If you’re a fan of televised sports, and you’re a fan of professionalism, you have to be a fan of Linda Cohn.
Unlike too many in TV these days, Linda’s no joke; no passing fancy; no tool with a quick smile and a couple of catchphrases. The former goaltender for the women’s ice hockey team at SUNY Oswego originally landed at ESPN in 1992, and over the ensuing two decades she’s been (along with, in my opinion, Bob Ley) the network’s staple of class and intelligence. Anchors come, anchors go. But SportsCenter isn’t SportsCenter without Linda Cohn.
Anyhow, today Linda explains why it’s OK for her to be a journalist while simultaneously living and dying with the New York Rangers; why hockey remains her true love and why she ranks Tim Teufel and Madison Square Garden over A.J. McCarron. One can follow Linda on Twitter and Instagram, and visit her personal website here.
Linda Cohn, you’re the magical 211th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Linda, I’ve long been an admirer of your career and your style to sportscasting. And I want to start with this: You’ve long identified yourself as a loyal New York Rangers, New York Giants, New York Mets and New York Knicks fan. Hell, it’s high up on your Wikipedia page (so it must be true!). My question is, why is this OK? I don’t mean to imply it’s not OK, but in print I was sorta taught that, if I’m gonna cover/write about a sport, I have to surrender allegiances. Do you think that’s nonsense? Or perhaps just not important for non-beat writers and such?
LINDA COHN: I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’m a fan first. You have to remember most of my viewers on SportsCenter are sports fans to their respective beloved teams. Just like me. I felt it was another way I could connect with them. To make it known I know what’s it’s like to suffer a heartbreaking loss or an exhilarating win. Many in our business lose the reason why they got into sports in the first place. I didn’t want to be one of those people. I didn’t want to become jaded. It hasn’t affected the way I cover each of my favorite teams. In fact, I’ve been guilty of criticizing one of my teams at times, so much so they think I had something against them. I never fall in line with everyone else. If I did I wouldn’t be in this business this long and I wouldn’t have paved a way for others to follow.
I was and still am just being myself, which means not making it a secret how important it is for me to this day and beyond to be a fan of my teams—especially the Rangers and Giants. I’ve also been transparent at times when it comes to being a fan of certain players or coaches—who might not be on a team I root for.
J.P.: You turn 56 this year, which means you’ve been doing this longer than most and you came up during a period when people saw women and sports media and thought, “Um, why is that woman in sports media?” How difficult was it initially to be taken seriously? Did it lead to awkward exchanges, ridicule? And do you feel like women in sports media still have to prove themselves more than men?
L.C.: Really? 56? I feel like I’m turning 36. As you know, I wrote a book about my climb titled Cohn-Head back in 2007. It was an honest, and at times comical, look at the journey. I always felt I had to prove that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to sports and that I have opinions, etc. Being a former athlete I’m very competitive and I always felt each and every day I had to prove I belonged.
To this day I’m still doing that. Does it change the way people think about you? For many, yes. But there will always be men who don’t want women involved in knowing and let alone talking sports to them. They like it the other way around.
I agree with them when it comes to women who are in sports broadcasting for the wrong reasons. Some use it as a stepping stone for other goals in TV. I. It’s unfortunate because those women can set all the good ones back. And there are a lot of good ones …
J.P.: I’m gonna pull an odd one here. You and I are both Jewish—as are hundreds of our media peers. And, eh, as are precious few of the athletes we cover. Why do you think Jews are so drawn to working in sports media, and why do you think Jews—as a whole—underwhelm in sports?
L.C.: I have no idea. I actually was an athlete who happened to be Jewish so it’s hard for me to speak for the entire religion. Haha
I’ll never forgot my mom never letting me forget the speeding ticket she got taking me to hockey practice on Yom Kippur. So obviously I was more focused on sports than being Jewish. I figure if you’re Jewish and not athletically inclined to play sports but it’s something that fascinates you (like the excitement of it, the stats, the players profiles, the analytics) and you just want to be as close as you can to it, sports writing and sports broadcasting are ways to do just that.
J.P.: Do you think an overweight, relatively unattractive woman can excel in televised sports media? Would she even get the chance? Because that description (overweight, unattractive) describes sooooo many men on TV. But I can’t think of a single woman. Is this the double standard of the medium?
L.C.: This isn’t breaking news, but of course there is a double standard. Look at every news and sports organization out there.
J.P.: You’re a huge hockey person—played at Oswego, devoted to the sport. So why do you think it’s never fully taken off in the United States? Is it something fans are missing? Is the game just wrong for this nation? Has the NHL screwed up?
L.C.: This is a frustrating subject for me. The NHL has a great product. The most passionate fans. The players have tremendous personality and go out of their way to accommodate and most of them are the best athletes in the world. The league made a huge mistake when it didn’t look big picture and chose to walk away from ESPN. While I was not in any negotiation room I just thought the NHL felt it could grow on its own without serious exposure and promotion by a giant like ESPN. I would be saying this even if I didn’t work there. Once the NHL left, ESPN wasn’t going to put much effort into the league because it wasn’t theirs to promote.
Fans who were just getting into the game didn’t know where to watch it. They couldn’t find it. They stopped watching and caring. Hockey is a sports best appreciated in person. It’s so fast, hard hitting and unpredictable. There also has to be an emotional connection to a team or player for the fan to become fully absorbed.
Considering how much it has had to overcome, it’s truly amazing the NHL is as big as it is and still has the best postseason of any sport. My next job will be to take over for Gary Bettman.
J.P.: After the Seahawks beat the Packers to reach the Super Bowl, Twitter was absolutely filled with hate for Brandon Bostick, the Green Bay tight end who dropped the onside kick. I’m wondering, have you noticed a change in the tone of fans through the years? Or the way anger is spewed? Or am I just imagining things?
L.C.: There is definitely a change. We have social media to thank—specifically Twitter. It gives fans a voice they never had. No need to hold up a sign at a game anymore. You can make your opinions known, as vile as they are, right to the person you are criticizing. There is no accountability so these fans can Tweet hateful things without repercussions. This is why you are not imagining this.
Oh, and if you or I take a stand for or against something whether it’s sports, politics, movies whatever—beware! The good and bad responses have to all be treated the same way … it’s just people speaking their minds.
J.P.: How did you know you wanted to do this? Like when was your ah-ha! moment for sports media? And when did you know you could be really good at it?
L.C.: I don’t know if there was one specific moment. Since I couldn’t be a goalie in the NHL I knew I wanted to be a part of sports in some way. Broadcasting, TV or radio, PR … whatever I could do to keep connected to sports. Sports helped me fill a void growing up. It gave me something to look forward to. It helped with my low self esteem. I needed it in my life as an occupation.
I knew there was hope when more of the feedback I was getting was positive than negative and that says a lot for a woman trying to break into sports media in the early 1980’s fresh out of college. I knew if I keep pushing, volunteering, gaining experience, going to games, meeting people in the business, networking—something would open up for me. I always believed you have to make it happen.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
L.C.: Too many great moments to share but usually the best are when I’m not working. Where there was no camera rolling when I was just talking sports with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky at the same time at a Super Bowl party. Or being at Madison Square Garden to see the Rangers win the Stanley Cup. Than calling my dad to share the experience with him. If it weren’t for my dad I never would be the passionate sports fan I still am today and I never would have been in the business.
Worst moment: Only a few but they always took place in a locker room or it had to do something with the locker room.
J.P.: You used to do play by play for the WNBA. I love the WNBA. Truly do. But I also sorta feel like something about the league has never quite worked. Marketing, maybe? Product? Can’t put a finger on it. Can you?
L.C.: I was surprised the WNBA didn’t do well considering it had the NBA machine behind it.
The players were fantastic to work with. Fans really embraced them. I just think a pro women’s basketball was more regional than national. Not all of those regions were excited about pro women’s hoops even though they enjoy college basketball. The league assumed fans would follow their favorite college player to the pros, and that just didn’t happen.
J.P.: This is such a random question, but I wonder, truly, how you feel when you see this. And what emotions go through you.
L.C.: I felt bad for Sue. I grew up in New York watching her. As on-air personalities we always have to assume the microphone is on. Unfortunately for Ms. Simmons that wasn’t the case.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LINDA COHN:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Michel Bergeron, Tim Teufel, Hubert Davis, Charles Krauthammer, Embassy Suites, Madison Square Garden, Gary Miller, Serena Williams, Captain Kangaroo, Sly and the Family Stone, A.J. McCarron, the number 14: Very strange list—Madison Square Garden, Gary Miller, Charles Krauthammer, Serena Williams, Hubert Davis, Michel Bergeron, Tim Teufel, A.J. McCarron, Embassy Suites, Sly and the Family Stone, number 14, Captain Kangaroo.
• In exactly 17 words, what does it feel like to screw up on air: Sickening. You don’t want viewer to know that so you make fun of yourself, leave them laughing.
• One question you would ask Emmett Kelly were he here right now: Are you as funny without the clown makeup?
• Three things you can tell me about your mom: She loved her children. She wasn’t perfect. She died of cancer and I miss her every day.
• How did your senior prom go?: Since I wasn’t asked by the rock star or athlete, I didn’t go. I had high expectations. I watched a Knicks game with my dad that night.
• Last year you had a pretty awkward interview with Ken Griffey, Jr. When stuff like that happens, what’s running through your head?: I honestly couldn’t believe it was happening. I just tried to have faith he would come around. He was having a bad day. He felt really bad for how he acted and called me afterward to apologize.
• Five nicest athletes you’ve ever dealt with? Three nastiest?: Would rather pass on this. Most athletes are nice. The few nasty ones know who they are.
• Is it wrong to curse in front of my daughter if she’s 11 and finds it funny?: Haha. Pick your spots.