The sports media voices of Title IX: Sally Jenkins

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The Associated Press

Joe Paterno’s first interview after the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky scandal was with the Washington Post’s Sally Jekins in mid-January.

It turned out to be his last interviews. The iconic Nittany Lions coach died a broken man just a week later. Jenkins had another exclusive.

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Post readers were able to soon ask her in a Q-and-A: Did she believe Paterno’s version of events. Her answer (linked here) was: “I don’t know. That’s my best answer. I wrote a story about a man battling on three fronts, fighting for his life, and his life’s work, and his reputation, who had decided to break his silence. Some of his answers I found completely genuine, some I’m not as sure of. I’d prefer the reader simply make up their own mind. I’m actually happy that the piece has drawn such divided, varying responses — the fact that some people totally believe Paterno, and some people don’t buy him at all.”

Jenkins, named the nation’s top sports columnist in 2003 and 2010 by the Associated Press Sports Editors, has written nine books — including three New York Times bestsellers, most notably “It’s Not About the Bike” with Lance Armstrong.

The daughter of acclaimed sports writer Dan Jenkins gave us her thoughts about the anniversary of Title IX and how it has impacted her career:


Title IX has had a huge effect on my career. I’ve always thought it was the closest thing we had to the Equal Rights Amendment. I was a child of the ’70s, with Gloria Steinem trying, and failing, to get equal rights. Yet Title IX really did more for women my age than any other feminist movement.

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My favorite story is from Billie Jean King, who said she would argue with Gloria Steinem. Billie would tell her: “You should use us athletes, we’re important in this cause.” And Gloria would say: “I appreciate everything you do, but this isn’t about sports. This is about politics.” And Billie slammed her fist and said: “Gloria, we are about politics.” I’ve always loved that story because it’s the truth.

The winner’s circle is genderless. Physical excellence leads to confidence and character, and they’re not sole properties of men. It’s bad for this country to define more than half of its population lesser in character. It’s not just about sports, but also the chemistry class and the gym and the playing field. You earn validity and excellence on a playing field that you can’t acquire in any other form.

Title IX affected me as a sportswriter because I was maybe one of only a few who began as an intern in 1982 and there were so few out there. Leslie Visser, and maybe a couple of others. But she was having to deal with covering the NFL and having a player like Terry Bradshaw sign an autograph for her when she tried to interview him because he didn’t know better. It affected me to broaden the range of acceptable professions for females and decide what was the appropriate conduct for women. There were times when I was working at Sports Illustrated, even in the 1990s, well after the passage of Title IX, when I was arguing for a feature story on Jackie Joyner Kersee. The editor said to me: If it’s a choice between her or Michael Jordan, we’ll do a piece on him every time. But why is it a choice? Why can’t we do both? Even as late as the mid ’90s, and sometimes today, women in sports has this underpinning attitude that it comes at the expense of the male’s expense. For Sports Illustrated to do a Jackie Joyner Kersee story was somehow depriving the male athlete of space. That was the attitude. It’s a very unconscious bias but very persistent and needs to be addressed still.

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It’s amazing to me how the Title IX law has survived untouched with all the sizable efforts to tamper with it. It proves to me the American public still believes in the law. How many laws passed can you say has had this seismic effect on society and was unmitigated for the good of everyone? It’s a great, ethic law, probably the most important piece of legislation to pass in my lifetime.

The bottom line is that personalities trump in history during large social movements. Pat Summit and Billie Jean King are Title IX, the living law. I don’t think that law passes without people gaining respect for them.

As far as the sports media, the storytellers were all male. Every job, and every promotion I got, came from a man. But the fact was that there are people like George Solomon at the Washington Post who recognized he needed different voices to cover what was changing in this country. Diversity wasn’t just adhering to the law, but it was a helluva lot more interesting. Just in my career, I’ve gone from being self-conscious about a female sounding like a guy to be unashamed and unabashed female. You may speak a different language and have a different take, but we’ve grown from a point where women were once a mark of inferiority to now where they’re a mark of difference. And it wasn’t OK to be different when I first got into it. It was meant to be a compliment if a reader said: I just read that story and I didn’t even realize until afterward that a woman wrote it. I actually took that as a compliment back then, but the truth is, now I hope people realize when something is written by a woman.

I guess my favorite example of how women’s sports are different now – every four years, I’d cover the Winter Olympics and when I’d be at the figure skating, there was always a male colleague who’d ask: What color is she wearing? Well, that’s teal.

Being a woman in this business is like being left-handed – it’s not worse or better, but in many ways, you can gain an advantage from it. Title IX did that. It showed that differences are interesting, not taking that lame idea of sameness. Equal rights often mean sameness, or perfect equity. No, that’s lame. Difference doesn’t mean inferior.

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