Blue Muse Interview Conversations

Blue Muse Interview: Aimee Crawford | Shaina Blakesley

Aimee Crawford entered the male-dominated arena of sports journalism in 1996, when women in the press box were few and far between and received unwarranted backlash. Crawford brings an energetic, sporty flame to the journalism department at Central Connecticut State University. She splits her time between being the Senior Editor of ESPN The Magazine and teaching feature writing and magazine writing. She is no stranger to the sports world: her twenty-two years of experience includes posts at Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, MLB.com and culminating in her current eight-year stint at ESPN.

Crawford put several pins in the map before starting within the sports reporting community. A San Francisco native, raised on Chicago sports and honing her craft in Oklahoma, Crawford’s love for athletics — most notably baseball — started with her beloved grandfather.

We sent Blue Muse staff writer Shaina Blakesley to discuss Crawford’s career on women in sports, and her heart-wrenching coverage of Larry Nassar’s survivors for ESPN. The work earned her and her fellow editors a Peabody Award.

“My aim was diminishing the notion of the ‘Barbie-on-the-air’ mentality in regard to women in sports, specifically in sports reporting. It is disheartening to female sports reporters that harassment still exists in 2019. I admire Aimee’s passion for baseball and her love of sports. Instead of sitting idly while other women try and enter this testosterone-centric field, Aimee and so many other women band together to fight sexism through the Association for Women in Sports Media. I met her during her magazine writing class, where her students talked amongst themselves while working on their projects. She graciously welcomed me dressed in an elegant blazer tied together with sleek cigarette pants and her hair partially pulled back. Both beauty and fortitude radiate from her smile as she compliments me on being determined to meet her, including willing to crash her class. I was not sure what to expect since we had recently been playing email tag, but her pleasant demeanor quickly warmed my nervous chills.”

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How did your love for sports begin?

It began when I was pretty little. I moved when I was about eight or nine years old. I moved from outside San Francisco to Chicago. I really didn’t have any friends when I moved there, but I started listening to sports on the radio, to the Chicago White Sox, and watching them on the TV. My grandfather loved baseball. I started listening to the games and before I made friends and got comfortable, this sort of provided some comfort, entertainment, and I found out that I really love listening because listening to the play-by-play, and the analysts was like storytelling. I loved to read, and I loved sports so I started thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if I could do both?” At that point, I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to be a sports writer, but I knew that I loved sports.

You attended high school in Oklahoma?

My dad got transferred again, so we moved to Oklahoma, which was a lot tougher because I was in the middle of high school and it was a big culture shock. I came in when most of the other kids already had their friends, their activities, interests, and teams. I had to try out for teams and sort of figure it out. Part of the reason I’m a journalist is because I love writing, I don’t love math. I was totally freaked out, so the adjustment was pretty hard, but it made me pretty self-sufficient. I like the idea of moving around and trying new places.

My father played football in college at Ohio State on a scholarship and he did not see any reason why he should pay for me to go to college if I could go somewhere that was paid for. I had a scholarship to stay in-state at Oklahoma State which was much less expensive. I ended up going there, and then I decided I wanted to get out of Oklahoma. I wanted to see more of the world. I wanted to see the country and that’s why I was a double major in journalism and French.

I applied and got a scholarship to study in France for a year and spent some time in Paris. I was homesick but it was fantastic. As much as I love sports, I love traveling equally. I love trying new things. I lived with a French family who had both studied in New York so they spoke English, but they would never speak English with me because they were trying to help me learn. That lead to an internship I had while I lived there in Paris working for a local magazine, so it was a really amazing year. By then I realized I could fend for myself anywhere.

Your first writing job was covering baseball?

My first job was at Sporting News. I wanted to cover baseball as a beat reporter and travel, and I thought that, the greatest job in the world. It was known as the Bible of Baseball. Of course, everybody there was an expert in baseball, and they looked at me like “who are you?” Just a kid right out of school, like “pipe down.” When I did get to cover it, it was kind of draining. It’s a hundred and sixty-two game season, you’re on the road a lot. I had a veteran reporter tell me how hard his life was and how he didn’t get to see his family, so I started to reassess that maybe this wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be every single day.

There is a misconception about Sports Illustrated and its portrayal of women in its magazine. What would you have to say to young women who are coming up in the sports world and see this type of representation?

Most of the questions I got when I worked there were about the Swimsuit Issue. In fact, I was even asked to edit stories [for the issue] because obviously it’s a huge revenue generator. It was always the thickest issue of Sports Illustrated. Even a lot of men I worked with hated that that was kind of what we were known for, this isn’t why I wanted to work there. After a year or two I became a little bit more confident, so I said I do not want to edit, be associated, or have anything to do with it. It always drove me crazy that that’s what Sports Illustrated was always known for because I feel like that’s not why I wanted to work there.

I think women athletes are underrepresented compared to their male counterparts.

When I was working there, Sports Illustrated infamously had a cover of Anna Kournikova. It was a picture of her hugging a pillow looking sort of “come hither,” and very clearly not a cover we would ever have done with a male athlete in that pose. The story was kind of about her sex appeal, and I hated it and lot of other women who worked there felt the same way. It was sort of like “here we go, we’re objectifying her.” As I eventually worked my way up, I eventually became an editor. One of my beats was college basketball.

How did the transition to your new beat affect your time at Sports Illustrated?

The great thing [about] covering college basketball was there were actually reasons that we should cover both [women’s and men’s] and so we would do a college basketball preview every year. I went to my boss and said, “Here’s what I would like to do, I would like to give full coverage to the men and to the women.” We decided what our top ten preseason ranks were. We like to do split regional covers, so in California we would put a West Coast team on that issue. We found our five teams, there were both men and women in our top ten. I decided, “Let’s get them together and take a men’s player and a women’s player from each of these teams and pose them together. And we will put an action photo of a woman on the cover, not in a swimsuit, not holding a pillow,” and they went for it. It was great. I have a framed picture in my office because I was like “Oh god this is great, they actually went for it.” There’s still a Swimsuit Issue, so there’s still a battle to be won, but I think I had a small part pushing back against that.

And there’s eighteen million male subscribers to Sports Illustrated.

Right, there are not as many women, but there are more than there used to be, so that’s one hopeful thing.

“I hated it and lot of other women who worked there felt the same way. It was sort of like ‘here we go, we’re objectifying her.’”

What made you leave Sports Illustrated in 2001, after working there for two years, and then returning after one year of being the deputy managing editor for MLB.com?

I love baseball, it’s my favorite sport, and I was approached and offered a job. Major League Baseball was starting its own website. This was before every league and team had its own website and social media presence. Back then it was kind of novel that they would start producing their own content. I loved working at Sports Illustrated, but I was like, “I’ve always wanted to cover baseball, this sounds like it could be my dream job.” We went and launched mlb.com, we covered everything from the World Series to the All-Star Game to the draft. It was pretty amazing, but it was a start-up, so it was about eighty hours a week and I had no life outside of my job. It was a lot of deadline daily grind and a lot of my experience in my internship had been in magazine journalism, so I had missed spending a lot of time working on a story and with my writers. It was a lot of go-go-go at MLB, so I ended up going back to Sports Illustrated.

What made you transition from Sports Illustrated to ESPN?

I started thinking maybe what I’d really prefer to do is become an editor. I can still think of ideas but have a little more control over my schedule. I ended up taking some time off to freelance, and I co-wrote a children’s sports book and did some freelance writing. I spent a year doing that and then actually worked at People magazine for a while doing various things. It was cool doing something that wasn’t just totally about sports. I did that for a year and then ended up getting an opportunity to come work at ESPN, which was really cool. At that point, my kids were old enough that moving out of the city and finding a place in the suburbs sounded like a good idea. There was a really interesting opportunity at ESPN, and that’s how I ended up there.

How has the view of women interested in sports journalism changed from when you started to today?

The first thing I covered was high school football in Oklahoma, and I can’t think of a time when I saw another woman in a press box. Same thing in college. I might see occasionally another woman, but I was almost always the only woman doing the interviews, working in the press box. When I started covering baseball, I’d see women here and there and whenever I did see someone, I would reach out and approach her because I felt like we have something in common. But the cool thing now is I see more than one. Even when I’m in meetings at ESPN, I’m usually not the only woman there. I work with a lot of women at ESPN The Magazine. We have a [more] diverse staff than when I first got into the business.

I think it’s encouraging that there are a lot more of us, and I feel like I’m a part of the generation that benefited from the true pioneers. Like Melissa Ludtke, who worked for Sports Illustrated and sued the Yankees when they wouldn’t allow her access to the press box. These are the women that came before me that really knocked down the doors and made it much easier for me and women of my generation and now the next generation. I see women on TV, I see women writing for magazines, I see women writing for newspapers. I make a point, whenever I see that, to follow a lot of them on Twitter because I’m interested in seeing their work. I’ve worked with the Association for Women in Sports Media. We started a program starting chapters on college campuses and taking an active role in providing support and encouragement because all that said, it’s still really hard. For the gains that we’ve made, we’ve proven that we belong, we do know what we’re talking about and we have as much of a right to be there as men do. Social media has had a really chilling effect. The Neanderthals and the trolls have really made an effect on that.

Especially with Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton’s derogatory comment towards Jourdan Rodrigue from The Charlotte Observer when she asked him about wide receiver Devin Funchess’ route physicality. How do you move past that and just keep going?

That’s tough. Part of me is glad that I’m not out there on the front lines dealing with that anymore. I certainly dealt with it subtly and not so subtly. I remember being in a press room once after a game and I was writing a game story when another writer got mad and yelled an obscenity towards women. I remember everyone turned and looked at me and I thought, “How am I supposed to react, and do I acknowledge it?” But he was senior to me and I was already nervous about proving myself, so I didn’t.

One of the campaigns I’ve liked recently is from Sarah Spain, she’s a writer and a TV personality at ESPN. She is very active on Twitter and gets an unbelievable amount of misogynistic and ridiculous trolls and gets threatened. Her and another writer got together and made a video where they printed out some of the really awful and offensive tweets that have been directed at them and had men, not the ones who wrote it, read them. It was so uncomfortable and eye-opening, and it got a lot of traction on social media. This is what it’s like to be a woman covering sports today.

While we’ve made all these gains and there are so many more of us doing it, it comes at a cost because there are all of these anonymous idiots who are blaming you, or threatened by you, or jealous. I can’t think of any women I’ve talked to in the industry that haven’t dealt with that on some level. When I first got started you could tell that some people were talking, but they weren’t sending you awful, threatening tweets.

As far as baseball, what are your thoughts about Jessica Mendoza being the only woman analyst for ESPN?

She’s super generous with other women in the industry and has mentored other women. She’s a fantastic athlete. There are people who believe that if you haven’t played the sport you shouldn’t cover it, my dad being one of them. Obviously playing gives you a certain perspective but also being a thoughtful person who is observant, curious and learns can ask a coach a question [about] something they don’t understand, which can also bring a different perspective into it. Jessica Mendoza played softball at a very high level, and while it’s not baseball, she still knows things like swing mechanics. Sometimes I’ll let my daughter stay up so we can listen to her on Sunday Night Baseball. My daughter plays baseball, not softball, she loves baseball. Her older brother played baseball, she wanted to play too, she is the only girl on her baseball team. She just actually went to an all-girls baseball tournament in L.A.

According to Statista, 35% of Major League Baseball fans are women and baseball statistician Sherri Nichols has made advancements to sabermetrics, but do you agree with the idea that there is no talent pool for women baseball analysts since they can’t play the actual sport?

That’s a good point speaking about sabermetrics. A lot of these owners and G.M.’s are guys that didn’t play baseball, like Theo Epstein. A lot of them were hired because they’re really smart guys who can look at the game differently or evaluate players differently. I think it’s interesting to see baseball embrace that, because that’s happening, I’m hopeful that sometime soon in my lifetime there will be a woman who’s the G.M. of a Major League team.

I also noticed you mentioned in your article “Baseball For All” that the first woman coach of the Oakland A’s, Justine Siegal’s comment about the stigmatic question “You can’t play baseball.” How do you think that changes her perception of herself?

Right, if you tell a girl she can’t do this, what else might she think she can’t do? Justine’s been a champion of girls playing baseball. She’s had a really interesting career herself, her goal is to coach with a Major League team again. A lot of girls might play Little League and then when they get to certain age they are either forced to switch to softball, or they feel like they don’t have any other choice and so they do. She’s been big on organizing these events that say, “You can play baseball for as long as you want, and you can play with other girls. As long as you love the sport and you want to keep playing it, we’ll provide opportunities.” I’d love to see someone do that in other sports. We’ve seen that there have been female coaches and refs in the NFL and the NBA.

One thing that I have been following is women in sports who circle around the “Me Too” Movement. In the ever-changing society with “Me Too,” how do you think that has altered the reality that women in sports now face?

I would like to think that it is changing. I think people are more aware and the more we talk about it. The more women are empowered to share their own stories and to not put up with it. I think that was the power of the “Me Too” Movement, when the founder [Tarana Burke] was like “I shared my story of sexual assault and I know there are lots of other women out there who have dealt with this but haven’t felt comfortable coming forward.” Then all these people started tweeting or sharing on Facebook their story with the “Me Too” hashtag. I remember being overwhelmed with my own social media feeds, not just women in sports, but friends, colleagues. Everyone has a story. I can’t think of a woman who doesn’t, who hasn’t in some ways dealt with it.

How does this affect women who are coming into the sports arena since it is still very male-dominated?

We need to push back. It’s easier to do when we’re unified as women; there’s strength in numbers. We need to all be out there and stand up and say “hey, this is happening, and this is not okay.” Here is an example, retweeting someone who has said awful things about someone, or when somebody sent a direct message that’s awful, threatening, misogynistic or ridiculous. I feel like there’s that strength in numbers idea. That’s the benefit for someone who is coming in even though it’s unfortunate that it’s likely you will still face some form of this. When you do that you have allies, you have other women and men who are going to back you up and say, “This is not okay, it is no longer acceptable, if you do this, you are pariahs.” It is no longer “just boys being boys” like how it used to be.

I know recently FOX Sports tweeted something inappropriate about Jessica Mendoza. What do you think of Mike North’s (from FOX Sports Radio) tweet on May 9 of this year that “ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza is the worst. If she was a man, she’d already be fired.”? What do you think was meant by the “man” reference?

I think what they were trying to say is, that they don’t think she is good at what she does. The frustrating thing about that is that they don’t give examples. Media critics are hard on women, I mean what she is doing is hard whether you are a man or woman. People are automatically going to find fault in you. She’s doing live TV, people might mess up, it happens all the time. Honestly, I think that’s why I’m all more impressed with what she does. She seems to have extra scrutiny and she is awesome at what she does. If you listen to her, you understand she knows what she is talking about, she teaches you something about the sports. Even someone like me, who’s been a baseball fan almost all my life and I have watched hundreds of baseball games, I learn something when I listen to Jessica Mendoza call a game, which I think is super cool.

“These are the women that came before me that really knocked down the doors and made it much easier for me and women of my generation and now the next generation.”

In October of last year, you were a part of a 2-hour discussion panel called “Sister Survivors” with fellow ESPN women editors and the young women who survived the abuse from former Michigan State and National Gymnastics Team doctor Larry Nassar. How did you become a part of that?

That was absolutely the most important work I’ve ever done in my career, and some of the hardest. It was a year-long investigative project that culminated in that “Sister Survivors” discussion. We talked to a number of survivors, and they talked again about a lot of it. They had the courage to come forward and share these terribly painful and difficult stories because they know that that will help others. They’re willing to do this, even though it must be so hard for them. They’re trying to prevent this from happening to other young girls and to me that is so noble, so amazing.

Another editor I worked with on this, we both said this to each other, “I don’t think I’ve ever cried more working on a story.” It was heartbreaking to hear that one of the first woman, Tiffany Thomas Lopez, to report this, reported it in 1998. She went and told the administrators and her coach that this was happening, and they didn’t believe her and so for twenty more years it continued. The same guy, unfortunately, with hundreds more girls and women. Tiffany Thomas Lopez was there, she is now a mother. She’s thirty-eight and seeing her react to hearing Grace tell something similar happening to her nearly two decades later was just heartbreaking because you realize she’s been holding it in for so long.

First of all, it was just her word against his, and he was this established authority figure, this powerful man. She was just a young college student and people didn’t believe her. Even though it probably was so hard for her to have to reveal these incredibly personal, painful details. She realized that she needed to finally bring him to justice and so it was incredibly powerful, but honestly, so hard to hear their stories and realize that so many people had failed them, coaches, adults, parents, he just got away for that long.

It kept the ugly cycling going and going and going, which seems to be the norm for abuse against women.

It’s still hard for me. There’s times when I watch it again and remembering when they were filming that and there’s a point where Grace, who is twenty-three, discussed how she doesn’t trust doctors anymore, she has such deep-seated anxieties and that she will never have biological children because of this. Tiffany, as a mother, and having been through this and knew where she’s coming from, she broke down. I just couldn’t help it and trying to be professional about a story as a reporter and maintain that level, but I remember just totally breaking down.

For that project, we had the moderator, Tisha Thompson, she did an amazing job and was fantastic. The entire crew, all the editors, all the TV producers were all women too, something that would not have happened twenty years ago because there just weren’t enough of us working at ESPN or working in the industry to do that. That was another very powerful example of how far we’ve come in many ways a little bit and that was more than just gratifying.

I was recently looking at the backgrounds of Title IX and recently, The Recorder [by Tom Hopkins] published an article about the unequal pay gap between CCSU’s women’s basketball coach Beryl Piper and the men’s basketball coach Donyell Marshall, and the discrepancy is cited for “lack of experience and job performance,” despite Piper having more coaching experience, having a master’s instead of Marshall’s bachelor’s and five conference DI semifinals compared to Marshall’s single quarterfinal conference. Do you think Title IX should extend its boundaries of protecting college athlete to include coaches along with those athletes?

That’s an interesting idea, and I have never heard someone suggest [it]. Title IX has been used, well initially not specific to sports, but it was about educational opportunities, but it obviously has become synonymous with sports. I always say this, but I’m almost literally a daughter of Title IX, it was passed the year I was born. I’ve grown up with this and benefitted in every stage of my life as a young athlete, a girl that played sports that weren’t even an option for my mom.

But as far as this, that’s a perfect example that shows that we still have work to do and I would guess that if you did a similar analysis at many other Division I programs, you’d find pretty similar disparity between many men and women. People justify that the men’s program brings in more revenue, but it’s sort of a chicken or the egg proposition. It’s because they’ve existed longer and partly because they get more resources, or they have higher budget so that they can travel. Because a lot of schools have both a men’s and women’s team, and I think that is an interesting comparison. It is an interesting idea, why shouldn’t it cover educational opportunities for coaches?

Does the wage gap extend past athletes to other women in sports?

Based on all the statistics about the wage gap for women in general, women make seventy-seven percent, or seventy-seven cents on the dollar of an average man’s salary in an equal position, so unfortunately, I would think so. I don’t know enough about what my male colleagues make to say that with certainty, but there’s still a lot more men in high-level positions everywhere I’ve worked so you would assume. I mean obviously they make more money than those of us who are further down the ladder.

The good thing about working at ESPN, there are women and there are more women in positions of authority. Our editor-in-chief, Alison Overholt, is a perfect example of that since she is the first woman editor-in-chief of a sports magazine ever. It is progress, it’s slow, but it is progress.

 

Headline photo: (Photo credit: Kelsey Murray for the Blue Muse Magazine.)

Shaina Blakesley is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine.

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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