happened again.

Supportive presences on Edmonton teams like A.J. Gass helped make Hall feel welcomed in an atmosphere that lacked women (The Canadian Press)

I knew the leadership group — which included the likes of Gass, Jason Maas, Ricky Ray, Ed Hervey, Sean Fleming and Singor Mobley — had my back, even when I wrote something that upset them.

For that, I am eternally grateful.

My job as a beat writer — first in Edmonton, then down the road in Calgary — allowed me to travel across the country to witness the magic of three-down football at its finest.  I got to swim in Burrard Inlet before a game in Vancouver. I relished in the madness of football at McGill University, even though there was initially no bathroom for women in the press box.

I interviewed thousands of football players over the years. Almost all were so welcoming as they told their stories about the games they played and the lives they lived.

I learned how to write about football from the legends who sat beside me in the press box and embraced me as one of their own. I cussed alongside them on the night when Milt Stegall scored a 100-yard touchdown on the final play of the game, forcing us to rewrite the story in two or three minutes to meet the deadline. (Milt, I forgive you, even if my heart may never fully recover from beating so fast.)

But there were hard times when it was lonely as the only woman. At the 2003 Grey Cup in Regina, I walked with my fellow reporters down the stairs to the field near the end of the fourth quarter only to have a security guard claim that my media pass was fake and that I couldn’t really be a reporter.

Deadline loomed. I screamed at the security guard. I got in his face. I made such a scene that another guard came over and finally agreed to let me through to do my job.

I think the chances of that happening now are slim. At least, I hope they are. But female sports journalists today face another kind of adversity.

“My advice to sports journalists today is to stay true to themselves. We all bring something different to the game, and the industry needs all kinds of perspectives.”
— Vicki Hall

From time to time, I used to receive letters in the newsroom from kind readers recommending that I go back to the kitchen where I belong. They were easy to laugh off (especially if you dared try my cooking back then).

But that’s not the case for the female sports reporters of today who deal with online abuse that flashes in real time on their smartphones.

We need to do more to support these women with their mental health and to ensure they work in a safe environment.

Looking back, I realize the way I coped mentally was to try to be one of the boys in the press box. I wanted to write as eloquently as they did. I wanted to ask the tough questions like they did. I even tried to keep up with them at the bars we haunted in each city, a misguided quest if there ever was one.

My advice to sports journalists today is to stay true to themselves. We all bring something different to the game, and the industry needs all kinds of perspectives. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you love or how your brain works. You can be you, regardless of the way anyone labels you.

It’s an honour to be the first woman in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. I now embrace the label of female sports reporter, and I know I won’t be alone in the Hall for long.

The doors are open. I can’t wait for other women to join me.

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