Lessons From A Female Sportswriter


Back in 1981, Nell Scovell was selected by the Boston Globe to join a program that allowed college students to work as correspondents for their sports section. Scovell later went on to a very successful career in television writing and producing, working on shows like NCIS, Murphy Brown, and Monk. She was the first female to write a Simpsons episode, and she created and produced Sabrina the Teenage Witch. You may also remember her from a piece she penned for Vanity Fair about what it was like to be a writer for Late Night with David Letterman.
But before she ever got to the upper ranks of television writers, she toiled away covering the high school football beat for the Globe. Now she’s written an account of that experience over at Grantland, and it’s a thoroughly entertaining read. But more than that, she makes some great observations about what it’s been like to be a woman in not one but two male dominated fields.

Though it was a largely male staff, Scovell wasn’t the first woman to write sports for the Globe. Thanks to one female colleague, Lesley Visser, she had the chance to observe first-hand a few of the complexities of being a woman in a room full of guys.

Already a seven-year veteran of the sports department when I arrived, [Visser] would occasionally ask me which pro football teams I liked for various Sunday matchups. Sometimes she’d include my thoughts in her column, and I was thrilled. I’d been alerted by other correspondents that she liked to pick writers’ brains and “borrow” their ideas. But I think that’s an unfair charge that’s disproportionately leveled against women. Men in the workplace exchange opinions and information all the time over lunch and between urinals. Soliciting your colleagues’ opinions and incorporating the best ones into a column is part of the job, and Visser did it openly and well.

Interestingly, it was not this female role model who ended up mentoring Scovell; rather it was a writer named Michael Madden who encouraged her and gave her some great career advice. He told her to find a sport and specialize in it. That way she’d become the go-to writer on that topic. At one point he handed her a flyer for a boxing match and suggested she try to become an expert on the local scene, since he thought boxing was about to become extremely popular. Pretty solid advice—except she ignored him!

A young female reporting on boxing did seem like a bold and marketable choice. I stared at the flyer … considering … considering … and then I tossed it away. Tennis was the game I’d watched the most growing up, so the idea of becoming an expert on two guys punching each other – really, really hard – was unsettling. I rejected Madden’s advice, and then watched as history proved him absolutely correct. Boxing exploded in the second half of the decade.

Oops! Of course as useful as that advice might have been, it didn’t matter in the end because Scovell began to tire of the sports writing lifestyle.

[T]he job was unrelentingly stressful, requiring high performance under extreme weather conditions. … And maybe I was a little intimidated by [scholastic editor Larry] Ames’ gruffness and [Will] McDonough’s swearing. The Globe could be a pretty cold workplace—and I’m not just talking about the coffee.

So she eventually transitioned into a career in Hollywood, not exactly a warm and fuzzy place either. Once there, her experience in sportswriting served her well, both in giving her the knowledge to write sports-related material and in allowing her to fearlessly navigate a male-dominated scene.

Although I prefer a writers’ room with a mix of genders, I’ve never felt self-conscious being the only female, as I was at Newhart, Letterman, The Simpsons, NCIS, The Critic, and Monk (among others). Sports talk doesn’t bore me. And in November 1993, I got major respect points from my (then) CAA agents when I tagged along for the Holyfield-Bowe rematch in Vegas.

As much as it might have prepared her for a life of hostile Hollywood work environments, what’s perhaps most striking about Scovell’s time at the Globe is the crucial support offered up by men. Of course, there was Madden, her cheerleader and advisor—even if she didn’t heed his direction. But even more pivotal was Vince Doria, the editor of the Globe‘s sports page, who selected her for the program in the first place.

My hire was a good example of affirmative action—a once-admirable concept that has become twisted and misunderstood. … In my case, it meant the Globe actively sought out a qualified person who could bring diversity to an otherwise homogeneous group.

In fact, there had been another woman in line for the job who fell out of the running, but they were determined to give a woman the slot, and kept looking, eventually discovering Scovell.

[I]t would have been easy for the editors to say, “Well, we tried to find a female” … and then hire another male. They didn’t. And whenever I hear a TV producer say, “We’d love to have more female writers, but they’re not applying for these jobs and we just can’t find them,” my response is, “You’re not looking very hard.”

Amen! And this echoes a point that Scovell made about the resistance to hiring of female comedy writers in her Vanity Fair piece. She said then,

One frequent excuse you hear from late-night-TV executives is that “women just don’t apply for these jobs.” And they certainly don’t in the same numbers as men. … Targeted outreach to talented bloggers, improv performers, and stand-ups would help widen the field of applicants.

What’s alarming, of course, is that the Globe hired Scovell back in 1981, and yet, depressingly, 30 years later this issue persists. Her tale—and ultimate success—is a powerful reminder that when it comes to making sure women are represented in writers’ rooms (or really in any male-dominated job), the burden belongs just as much to those doing the hiring as it does to those applying for the jobs. If nothing else, Scovell’s experience is proof that a little searching goes a long, long way—or, as she puts it, “Doria and his team did more than just make an effort … they made a difference.”

The Best Sports Section in History [Grantland]

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