Black Women in Sports Media Are Winning on Their Own Terms

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I don’t think women of colour ever get used to feeling like an “other” in majority white spaces. The act of walking into a room full of people who don’t look like you will always be unsettling. It’s an experience you’d think would be extinct by now, but it’s pervasive in nearly every corporate job in America.

As you glance across office conference rooms, briefly making eye contact with coworkers of different hair texture, vocabulary, and life experiences than you, your posture gets straighter, your palms sweatier, and your game face is on. The spotlight, it seems, is pointed directly at you.

Black women sports reporters know this feeling better than anyone. Only, the room they walk into is much larger than the average conference room – it’s a stadium or an arena filled with tens of thousands of fans. And the spotlight they face is a literal one with much higher wattage.

To give you an idea of how skewed the representation is in sports media, 77.1 percent of reporters in the industry are white (66.0 percent male, 11.1 percent female), according to the 2021 Sports Media Racial and Gender Report Card from the Associated Press Sports Editors. What’s more, while Black men held 10.7 percent of reporter positions, Black women held just 1.1 percent.

That hasn’t stopped Black women from becoming household names as sports reporters in America. There’s Jayne Kennedy and Jemele Hill, Robin Roberts and Cari Champion. But it’s hard not to ask yourself how they do it – how they find success in an industry that contains so few people who look like them. So, I spoke to two of the industry’s rising stars, Arielle Chambers and Kirsten Watson, and asked how they’ve managed to chart their own path. Their stories are, of course, unique. But our conversations showed me that these trailblazers tend to fall into one of two camps. There are those who forcefully carve a place for themselves within the systems that already exist; and those who create an entirely new lane of their own.

Kirsten Watson loves a challenge. The 29-year-old reporter has covered some of the biggest sports teams in Los Angeles (and at the same time) — including the Lakers, the Sparks, the Dodgers, and the Rams. Within the first five minutes of talking to her, I can tell it’s Watson’s determination that’s kept her coming back, nudging herself into industry crevices that weren’t designed for her to fit.

Image Source: Sue Jo/Dodgers

Her most recent role as a reporter and host for the LA Dodgers is a prime example of this. Black female baseball reporters are far and few in between. And the MLB fan base is reportedly 60 percent white and majority male. The player’s roster isn’t much more diverse. “When I get to the ballpark, I do look around, and more often than not, I am the only Black woman in my space covering a team,” Watson says.

“”I had to tell myself that I belong, and I’m supposed to be exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

At first, she let that disparity get to her. “I felt like I had to make myself digestible to a white male,” she says. She became hyper aware of the way she spoke, more mindful of how loud or excitable she was during athlete interviews, and intentional about how she styled her hair and makeup. “It was really hard for me to find who I am and who I was on TV,” Watson says. But over time, she began to find her groove, refusing to let her environment dictate her integrity. “It got to the point where I was like, I can’t do that. I have to be myself,” Watson says. “I had to tell myself that I belong, and I’m supposed to be exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

It didn’t help, though, that she was also learning the job on the fly, hosting game days for a sport that she’d never reported on before. She wasn’t surprised when comments about her experience came flooding in on social media when she first started. “I’ve been told I was a diversity hire,” and “that I should not be here,” Watson says. Fans have suggested that the only reason she got the job is because the team has partly Black ownership and a Black manager, she adds. But her talent speaks for itself. Watching Watson interview players is like watching a tennis match, as she volleys the questions back and forth, already anticipating their next answer, prepped with a follow up question they didn’t see coming, sometimes forcing them into vulnerable positions so that she can get the W — which in sports journalism translates to a good sound bite and respect from the players.

Image Source: Kirsten Watson

The truth is, Watson has been working toward this career since she was a kid. Her grandfather was a former president at HBCU Florida A&M University. She regularly watched him walk out into a stadium of 25,000 people, surrounded by the excitement of the crowd, the players, and the band to lead the school in their fight song. Far from feeling intimidated or afraid of the pressure of a crowd, “I’d always want to go out on the field with him,” Watson tells POPSUGAR. “I think that’s kind of where it began.”

Her family also immersed her in sports at an early age. She played basketball, was on the swim team, and did gymnastics. But her main priority became volleyball; she played all the way through college as a D-1 athlete at Columbia University.

When it came time to choose between playing volleyball professionally or exploring other career opportunities, Watson says the choice was easy. She’d long admired the careers of reporters like Claire Smith, Samantha Ponder, and Maria Taylor, using their success as a blueprint for her own life. So she stayed at Columbia and got her masters in journalism, becoming the first female recipient of the ESPN and NABJ Stuart Scott Scholarship. Then, she landed a job at NFL International and went on to dominate the big three sports markets in Los Angeles.

“As a woman of colour, our margin for error is very small,” Watson says. But she hopes that in casting her net far and wide and gaining experience across different sports that she’s paving a path that other Black kids will be able to walk in the future; that her example might give them the freedom to explore what they’re good at within the industry. “That means the world, because I did what I was supposed to do,” Watson says. “I continued to help create a space in which we have more opportunities.”

Arielle Chambers is on a similar mission. Like Watson, Chambers was a multi-hyphenate athlete from a young age, juggling gymnastics, swimming, Taekwondo (she’s a first degree black belt), and cheerleading. She grew up in Raleigh, in close proximity to North Carolina State University. “I fell in love with women’s basketball there,” Chambers tells POPSUGAR. In fact, Chambers quit cheerleading in high school to become the basketball team manager. Travelling with the team allowed Chambers to solidify connections with prospective professional athletes – the kind that help build a career. One of the players on her team happened to be Lakevia Boykin, who went on to play for the AAU team, Carolina Flames (then called the Garner Flames) and is now the women’s basketball coach at Rice University.

After high school, Chambers went back to cheerleading, joining the NC State team. She graduated with a degree in communications and went pro, cheering for teams like the Knicks, the Rangers and the New York Liberty. Along the way, Chambers had continued forming strong relationships with fellow athletes, many of whom also went pro in their own sports. And those relationships, more so than any formal training, became the seeds that ultimately grew into her future career. “When I went on to cheer pro, I noticed that a lot of [my athlete friends’] stories weren’t being told,” Chambers tells POPSUGAR.

Image Source: Kevin Jude

“I didn’t work for a station. I just knew that your phone was capable of recording video and I knew that I was capable of getting the talent.”

Chambers was tired of the way traditional media was telling Black stories. It seemed to always come from a place of “trauma porn,” she says. “Like we have to justify black excellence because they’re coming from a struggle.” Her goal was to give a more human perspective of Black female athletes. So, she picked up her phone and started recording. “I didn’t work for a station. I just knew that your phone was capable of recording video and I knew that I was capable of getting the talent,” the now-30-year-old says.

At games, she’d effortlessly snag sideline and post-game interviews with players she’d known since they were kids, connecting with them in ways that reporters from major networks couldn’t. She’d post the content to Twitter, and through her exceptional grassroots coverage, independent reporting, exclusive quotes and easy banter with athletes, and her passionate coverage of undeserved leagues, she eventually built a name for herself as a champion of women’s sports.

Image Source: Getty Images/Meg Oliphant

In 2017, she coined the viral phrase “THE WNBA IS SO IMPORTANT.” And since launching her own career, Chambers has been an on-screen personality for the WNBA, NBA, and NHL. But her most prized accomplishment is HighlightHER. When Doug Bernstein, the General Manger of Bleacher Report, asked Chambers if she would build out their women’s sports platform, she had one request: “I just want the trust to do it my way,” she says. Bernstein granted her that, and it’s a bet that paid off many times over. Since, 2019 HighlightHER has amassed over 192,000 followers, but it feels like a group chat with your close friends where you share memes, post career and life updates, and celebrate each other’s successes. It’s an intentional vibe set by Chambers, who runs the platform individually. “I want everybody to be able to look on the page and identify with somebody,” she says.

But Chambers herself hasn’t always felt at home within the industry. “Being a Black woman in itself is a rebellion. Our existence rubs people the wrong way, especially us occupying space in a loud way,” she says. Before launching HighligherHER, the journalist says that people in the industry weren’t eager to work with her. “I’ve only heard no until now,” she says. When interviewing for jobs at other networks she’s been told that she’s too much, not the right fit, or that they don’t like her delivery. And she’s been asked repeatedly, “why would you want to invest in women’s sports anyway?” But that hasn’t stopped Chambers. “All those no’s helped shape my relentlessness,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to wear my curls and my bamboo earrings on Turner Sports and deliver a message. It’s my responsibility to using AAVE during interviews because I can.” These choices may seem inconsequential to the average person, but when athletes see Chambers on the job being herself they feel empowered to do the same. “Every time I have a player say ‘thank you for hearing me’ or ‘you’re just so easy to talk to you’, that’s a career moment for me,” she says.

Chambers is excited about the future of Black journalists in sports media. Despite the hurdles, both she and Watson have managed to stake their claim. “There are times where it feels that this industry is not made for us. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be a part of it,” Watson says. “We are the movement, we are the culture, we are the thing that’s going to make it shake,” Chambers says. “To be a Black sports journalist, it’s the responsibility to keep pushing society forward.”

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