Documentary

Women in sports are not unicorns

Women in sports are not unicorns

When people — and by people I mean both men and women— find out what I do for a living, it’s always the same response and question, “That’s cool! So you’re on TV?! Why sports broadcasting … do you like sports?” 

Now, the inner smartass in me wants to say, “No, I hate sports. I just think pro athletes are hot and rich and famous, and I just want to sleep with them and hang out in locker rooms!” Because unfortunately, that is exactly what many men (and even some women) think. 

But instead, I give the standard explanation: I played college basketball. My parents were both athletes and coaches and PE teachers so I literally grew up on the baseball field and in the gym, playing every sport I could. 

But since I can’t play competitively anymore, I decided covering sports was the next best thing … so here I am.

It’s a conversation that seems harmless, and I really don’t mind sharing my story. In fact, I’m very proud of my athletic career and upbringing, because I truly love sports and it’s a big part of who I am.

But does anyone ever ask a man in sports broadcasting, “Why did you pick that profession … do you like sports?” I would guess that has possibly never been asked of a man, at least the latter part. Because for some reason if you were born with a penis, you automatically know how to play sports and can understand sports. And when a man gets on TV and talks about the Warriors' win over the Cavaliers and Stephen Curry’s big night, he is automatically considered qualified and knowledgeable. 

I mean, does anyone ever think to ask a man who covers the NBA, did you actually play basketball? We women get that question all the time. I love it when guys say, “What do you know about football, you never played it!” Which is true — but do you know how many men cover the NFL who never played the game either? 

If we’re comparing resumes, I would venture to say that most of my male counterparts don’t have athletic careers that rival mine. Did they play Division I sports on a full scholarship? Were they four-year starters and all-conference selections? Did they set scoring records and get inducted into their University’s Sports Halls of Fame? 

I did. 

But I don’t hand out my resume when I go to work just so that I can have the same respect as the men around me.

Once I actually had an MLB team executive tell me that he Googled my name when I started covering the team and was impressed to read about my basketball career! It was like he looked at me in a totally different way. I suddenly had his respect. And yet strangely, I kinda liked the fact that he looked me up, so at least he knew I had the credentials to be there. 

But unfortunately, that is most often the case when you first start covering a team. The front office, coaches and athletes are quick to judge you based on the very first question you ask … you can almost hear them thinking, “Oh boy, let’s see if this woman knows what she’s talking about.”

When I talk to young women who want to get into this business today, my first piece of advice is to always know what you’re talking about and be prepared to back it up. I tell them to do their homework and be more prepared than the men around them, because every time you open your mouth, you will be judged. And the one time you mess up, mispronounce a name, get a stat wrong, it will be because you are a woman and just a cute skirt who doesn’t know sports. 

That’s our reality in this so-called man’s world. 

And I gladly accept the challenge … because unlike many of my male counterparts, I am a retired athlete who still needs to fuel my competitive fire. So bring it on. I love proving people wrong and showing I can “hang with the boys.” I don’t even mind when I get that response from a guy at the bar who looks at me and says shockingly, “Wow, you really know your sports. You’re like every guy’s dream girl!” Yet another comment I’m sure my male counterparts don’t hear on a daily basis. 

But I laugh. It’s funny and sort of a back-handed compliment. I get it, it’s not every day you hear a woman talking about a cover two defense over sushi!

But we are not unicorns, we do exist. 

Of course, when I’m not behind the mic, I still really enjoy playing pickup ball and embarrassing dudes on the court, because they immediately assume that I can’t play. 

Or playing in a golf charity event and having guys stare in amazement at my long drive right down the fairway, because you know girls aren’t supposed to be able to hit a golf ball … or throw a baseball … or make it rain like the Splash Brothers … or talk a good game! After all, we’re missing that important piece of anatomy. 

Oh and for the record, when we do have to go into the locker room to DO OUR JOBS, we aren’t trying to check anyone out!

Only a man would do that.

Jillian Mele: 'If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it'

Jillian Mele: 'If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it'

"Who did you sleep with to get this job?"

That was said to my face by a former co-worker at the start of our first day working together.  I was new at the station, young and excited to prove myself, and I knew it would be a long day. I had this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and I was fighting back tears, but the last thing I wanted to show was weakness. I knew I had to be strong -- for me.

I was a professional that day and we ended up doing a great story together, but the emotion was still reeling inside of me. We got in the news vehicle to drive an hour and a half back to the station and that same person said, "Wow. I thought you were just another blonde who didn't know her ass from her face but you actually know what you're doing. You are good." Was that supposed to be a compliment? Whatever it was supposed to be, I used it as fuel. I had a passion for this business ever since my internship at CSN years prior to this experience, and I wasn't going to let anyone get in my way.

I've spent time in both hard news and sports and as I transitioned into sports full time, one of the biggest challenges I found is having a professional relationship with athletes -- it's a delicate thing to do. More often than I would like to tell you, married athletes have asked me out, while other athletes have asked me to send them photos over the internet. Social media makes accessing people extremely easy, and I have sent countless messages over the years saying basically the same thing: "Thank you, I am flattered, but I am seeing someone," even if I was single. As a young intern in this business 12 years ago, I never knew how hard it would be to manage those relationships, but more than that, manage how it makes me feel.

As I've grown in the world of TV, the comments have started to roll in fast and furious, and the popularity of social media has certainly been a factor. People feel the constant need to comment on everything from my body to my clothes, my hair, my shoes, my teeth (yes, my teeth) and my opinions. People tell me exactly what they think, good or bad, and most of the time I like the fact that people are honest; it keeps me in check and makes me realize the impact I have on their lives. At the end of the day, I am a person with feelings just like you, so when someone tells me on Twitter that I should be fired from my job because I am awful, I'll be honest, it stings. I work endless hours when needed, I ask really tough questions because it is necessary, and I handle criticism because let's face it, for every bad comment there are about 20 good ones that truly mean something.

I love when parents tell me that I am a role model for their daughter, helping her see that she can do anything she wants, even in a male dominated industry like sports. To me, that is everything and makes it all worth it. I want to be a strong role model and continue to pave the way for women in sports, as other women have done before me.

Someone once asked who my daddy knew because I could not possibly have gotten a job in TV on my own. I was told I didn’t deserve it. I proudly told that person that my dad has a salvage yard and my mom is a nurse and they have supported me every step of the way on this journey but this, I did this on my own. My favorite quote puts it in perspective and has gotten me through many tough times as it will continue to do for years to come:

"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great." -- A League of Their Own.

How Billie Jean King made me realize my dream

How Billie Jean King made me realize my dream

As the Booking Producer for Comcast Sportsnet for the last 8 years, I’ve had the pleasure of booking and interviewing some of the sports world’s biggest names on both a local and national level. Despite my own feelings of excitement to meet certain athletes, I still have to maintain a level of professionalism in those moments.  

Over the last eight years, there was one major exception: when I met a living legend, Billie Jean King. Now I’m a little young to remember Billie Jean King as the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world -- I wasn’t even alive yet! But when I got my first job at CSN, my mom gave me an autographed BJK ball for my desk and said, "If it wasn’t for her, you probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to choose this career path."

I keep the ball on my desk as a reminder of that moment with my mother, and as a reminder that as a women working in sports, I would always have to work just a little bit harder to earn the respect of my colleagues. So when Billie Jean King came in, I was so excited to show her the ball and tell her my story. She was immediately touched by it, agreed to take a picture with me and the ball to send to my mom. I was blown away by her kindness and enthusiasm and it was a moment I knew I would never forget. But what I didn’t know was the biggest moment was yet to come.  

After she completed the interview, I walked her to the door, thanked her and said goodbye. As she walked out she stopped, turned around and said "Hey Rachel, what is your dream?" 

I froze.

I completely panicked.  

I didn’t know what to say.  

I managed to muster out, "I’m not really sure." 

This answer was not sufficient for one of the greatest female pioneers to ever live. She gave me the death stare. She looked at me sternly and said, "You better have a better answer than that next time I see you." 

Then she added, "Aim high. There are no female decision makers in sports and we need more of them." 

As I walked back to my desk, I was so frustrated with myself. Did I really just tell Billie Jean King that I didn’t know what my dream was? This woman who is a pioneer for women’s rights and equality that fought for women like me to have the opportunities that I do, and I said I don’t know?! I began to think, do I know what my dream is? Do I have a dream? It was after that moment that I knew I had to figure this out.  

Over the next few years, this moment never left my head. There have been many ups and downs in my life, but I can proudly say now that I finally have an answer for you, Billie Jean. 

I’m living my dream. 

Growing up, I was never all that good at sports but was drawn to the thrill of competition. There aren’t many 10-year-old girls attending football games with their dads or spending their Sundays on the couch glued to every NFL game or watching Sunday Night Football in her college apartment while her roommates are watching the newest episode of Sex and The City.  

The "Tomboy" in me was drawn to this male-dominated world and if I couldn’t compete myself, I was going to find another way. I landed at CSN, in a job that I love. Everyday I live Philly sports and am surrounded by people that live it too. I’ve had to work extremely hard to prove myself and earn the respect of my male colleagues, and I’ve done it. 

On a personal level, I’m a mom to the most beautiful baby boy. I have a husband who supports me and holds down the fort at home when I have to work the non-traditional hours that the sports world demands. Being a working mom means having two full-time jobs, and while I’m far from perfect, I navigate the demands of those commitments daily and try to be the best that I can be at both. But I’m not done yet; there are still things I want to accomplish at both the personal and professional level. You said we need more decision-makers, and that’s my next goal. 

Thank you for putting me on the spot, Billie Jean. Without it, I’m not sure I would be where I am today. Thank you for inspiring women like me to work for their dream, to realize when they’re living it, and to never give up. For that, I am forever grateful.