CSN TOMBOY

TOMBOY: Timing is a beautiful thing

TOMBOY: Timing is a beautiful thing

BY MOLLY SULLIVAN, CSN PHILLY

“I’d like to invite you to take part in a project called TOMBOY… CSN will present a unique look at the challenges girls and women face in sports in the documentary.”

Five minutes before I received the email message above, Adam on Twitter apologized for calling my then 7-month-old daughter, Isabella, a boy after viewing a photo of Joel Embiid holding her. I replied: “No harm, no foul ... Isabella is a tomboy just like her mom.” Timing: It’s a beautiful thing. 

“A multiplatform project ... our talent will write blogs about their experiences as women in sports.”

That was the direction I received for this, my very first blog post.

Here’s the thing: My entire life has revolved around sports, so I called an audible. I decided to roll with the path that led me to Philly, reflecting on the power of hard work, staying true to oneself, surrounding yourself with good people, continuously learning, playing nice and dreaming big. My mom is the strongest, smartest and most beautiful woman I know, and now as a new mom myself, I hope my own daughter will grow up knowing the value of a life that includes participating in sports and learning its lifelong lessons.

“We’ll produce podcasts with each of our female talent and a guest who’s had a prominent impact on her life.”

RELATED: BEING THE BOY MY DAD NEVER HAD

Onward to introspection and the next part of the TOMBOY project. I caught up with fellow swimmer Summer Sanders. Beginning in seventh grade, I became a fan of NBA Inside Stuff and could hardly wait for Saturday mornings after swim team practice in Las Vegas so that I would be "in the know" about everything basketball. Summer hosted the show for eight years with Ahmad Rashad. I remember thinking that she had the best job ever — always smiling, having fun, talking hoops. 

In my world, Summer was the epitome of class and cool. She connected with people in a way that helped me fall in love with the art of storytelling. Summer was often the only girl on the show, and it was evident that all of the coaches, players, front office and people within the Association clearly respected her. Looking back, I now realize why that was normal to me. I, too, am an athlete — training with the boys throughout my career as a distance swimmer was a key to my success and prepared me for my current life’s work. 

The NBA is my first love. But it took me a few years to find my niche.

For 14 years, I swam competitively. I chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over UCLA because, well, for starters, the Dean Dome is connected to the pool and on my recruiting trip they took me to a Carolina basketball game. (OK, there was a little more to my decision, but that certainly helped show I was born to be a Tar Heel.)

With wet hair and wide eyes, I would watch the TV broadcasters prepare for every UNC home game, and to help with the transition after graduation, my coach introduced me to UNC alumni that were leaders in the field of sports broadcasting. I can recall one such conversation with my coach where I shared with him that I felt in one of the alumni meetings this particular alum was bothered by my approach, to which he responded, “She thinks you want her job.” Truth was, I did, but there’s enough room for both of us, right? In my mind, we were still on the same team, not only because of our Carolina connection but also as women in sports.

That’s when my mom told me, “Remember this moment and how she made you feel. You'll be in her position one day with the ability to pay it forward.” Every time someone (male or female) asks for help or feedback, I always think back to how disappointed I was with that interaction and, to this day, I never let competition get in the way of doing what’s right.

Because I was on a full-ride athletic scholarship, my focus was on time spent in the pool, leaving very few discretionary hours for a broadcasting internship until my four years of eligibility were met. Following that internship at the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, my first paying job out of college was actually a double. From 9 to 5, I was a publicist for a public relations company specializing in the hotel-casino industry, where I learned the other side of reporting with a focus on writing and effective communication from a media perspective. 

At 5 p.m., I would book it to my second job as a news production assistant, where I edited packages, ran audio, wrote scripts and field produced for nightly newscasts. Those 15-hour days launched me into a producer gig until my reporter missed an assignment and the “suits” told me to step in. Yes, my first on-air gig happened because I was the only one at the shoot. Lesson: Always be prepared. I was moved from reporting on a weekly segment to hosting and producing my own weekly show, which eventually led to hosting my own daily half-hour show. In my spare time, I even wrote and published a book.

My hometown of Las Vegas is one of the few cities where sports and entertainment are intertwined, so while my first year in front of the camera was as an entertainment reporter, I often found myself covering the sporting events that were in town — such as the NBA Summer League. I can hear you: This was my shot! Not exactly. 

While I have tape of me interviewing LeBron James in 2008, I wasn’t being true to myself with long platinum blonde hair and questionable wardrobe choices while trying to emulate the professionalism of Doris Burke. I found that it was important to return to the kid that grew up watching the NBA with her parents, was obsessed with Jordan and Bird and would practice sideline reports during commercials while craving feedback from my father. Many times it would be a walk-and-talk interview at the half as I followed him as he went to the kitchen to get food. It was during this time when I watched my father mute several (unnamed) sideline reporters. To this day, I work hard so viewers don’t hit the mute button. Seriously.  

Thankfully, in the fall of 2007, I found a way to return to my athletic roots as a sideline and field reporter for college football and college basketball for a regional sports network that was owned by Comcast.

There weren't a lot of eyes on our game broadcasts, which allowed me to really cut my teeth and hone my craft. In fact, there wasn't a budget for a basketball sideline reporter, so I worked games for gratis and for the experience with an eye on my goal of reporting for the NBA. It was a natural transition, from entertainment to sports, as it felt like I was home. 

Just a few months into my new job, Playboy included me in their editorial roundup of the “sexiest sportscasters.” It was a simple poll that apparently turned a few heads. With comments from colleagues, viewers and even some players, I shrugged it off saying I was in great company (which I truly was). Keep in mind, I had only a few reps on the sideline at this point. Trust had been formed through my demonstration of professional work and through the professional relationships I maintained. And because of that, people moved back inside the lines and forgot that someone once thought I was just hot. A good early test. I still hope they don’t press mute.

With several high-profile job interviews that followed, the theme remained the same. I wasn't ready. My words, not theirs. But, if the phone rings early in your sports broadcasting career, how do you not answer? Perhaps they saw something in me that had yet to be tapped. However, this is the part where being a woman in sports came into play. From one network executive telling me that they wouldn’t hire me with blonde hair (to be fair — it wasn’t a good look) and another at the national level asking me to wear something “charming,” there was one job interview that really cut deep, questioning if I would date athletes or anyone associated with the team(s) that I covered.  

For what it’s worth, I set them all straight. I could have probably written the entire TOMBOY post on this topic, but I chose a different approach. Were those challenging situations? You bet, at the time. But it’s just not in my DNA to write a blog devoted to how hard women in sports have it. I like to think I’ve made the most of every challenging situation that has crossed my path. I’ve taken pride in doing things the right way while appreciating the women who helped by paving the way for my next generation.  

And because I’ve been on the other side at an elite-athlete level, there is a level of respect that I’ve experienced from the players and the coaches based on my ability to read a situation and respond as an athlete and in a way that other reporters perhaps could not. Bottom line: Be yourself, fight for what’s right and you will land where you are meant to be. 

RELATED: IMPORTANCE OF DIRECT COMMUNICATION

April 18, 2012: Philly called.

And just like my first on-air gig, I wasn't CSN’s first choice. Opportunity knocked when their first choice was in a mountain bike accident and unable to accept the assignment. (She ultimately recovered from her accident.) I had three days notice to prepare and to show up ready for the Sixers-Pacers game. I started to panic, thinking about how I had fumbled at various job interviews. It had been my dream job since the beginning of dreaming, reporting in the NBA, and I didn’t want to squander my opportunity. I remember trying to make excuses to my agent as I was in full-blown “Irish exit” mode. This was my big shot. My father pulled me aside and he started digging through a box filled with newspaper and magazine clippings from my days as a swimmer — photos, videos, everything but the water from the pools where I had competed. My father said, “You’re ready.” He was right. Everything that I had experienced led me to that moment. 

I’m writing this on the Sixers' flight to Milwaukee as the only girl traveling with the team. From Day 1, it was important to me that I earn respect from the organization. I felt I could best do that by working hard. They trust me. And that means everything. Whether it’s the Sixers or their opponent, it’s important in my role to establish who you are from the jump. For me, it’s the fact that I know the game and they know I’m here to help tell their story. I have cultivated an unspoken understanding that whether I’m tracking a player down on the court after a shootaround or reporting from the locker room after a game, both the players and I have a job to do on behalf of the fans.

Shortly after HBO's Real Sports ran a women-in-sports television piece, I had a mini-debate on Twitter with a self-described feminist. She questioned why I was “sticking up” for a colleague that was featured in the special. Why? Because she is really good at her job. It’s the same reason I didn’t focus on the very few negative experiences along my 10-year journey as a sports reporter. Because then, they win. I would rather share my story and hope that it might inspire someone out there in the same way that Summer Sanders and Doris Burke helped to inspire me. 

Perhaps it would be helpful to readers for me to address my thoughts about social media. During the 2014 NBA playoffs, I worked for TNT and NBA TV. That was my “welcome to social media” moment, even though I had been in the league for three years. All eyes were on the Hawks-Pacers series. I generally don’t take myself too seriously but I take my job extremely seriously. If a viewer doesn’t like the clothes I have chosen, that’s on them and I’m moving on to my next assignment. Other times, there can be a little more substance in the message. To be honest, I do internalize and embrace most feedback. I enjoy that side of the job. It brings me back to my years as a competitive swimmer always looking to tweak my performance to show improvement. Like everyone who engages social media, I’ve come across some beauts on Twitter. The birth of my daughter has opened my eyes to what matters most in life. 

Being a mom is No. 1 and my job is 1a.

Reporting on my first love and for the city I love.

I have also learned that you're only as good as your teammates, and I have found the best teammates in the NBA.

My goal is to show my daughter and all little girls what it takes to be a strong woman in a man’s game.  

TOMBOY: Why should the girls be treated any differently than the boys?

TOMBOY: Why should the girls be treated any differently than the boys?

 BY ABBY CHIN, CSN NEW ENGLAND

I grew up playing sports.

For the most part I played soccer, but I also ran cross-country and track. I skied, snowboarded, and, at one point, I tried gymnastics. (It wasn't pretty.) My two younger sisters did the same. Our parents ran themselves ragged driving us to practices and tournaments, arranging carpools and fundraisers.

It never crossed our minds that we were girls playing sports. It's just what we did. And we loved it!

CSN TOMBOY: A Q&A WITH CSN CHICAGO'S SIERA SANTOS

I didn't realize how lucky I was until visiting my grandparents in rural Ohio one summer. I found an old photo of their high school graduating class. I asked my grandmother what sports she played in school and I'll never forget her answer: "Oh, there were no sports for girls back then. We could cheer for the boys basketball team, but that was it."

I was shocked. I thought that was ridiculous. Why would the girls be treated any differently than the boys?

I couldn't comprehend it.

Looking back, I'm so thankful I grew up in a time and environment where that wasn't the case. I can't imagine my life without sports. Not only because it's what I do for a living, but because playing sports throughout my childhood is a big part of what made me the person I am today.

Sports taught me the value of hard work. Being part of a team, I learned how to communicate and work with people to accomplish a common goal . . . and discovered just how gratifying the process can be.

I became a teammate and leader who earned respect and empowered others. I made lasting friendships while stuffed like a sardine in a travel van singing Ace of Base at the top of my lungs. I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything. And I certainly wouldn't be in the position I'm in without them.

CSN TOMBOY: THE IMPORTANCE OF TITLE IX

Don't get me wrong; it hasn't all been positive. Now that I'm a woman working in sports, I've had other kinds of eye-opening moments. During an interview for my first on-air job I was asked, in so many words, if this is really a career for me or if I had other plans after I found a husband.

Once I did land a job, I covered many college football games by myself. There was one small school in particular whose players relentlessly catcalled me on the sidelines.

I won't repeat the foul things they said, but I can tell you I went home feeling very dirty (and it wasn't because I was pouring sweat after lugging a camera that weighed half as much as I did from end zone to end zone in the middle of an Alabama summer). Even now, every so often, social media has a special way of reminding me how some people still view women in sports.

Surprise -- it's not good.

But if that's the worst I have to go through, I know I can't complain.

My only focus is doing my job to the very best of my abilities and working as hard as I possibly can to continue to grow and get better. We've come a long way. I'm so grateful for those who blazed the trail and made it possible for me to do what I do. And, thanks to my grandmother, I will never take my opportunities for granted. My hope is that when my daughter grows up, she will be just as surprised and appalled by some of my bad experiences as I was talking to my grandmother that day.

TOMBOY: Trenni Kusneirek and the power of language

TOMBOY: Trenni Kusneirek and the power of language

March is Women's history month and CSN is working to elevate the discussion of gender in sports. The world premiere of CSN TOMBOY takes place on Sunday, March 5 at 7:30 p.m. on CSN Mid-Atlantic, following by a live discussion panel. 

BY TRENNI KUSNIEREK, CSN NEW ENGLAND

The first time I held my niece I was overcome by love.

It was the kind of love I never realized was possible. This tiny, perfect, half-asleep little girl grabbed my heart in a way that flooded me with emotion.

One of the biggest pulls: Protection. 

As my niece grew, she evolved into a beautiful little girl. She's the kind of child who prompts strangers to stop on the street and remark on her piercing blue eyes, her infectious smile, her ebullient personality. “You are such a pretty little girl,” they would say. 

While it made me smile, their observations also made me cringe. My niece was barely a toddler, yet I was terrified she would grow up believing her greatest attribute would be something mostly out of her control -- how attractive others perceived her to be. 

It was in that moment I knew I had to change the way I spoke about women and girls while also fighting to make sure others saw the importance of doing the same. 

CSN TOMBOY: A Q&A WITH CSN CHICAGO'S SIERA SANTOS

“They're just words,”people will say. 

“Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.”

Except . . . words do hurt. They're more than just a compilation of letters and punctuation. 

Webster’s Dictionary provides a number of definitions for “word” but one stands out. Definition 2 a (1) states: a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use. 

Communicates a meaning. 

Translation: Words do matter because they carry the weight of meaning.

As my niece grew, so did my linguistic awareness.

If she wore a cute outfit or had her hair styled a certain way, of course I would give her a compliment. However, I made it my mission to ensure our time together was focused on reading, playing, engaging kindly with others and standing tall for herself.

When she did something well, I was careful to be specific with my praise using words and phrases that endorsed qualities like strength, intelligence and understanding. 

I desperately wanted this growing little girl to know she could be and do anything.

CSN TOMBOY: JUST BEING ONE OF THE BOYS

Sally. Pink Hat. Throwing like a girl. Playing in a skirt. 

How often do we still hear these terms used to describe deficiencies in male athletes or fans who lack knowledge? 

On the surface, these phrases seem harmless. At the core, they perpetuate stereotypes that women are weak and inferior to our male counterparts. 

Trust me, I fall into the trap of using demeaning language. For example, describing an upset athlete as “whining like a little girl” has been ingrained in most of us for decades. But nothing is permanent. 

We can change attitudes and perceptions with a slight shift in how we speak. 

Do we need to call a guy a “Sally” or say a team “might as well have worn skirts”? Why not be a little more creative and use our words wisely? If an athlete doesn’t play well, why not explain their performance as “poor, sad, unacceptable, dreadful, atrocious, awful, garbage, shaky, anemic, powerless, weak, etc . . . ” Shall I go on? 

Do we have to describe inept fans as “pink hats” or could we simply call them . . . inept? How about ill-informed, bumbling, or incompetent? 

The reality is, there is a term for when we use female adjectives to relay a message of weakness: Lazy. 

CSN TOMBOY: THE IMPORTANCE OF TITLE IX

Five years after the birth of my niece, my sister delivered a bouncing baby boy. Any fears I had about my ability to love them both equally was swept away the first time I held his tiny, perfect, half-asleep little boy in my arms. I was once again overcome by a love I never thought possible. 

It was also the first time I realized the way I convey messages leaves an impression not just on the women in my life, but also the men. 

When we criticize men for showing emotion, or belittle them for falling short, the message we send is that males need to show perpetual strength while avoiding feelings. This only works to drive home the idea that women are to act one way, men another.

If you've ever been around children, you know that while they tend to gravitate towards certain toys and activities, it's often because those are the only choices they see or hear. I’d like to think that by displaying a multitude of options to my niece and nephew, they're perceiving the possibility of a world without limits based on gender. 

Women are not inherently weak, men are not automatically strong. Women are not born inferior, men do not emerge into this world superior. Women are not all followers just as all men are not leaders. We're each capable of what we believe is possible.

So let’s stop talking as though the only truths are those which we’ve spoken in the past.