A barrier-breaking generation gives context to contemporary female life.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rugby & Equity: How I Became a Sportswriter

[reposted from 2004]
It’s probably rare that a person can pinpoint the moment that set their life’s work on its unique course, but I happen to know that moment, can still feel it; the heat coming to my face, the turn of my head, the pivoting of my feet and all that was contained in that completely reflexive move. Here’s the setup to that moment:

I had joined the college newspaper my freshman year at Princeton. I was the only girl on the newspaper staff, the university having just hastily admitted its first female students in the fall of 1969. But Princeton could hardly be called co-ed yet. There were only 100 girls that first year; the male/female ratio was 20 to 1, and the august Gothic campus was still very much “the Old Princeton,” though change was coming.

I had worked on my high school newspaper, my junior high newspaper, had started an elementary school newspaper with my classmates and, to go even farther back, had published a neighborhood news sheet using a little printing press with rubber letters that my parents had given me in maybe fourth grade.  I was, in short, a newspaper person.

So I was very pleased to have “made staff” at The Daily Princetonian, and that day, went to the bulletin board in the “Prince” office to see what assignments I’d been given for that semester’s coverage.

As I understood it, each reporter was to receive a “news” assignment and a “sports” assignment because at this Ivy League college there were so very many sports teams that all hands were needed to report on them.

Across from my name on the bulletin board under the “news” category it said I was to cover the faculty; a prestigious assignment. But under “sports” the column was blank. Mark had baseball, Tom had football and so on, but under my name…nothing.

Pivoting reflexively from the bulletin board, I took a few steps toward the desk of the sports editor and set the course of my career.

I can still see him, bare feet up on his desk, worn jeans, a halo of unruly blond hair and a stoned expression on his face (he spent a lot of afternoons like that).

“Why didn’t you give me a sports assignment?” I demanded across the desk.

He looked at me languidly. “Well, we didn’t think you’d want to cover one.”

“Why should I do HALF the work of everybody else?” I said with unassailable logic and probably some degree of force because I remember he kind of sat up in his chair and stammered out a reply: “Well, I never thought of it that way.” Then he made an offering: “What sport do you wanna cover?”

Now here was the crunch. Understand that I was no great sports enthusiast and had never played a sport in school; I had a passing knowledge of professional sports from sharing lazy Sunday afternoons on the couch in front of the TV with my dad watching football games, golf tournaments and the like. I certainly knew who Joe Namath was and Y.A.Tittle and Arnold Palmer, so maybe I was ahead of the game. But now I had to think quickly, and an image came to mind.

How about rugby? I ventured.

Rugby? The zoned-out sports editor was incredulous. Rugby was a brutish club sport played by reckless young men of high disrepute. But what the editor didn’t know was that I’d already been to several rugby team parties, and they were predictably wild and loads of fun. The bawdy drinking songs were especially transgressive for a girl from a protected suburban upbringing.

So rugby it was. I wrote about the team that fall, then the (men’s) squash team in the winter and (men’s) tennis in the spring, football the next fall. Then I lost the election for managing editor of the newspaper, but the new editor appointed me sports editor. Now with sports writing unexpectedly on my resume, when I graduated I ended up with a summer intern’s job in the sports section of The New York Times and that was that.

I’d never intended to be a sports writer; as I tell everyone now, it was a pure and simple matter of equity…and rugby parties.

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