Creeps, threats and untraceable calls: Women who cover sports on TV share their stories
They are on television every night. They’re on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium after Indianapolis Colts games. They’re outside Assembly Hall before Indiana plays Purdue and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They cover high school football games on Friday nights.
Taylor Tannebaum and Olivia Ray work for Indianapolis stations WTHR and WISH-TV, respectively. Larra Overton isa reporter for the Colts. Tricia Whitaker covers the Tampa Bay Rays as a sideline reporter for Bally Sports Florida. Meghan McKeown is an analyst for the Big Ten Network.
But there’s so much you don’t see.
IndyStar spoke with nine women who have spent time as sports reporters and anchors in Indiana. We asked them about the struggles they face and the hurdles they’ve overcome to get here. They spoke with pride about advancements in the industry, and how they know they belong in locker rooms dominated by men. They also told stories of sexism by colleagues, nasty emails, threatening social media messages, a whisper in their ear, handwritten notes and threatening phone calls that can’t be traced.
When Title IX was passed 50 years ago, women could only dream of the opportunities that are available in sports media today. But there’s still so far to go.
"I want the next generation to understand what it took to get to this point so that we never have to go through something like this again, and so that nobody is ever excluded on the basis of sex or race or anything like that," Whitaker said. "The only reason you should be excluded is if you're not qualified."
'Those jeans fit you perfectly'
They all have stories about clothes.
When Tamar Sher got her job as the sports director at 14News in Evansville, Indiana, she had to completely revamp her wardrobe — and on her own dime. She has 10 different dresses to wear on the set, and a slew of other items to wear when she’s covering events.
"If I had to guess, I’d say I’ve spent just shy of $1,000 building my wardrobe throughout school, interning and now into my first role as an anchor and reporter," she said.
Bri Shackelford is the sports director at WLFI, the CBS affiliate in West Lafayette, Indiana. She has 75-100 outfits, "but the closet is always groaning."
"I’ve spent over $500 just on clothes alone for this gig and I’m nowhere near done yet," she said.
(As a point of comparison, Indianapolis sports reporter/anchor Chris Hagan told IndyStar he buy new suits "about every three years" and spends around $600 annually on new shirts and ties. "Much cheaper for men than women, in my opinion," he said.)
Larra Overton can’t count the number of emails she got from viewers about what she wore in her four years as a morning show traffic reporter on FOX59 in Indianapolis.
"I remember people commenting that they didn't like your hair or your makeup or your outfit that day," she said. "I remember thinking, ‘I'm doing the best I can. I'm getting up at 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning and trying to do the best job possible, and someone wants to pick apart that they thought your dress wasn't flattering.’ Someone called me Traffic Barbie. Now, I can laugh about things a little bit more. It causes you to develop thick skin. No matter how good of a job you do, there's always going to be those comments."
McKeown remembers a handwritten note she got from a woman during her time in Indianapolis.
"She said I was so talented, but my clothes were way too revealing and it was distracting for her husband to watch," she said. "I had a man who told me I looked like I had just come off working the street corners."
Early in her career, Whitaker would text her mom photos of her outfit before she’d go into news conferences or locker rooms.
"Would people say, 'That dress is too tight' or 'That outfit’s not flattering enough?' You had 900 things running through your mind," she said. "I would send pictures to my mom of my outfit and be like, 'Mom, what do you think of this? What do you think people would possibly say about this outfit?' "
Tannebaum recalls a time when she was covering an event and a man approached her.
"He whispered in my ear, 'Those jeans fit you perfectly,' " she said. "There’s no male standing out there in jeans that someone’s going to say something to."
Earlier this year, while working for the Big Ten Network, McKeown got a phone call. And then another. And another.
"I had a man that was calling my phone from an unknown number asking what color of panties I was wearing," she said. "Who else has to deal with this crap?"
Eventually, she filed a police report. The man stopped calling when her boyfriend picked up the phone.
"Not everybody has a male that can do that for them where it's like, 'There might be somebody who can protect her,' " McKeown said. "It's scary, because you don't know what people are capable of doing."
'I'm gonna figure out where you are'
Social media is the worst part. Just take a look at Tricia Whitaker's social media mentions.
There’s the Instagram comment that said, "That’s cute sweetheart, at least you tried. Now get your behind in the kitchen and get me a beer."
One person commented, "If you didn’t have a nice rack you wouldn’t have gotten the job."
There’s a comment about Whitaker's "wide hips," and another about how "her legs look odd." One person commented on a photo saying, "Keep eating Chipotle, lardass."
She’s gotten comments asking why she isn’t married with children. One person replied to her Instagram story with, "Hopefully freezing to death is your last word."
One person repeatedly sent threatening messages.
"He was like, 'I'm gonna find you. I need you. I'm gonna figure out where you are,' " she said.
Whitaker has heard it all. She brushes it off — but she also remembers. She keeps screenshots of comments on her phone. They fuel her fire.
"You can say you think I'm ugly. You can say you think I'm fat. That doesn't bother me," she said. "It’s motivation. You want to say that women can't do this job? You want to say that we just got this job because of our looks? Cool, I'm going to prove you wrong."
Olivia Ray has heard plenty, too. An Instagram post from a Colts game in 2020 prompted a comment saying, "Beautiful young lady with a beautiful smile and nice legs you are doing a great job keep up the good work." One person replied to a photo from the last Colts game of the season in January with, "Spank." Another said, "You are so (expletive) gorgeous."
"I never engage with those comments, but I do remember them," she said. "If someone says something bad about me, I don't try to get even with them. I just try and beat them, which means I'm gonna go and prove them wrong. That's always been my approach to anything in the business."
Tannebaum says her go-to method is to "kill with kindness." McKeown says "silence is the best revenge."
"I used to respond to any of the trolls that reached out," she said. "They want to get a reaction out of you. I'm not losing sleep anymore over what people say to me."
Early in her career, Ray got tons of messages with critiques. She admits some of it was legitimate.
"Not all of them were unfair," she said. "I really did need to do a lot of learning and growing. I still challenge myself with that. I know I am still fairly new in the business right now."
Said Whitaker: "Women want to be treated the same. I'm not asking for special treatment. If I say something wrong, please correct me. You’ve got to be able to take constructive criticism and not be sensitive about it, if we want that respect."
There are positives to social media, too. Ashley Adamson is a lead host and reporter for the Pac-12 Network who spent two years as a sports reporter and anchor at WISH-TV in Indianapolis from 2010-2012.
"I've connected with some amazing people through social media," she said. "I have a couple of people who I consider now to be dear friends who I met through different social media channels."
'She thought it was a man's job'
It was a slip of the tongue. Ray was in a hurry, and mispronounced Victor Oladipo’s last name — ‘Ah’-ladipo instead of ‘Oh’-ladipo.
"Southern accents are weird on vowels. I was in a hurry," she said. "Afterwards, I received so much criticism about that soft ‘ah’. If anyone knows how to say his name, it's me. I went to college with him. I covered him when I was a student. I've heard other men in my department pronounce things differently than the rest of the world says them, and I've never seen a comment made to them. I feel like it lingered for like two weeks. It was exhausting. It's carried with me. I've made sure that I don't do it again. I need to pay closer attention to that. I do realize I have a southern accent that I’ve worked really hard to hide."
It’s a problem that nearly every woman in the industry has encountered — the standards they’re held to are higher than their male counterparts.
"You need to be more well-studied than the man next to you," Ray said. "You need to know more about the statistics, more about every player, their storyline, their background. I don't know if that's a fair statement to make, but it's the mindset I've kept. Sometimes I feel like I spend too much time studying before a lot of matchups, because so much of the knowledge goes unused, but it makes me feel more comfortable walking into a room knowing I can hold my own."
When Adamson told her friends in college that she wanted to go into sports media, she was immediately questioned. Her male friends would ask her super specific sports questions, putting her on the defensive.
"No one believes that you actually want to do it, or that you actually want to do it for the right reasons, or that you actually can do it," she said. "There's this sense that you don't belong. The immediate reaction that you get when you tell someone that you want to go into sports if you're a woman is, 'Why? What credentials do you have to be here?' "
Early in her career, Whitaker would text her dad the questions she planned to ask in the locker room to avoid any unnecessary critiques.
" 'Do you think these are good questions? Do you think anybody's gonna make fun of any of them? Do you think that they are relevant?' I knew what I was talking about," Whitaker said. “I knew football and basketball. It's crazy that you feel like you have to do that, but the scrutiny was just a little too much to take."
Tannebaum’s first job out of college came in Dothan, Alabama, one of the smallest markets in the country. She was the first female anchor at her station (and is the first female sports anchor at WTHR).
"I had a little lady neighbor in my apartment complex. She didn't like me, because I was a woman talking about sports," Tannebaum said. "She thought it was a man's job."
JoJo Gentry's first job out of college came in Evansville, where she became the first woman to cover sports in the market as a reporter at WEVV. She later spent more than two years as a sports reporter and anchor for more than two years at FOX59 and CBS4 in Indianapolis.
"I remember attending a community event to introduce myself as their new local sports journalist," she said. "My first interaction with those men turned into a pop quiz. I will never forget a man pointing at me and saying, 'I bet you don't even know the most famous baseball player from your hometown (Anderson, Indiana.)' I tried to keep my cool. I forced myself to make eye contact with them and smile. When I said, 'I've actually played golf with Carl Erskine,' their smiles and claps indicated approval of me. But it took me explaining that I know sports, and even played Division I golf at Butler, to feel accepted."
Criticism can come from colleagues, too. When Whitaker was an intern, she was driving to an assignment with a cameraman.
"He kind of forgot that he was sitting in a car with a female who was going into sports," she said. "He straight up said, 'I don't think women have a place in sports. They just don't belong here.' "
Early in McKeown’s career, when she worked in Terre Haute, Indiana, her boss told her, "I needed to learn how to handle my emotions, and that I wasn't cut out for the industry."
Gentry, who is now the director of strategic communications at Bar Communications as well as a freelance sideline reporter for the IHSAA, said some of her biggest supporters are men. But that's not always the case.
"I've worked with a lot of men who want me to succeed with them. I consider those great times with great people," she said. "I've worked with some who wanted to see me fail and try to take me down. Those narrow-minded boys clubs still exist. Those who choose to belong to those clubs are losers in my mind. There are so many great men who support great women, and I encouraged myself and others to find those men and stick by them."
Adamson has a unique perspective on being a woman in the industry — she's also a mom. She's had two kids in the past five years. She didn't stay home with her newborn babies for too long, because she wasn't given paid leave. (The Pac-12 Network has since updated its policy to give paid leave to new parents). She was afraid she'd be replaced if she was gone for too long. She remembers pumping milk in the stall of the bathroom during halftime of a basketball tournament.
"There's all of these things that come with being a mom when you're on the road," she said. "You have a very intense career. You can't show up to work looking like you haven't slept in three days, when sometimes that's the case. I don't know what the solution is, or if there is one, but I think it's something that we don't talk about enough. We need more support from our organizations and media companies and society in general, to be able to have what we need to be able to become moms and have babies and retain our jobs, and not feel like we're losing out."
'I'm not asking for special treatment'
Whitaker is working what she calls her dream job. Ray is leaving WISH-TV soon to pursue new challenges in her career after establishing herself as an anchor and reporter. McKeown has done primetime basketball games as a sideline reporter for ESPN and has been watched by millions.
Despite the challenges they face, these women are living their dream — and they’re so thankful.
Ray knows her experience in the industry is “not normal.” She graduated from Indiana just five years ago, and she’s spent three years in the 25th largest television market in the country.
"I am really grateful for everyone that has paved the way," she said. "I can walk into a Colts or Pacers locker room and no one blinks an eye. Not that many years ago, that was not the case."
"I don't know how women did it in the ‘80s and ‘90s," Whitaker said. "I can't even imagine, but I thank God for them. They blazed the trail. Women want to be treated the same. I'm not asking for special treatment."
Tannebaum has been at WTHR for four years, and knows she’ll be respected any time she walks into a Colts or Pacers locker room. She knows she’ll have the support of her bosses, male counterparts and other women around the country who are fighting the same battle she is.
"We're starting to get more accustomed to the fact that women aren't going anywhere, and that they do know what they're talking about," she said.
Adamson says she's been given "so many incredible opportunities."
"I feel like I'm at an incredible time to be covering sports and to have my career in the decade that I've had it in," she said. "There were so many women who came before me, and not that long ago, who struggled to even be able to get in a locker room."
She graduated from Indiana in 2021. She hasn’t experienced the same vitriol that some of her colleagues have. She hopes that her experience becomes the norm.
"I'm the only female sports director in southern Indiana, and I've felt respected throughout the community," she said. "I haven't had a moment where I've felt slighted in the industry, where I felt like I was pushed away from having a seat. I'm at the table and making decisions. When we can get away from the question of having females in sports, that's when we know we've arrived."