Working as a woman in sports media is a bear, and while you no longer hear the athlete-exposing-himself-as-a-female-reporter-approaches-in-the-clubhouse stories of yesteryear, the Internet is overflowing with WHO’S THE HOTTEST CHICK IN JOURNALISM? lists and YouTube videos comparing everything from breast size to legs to lips to …
You get the idea.
To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I’ve used this space to try and support a good number of women colleagues, and it’s also why I have so much respect for today’s 319th Quaz Q&A.
Yes, Fox Sports’ Laura Okmin is one of the best (and most experienced) football sideline reporters in the business, and her two decades in sports media feature everything from Olympic Games and Super Bowls to NBA Playoffs and Atlanta Braves coverage. But what I dig most is that Okmin gives back to the industry. She is the founder and CEO of GALvanize, a business dedicated to teaching and training women who aspire to careers in media working before and behind the camera.
Today, Laura explains what it is to be a woman in sports journalism; why her mother’s cancer inspired a book; why she’d take Dolphins-Bills Week 7 over a Super Bowl; why she prefers Danny Manning to Jeff Daniels.
Laura Okmin, you are the 319th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Laura, so I just watched the HBO Real Sports segment on women in sports media, and I was mesmerized, saddened, embarrassed for the profession. And one thing that struck me was the reporter explaining how most of the women contacted for the piece refused to talk. Why do you think that is? And why did you?
LAURA OKMIN: I actually agonized over doing it for about a month. My fear—and so many other women’s—is you can either look like your ripping your boss … or other women. I know, for me, when I’m doing interviews about this topic, there are two dialogues going on—the one you’re having out loud and the one you’re having in your head. Should I say this? Will I offend anyone? Piss off my boss? To be honest, I still haven’t watched the piece because I’m sure I’ll wince at an answer I gave, or I’ll hate how something was edited. It’s such a sensitive topic, and, as a reporter I know there’s a risk at how the piece is edited. It’s scary to go on the record with something so personal and important to you and know it’ll be cut down for time or context. I struggled with that. But at the end, it was really simple: I have a company that teaches young women how to find their voice. How can I teach them if I don’t use mine? I thought it was hypocritical if I didn’t talk.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a blunt one at you: I was absolutely horrified when Pam Oliver was replaced by Erin Andrews. Horrified. And at the time I thought Andrews should have turned down the job in the name of decency, in the name of professionalism, in the name of taking a stand against the blatant age discrimination faced by women in sports media. Was I right or wrong?
L.O.: Sigh. I guess I’d say both. You were dead on with your reaction. I was horrified too—but Erin was also put in a horrible situation. It’s not about the women … it’s about the position they’re put in. It plays into every horrible stereotype and in cases, it creates one. Suddenly these two women are pitted against each other and that is so harmful to them and to all women. I’ve been in Pam’s shoes and it’s hard. It’s hard because you feel embarrassed, hurt and angry and I had to really challenge myself not to make it about “her versus me.” It’s not fair to compare me to a woman 15 years younger than me and it’s also not fair for her to be compared to someone who has two decades of experience on her. It’s unfair to both women. You find the value in both women. There’s room for both … and so much value in both.
J.P.: In 2003 you released a book, “Mommy Has Cancer,” in honor of your mom. I know no more than that—what inspired you to write the book? What can you tell me of your mom and her battle with the disease?
L.O.: You made my day with this question.
My mom passed away when I was in my early 20s—she was just 50—and her life and death have shaped everything about my life. During the year she was sick, I didn’t know anyone who had lost a parent and I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone because I knew how hard it was for people to listen. It made them have to think about the day they would inevitably be in my shoes. So I didn’t share what I was going through. I tried to find books to help but every book was about grieving a loss and I wanted to read about grieving while someone was still alive. There was nothing.
So I used to sit in the hospital chair next to my mom’s bed and think about how, if it’s this hard for someone at 23, what must it be like for a young child. I made a vow that eventually, when my heart would begin to heal, I would write that book. I wanted them to have something I didn’t. A voice that had been there. It took me about seven years to be able to open that wound and put pen to paper but I’m so proud of that book. I recently had a call with a sports information director at a university-about something sports related—and he ended the call by telling me his wife passed away years ago and he would read that book to his young daughter and how much she needed it. I can’t even find the words to say how much that meant to me.
J.P.: So I know you attended Kansas, know you worked for CNN, for TNT, spent time in Chicago, Montgomery, Chattanooga. But, soup to nuts, how did this happen for you? When did you know you wanted to do this? When did you realize you could succeed at it?
L.O.: I always knew I wanted to be a journalist—writing has always been my foundation and my passion. I didn’t know what that looked like until college when I fell in love with broadcasting. That was it for me. I knew I wanted to tell stories and there are no better stories to tell than sports.
I didn’t have a Plan B—even as I was consistently and continuously told how hard it would be for a woman. And it was (and still can be), but nobody said how amazingly rewarding it would be. You know that, Jeff. I still consider it such a privilege to be trusted to tell someone’s story. It’s an enormous weight to have that power … for someone to trust you with the most personal and valuable thing they have—their story. I think that responsibility I felt, and the preparation and time I put into each story along with the gratitude you get, well, it made me feel like I was doing it right and hopefully differently.
It’s funny, because I’m asked often about aging these days and I’ll tell you that when I turned 40 … that’s when I realized I’m good at this. I stopped hearing everybody else’s voices in my head and started listening to my own and finally, it was a confident, supportive voice. And that took a while. I think 40 was when I finally allowed myself to say, “Hey, you’re good at what you do.”
J.P.: The Real Sports segment showed you working with young women who aspire to be sports reporters. And one thing I found obvious—though it went unstated—was they were all extremely pretty. And I wonder, have unattractive women given up on doing televised sports? Do you get women who are short and overweight and maybe have a protruding cheek mole or a bad hairline? And do they have a shot in the current climate?
L.O.: I hear you, but you know what’s funny … most of those young women don’t even know they are attractive. We spend more time on confidence than anything—the on camera part is such a small part of GALvanize. You’ll be told for the rest of your career that you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re not that hot, you’re not that good—so they have to have their voice louder than everyone else’s and more positive than anyone else’s. I can tell you most of their voices aren’t there yet. Their voices are saying, “You’re not as pretty as her, as talented, as good” … and that’s what we work on. Empowering themselves—and each other. Because women supporting women in this business is magic.
But what bothers me more when I see certain bootcamps (not all) is a lack of diversity. We need storytellers in this industry, and they need to have backgrounds and stories as diverse as the people we cover. I want to see more women in this business—and a much more diverse group of women.
J.P.: You’ve worked more than 10 Super Bowls. I HATE covering big events. Hate, hate, hate. The crowd, the competition, the excessive hype. Give me Brewers-Reds on a Thursday in June any time. But what about you? And how does working a Super Bowl differ from, say, Jets-Colts Week 9?
L.O.: We are kindred spirits, my friend. When you’re young, the big events are the highlights (as they should be—you work hard to be there), but the older I get, the thing I most appreciate about a Super Bowl is catching up with old friends and peers you only see once a year. I’m all about building relationships, so I’ll take a great Week 9 conversation over fighting a crowd of people any day. I really do love a regular-season matchup as much as I love covering the post season. I’m still so in awe and in love with what I do. Cheesy, sure—but true.
J.P.: So last year I was at the gym watching Fox News on an exercise machine, and I just got really pissed. It was five people on a couch—Geraldo, and four women with preposterously short skirts. So I fired off a Tweet: “Serious question: do women on Fox News get extra money for dressing as hookers? Just embarrassing.” Well, I got slaughtered. And rightly so. And I felt awful, because I was actually trying to stand up for women in media, and it came off very wrong. Then, a few months later, one of the women filed a sexual harassment suit against the network and said she was forced to dress that way. And I guess, in a long and winding way, my question is—What are we men supposed to do to stand up for women in media? What should we be doing?
L.O.: I remember seeing that Tweet—and the ensuing firestorm. I really did understand what you were saying, but I also know your voice because I’ve always read your work. Men and women … women and men … Mars … Venus … it’s always layered, right?
Speaking for this woman, not all women, we want to be respected, period. I had a great male mentor once who told me he didn’t compare me to other women broadcasters—he compared me to other broadcasters. I’m not good for a woman … I’m good. And that was a huge thing for a young woman to hear. We want to be respected for being great writers, storytellers, producers, journalists, and we want to be criticized the same way.
I had a player tell me when there’s a scrum of reporters he looks to a woman first to start the questions but if she asks a bad one he’s done with her. I asked if he’s the same with men and he said, “No, I just think that he asked a stupid question.” I tell that to my women all the time—men ask stupid questions, but we’re stupid. We need to work twice as hard and leave little room for error. Challenge expected—and accepted.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
L.O.: Starting a production company, securing money from a corporate sponsor, creating producing, booking and hosting a TV show for two seasons. I had to learn how to negotiate commercial spots, airtime, budgets, navigate lawyers and a partnership while hiring a team. I didn’t know I had it in me—showed me how smart I was and completely shifted the way I looked at business and myself.
Lowest Moment: My best friend for more than 20 years was Stuart Scott. He passed away on January 4, 2015 in the very early hours of the morning. I got the call that he passed and then had to work a playoff game a few hours later. The only reason I worked was because the thought of getting on a plane and traveling across country by myself sounded even worse.
I spent the pre-game crying with Chuck Pagano, a cancer survivor, as well as players and peers who knew and loved him. I don’t remember anything about the game except for the moment of silence they held before kickoff. That moment was worth being there. Stuart would’ve been so touched by that. And he would’ve told me to get my ass to the game—because man, did he love football.
J.P.: We’re the same age, and I’m starting to struggle with this getting old thing. I mean, it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were on the rise, up and comers, etc—and now, it just seems like an ugly downhill fall is awaiting. How are you dealing with aging in media? Aging in life?
L.O.: Jeff, I finally embraced it. All of it. I thought having a company where I’m surrounded by young women would’ve made me feel so bad about myself, but it’s done the opposite. I love my girls but I wouldn’t do that age again for anything. I’ve never felt more confident, smarter, sexier or wiser. I don’t care what anyone else sees. I care how I feel. Don’t get me wrong, it took work to get to this place … but I can tell you my second act is so much better than my first. So my advice is to embrace it, my friend. It’s so much better that way.
J.P.: This is probably sort of trivial in comparison to other issues, but you were working as the sideline reporter of a Vikings-Bears game when Charles Tillman pulled you out of the way of an oncoming tractor-thingie. That small gesture seemed to mean something to you. Why? And what do you recall of it?
L.O.: Small things are big things. Peanut and I talk about that moment every single time we see each other. It’s our connector.
It was pouring rain, I had a hood over my head that created blind spots on both sides and I had ear pieces in both ears with the game turned way up so I could hear the game over the rain. I was following Peanut, who was injured, and while they were moving him behind the bench I was following him and couldn’t see anything but him. When you’re working sidelines, you can be viewed as such a nuisance (saying it in a nice way) because you’re eavesdropping and staring at guys at their toughest moments.
So when Peanut jumped up and grabbed me out of harm’s way, it was really appreciated. I’m sure some guys would’ve just been focused on their injury and the game, but it was so indicative of who Peanut is to be concerned with somebody else’s welfare. We had no idea it was caught on camera—and I hated that it was—but I also love that it shows who he is.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LAURA OKMIN:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Jay Cutler, Vanilla Almond Special K, hot chocolate, Jeff Daniels, Danny Manning, Doug DeCinces, Wake Forest, Hershey Kisses, Morganna the Kissing Bandit, Air Supply, piano recitals: Danny Manning (Duh. Rock Chalk), Vanilla Almond Special K, Jeff Daniels, Morganna the Kissing Bandit (love her quote: “I’m not a sex symbol. I’m a comedienne. I make folks smile. I make them laugh—and that makes my day. What are we here for, if not that?”), hot chocolate, Wake Forest, Air Supply, piano recitals, Jay Cutler, Doug DiCinces (more about the insider trading-not baseball!)
• Five all-time greatest football players you’ve ever covered: This is tough so I narrowed it down to who they are versus what they did—and how covering them meant something to me. Yes, my Chicago roots will be coming out: 1. Walter Payton—As a Chicago girl, this was a thrill every time I interviewed him); 2. My analyst for a show I hosted was the late Doug Buffone. One of the kindest people I’ve ever worked with and, again, a Chicago girl, so working alongside an old Chicago great was a pinch-me experience; 3. Peyton Manning—I learned so much about being a pro watching him. Not just on the field, but at practice, production meetings, interviews, his professionalism after losses. I always appreciated what a pro he was. He never took a day off from that; 4. Brian Urlacher—One of my favorite people I’ve ever covered and known. One of the most unaffected stars I’ve ever known. An outstanding teammate to anyone who’s played with him, coached him or had the pleasure of covering him. 5—And Peanut Tillman. Obviously. The man saved me from physical harm!
• We give you 30 carries for the New York Jets in their season opener, what’s your statistical line?: This is awesome. I had to ask my husband what he thought. Mike thinks I’d have one carry—and probably get some yards simply due to a stunned defense. But that’s all I’d last. However… he insists it’s because of my size, not because of toughness or heart.
• Five things you never leave home without?: 1. Appreciation for where I’m at in my life right now; 2 If he’s not leaving with me—a kiss and an “I love you” from Mike; 3. A prayer that I’ll be returning; 4. My mom and I had matching rings made with our initials that we always wore. I put mine on her when we buried her and I haven’t taken hers off in the 20 plus years she’s been gone; 5. A positive attitude. Sometimes that takes work but I try to make my heart my face.
• One question you would ask Hubie Brooks were he here right now: You played on five clubs in 15 years. That’s quite a journey. What was the most valuable insight/lesson you learned with each team?
• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $25 million a year to be her personal life reporter. You have to move to Las Vegas, work 360 days a year, shave off all your hair and change your middle name to RoseDawson. You in?: This is awesome. And easy. Nope. At a different time in my life…HELL YEAH!!! But right now I’m so into my own story, I wouldn’t put it on hold for anybody else’s-for any price.
• You’re gonna hate me for asking this—but what the fuck?: Buddy, you know I’m not answering this one.
• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?: Take the job seriously, not yourself. (Harder to do than I thought).
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Of all the planes I’ve been on and all the traveling I’ve done for 25 years, believe it or not, only once. I thought we were going down … and I didn’t care. It took that moment for me to realize how unhappy I was and how much I needed to change my life. We landed and my work began. It was one of the most important moments of my life. That was the genesis of my second act.
• The people at my gym never clean off the StairMaster after sweating all over it. Give me a creative idea how to get revenge: Oh my gosh—I will not help you exact revenge! I get it, it bothers me, too, and it’s totally rude, but I would tell you to remind yourself that if it’s the worst thing that happens to you that day—it’s going to be a great day. (But that being said, can you give me a creative way to tell someone to stop cracking their gum on a plane? Ugh.)