“No offense,” he said. “Not trying to insult you, but …”

As I stood on the sideline flipping back and forth between the three sheets I used to record stats during a high school football game last season, a coach looked over and started to ask what my opinion of a play was.

He saw that I seemed to be on top of things. But apparently he thought I only sort of knew what I was doing.

In fact, I did know what a fair catch was. Thanks for asking.

The exchange lasted just a few seconds, and I didn’t have time to worry about it in the moment. I was trying to pay attention to the rest of the play. The refs said the player didn’t call for a fair catch and let him return the kick despite the opposing team thinking the play was dead. I was worried about the total number of yards on the kick and the return, marking those down on my play-by-play sheet and updating the running tally I keep for each of those stats.

But more than a year later, I haven’t forgotten that short-lived interaction.

The coach wasn’t rude. More than anything, I think he probably was caught a little off guard seeing me rather than one of my male colleagues on the sideline. That’s fair, I suppose, since The News & Advance hadn’t employed a female sports reporter in more than a decade.

The problem wasn’t how I was treated in those moments. It was the mindset the coach had that, instead, is the issue.

There are plenty of examples of similar interactions between men or boys in sports and the women who cover them. I could give you more of my own, and surely my female colleagues can relate.

Perhaps the most recognized of examples came two years ago, when Jourdan Rodrigue asked Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton about his teammate, wideout Devin Funchess. When Rodrigue asked about how Funchess runs routes, Newton’s immediate response was a smirk and the phrase, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.”

Newton later apologized. The sentiment behind the off-handed remark remained, and is an example of the idea many men in sports have about female sports reporters.

For a story I worked on about women stepping into the broadcast booth for Minor League Baseball teams, the women said they’ve seen the “deep-seated” idea that women don’t belong in baseball — in the booth or the clubhouse — overshadow the fact that they’re doing their jobs just like anyone else.

The time has long since passed for such negative remarks and treatment to cease. But real change will come when the ingrained belief that stretches back decades — that women don’t have a place in sports, and particularly in male-dominated sports like football and baseball — is erased.

Of course, for the times I’ve been looked at skeptically simply because I’m a woman covering a football game, there are plenty of times I’ve seen the benefits of being a woman in the field.

Usually, the female athletes I’ve covered naturally feel comfortable around me. They’ll open up for stories and know I can appreciate their accomplishments.

Those experiences push the negative ones to the background.

I have hope, though, that women like me won’t need to simply drown out the mistreatment or sexist remarks. But that can only happen if seeing a woman on the sideline among a sea of football players isn’t a shock, if it’s understood that women belong there just as much as men. We have the knowledge, too.

Like the four female broadcasters making history in the Carolina League, I hope we can change the way people view women covering sports. It’s time we aren’t surprised to see a woman there, or that she knows what she’s talking about.

So don’t be surprised when I ask during a postgame interview about the play the team ran in transition to get an easy basket. Don’t be surprised when I ask about the counterattack and cross your opponent used to score on you.

And don’t be surprised when I do, in fact, know what a fair catch is.

Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529. 

Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.

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