On Feb 7, Newsday sportswriter and columnist Barbara Barker visited Sarah Lawrence for a conversation on sexism and sports. Interviewed by journalism professor Marek Fuchs, Barker spoke about her experiences as one of the first female journalists in the sports section. Throughout the interview, Barker discussed both her own journey as a sportswriter and the problem of sexism in sports journalism.
“There weren’t that many sportswriters,” Barker said of her early days in the profession. “When you got hired, [publishers] didn’t want you to be there. They checked off a box but didn’t offer support.”
Quickly becoming the first woman to cover both the New York Giants football team and Knicks basketball team, Barker faced multiple hurdles in the first few years of her career.
“A lot of interviews are done in the locker room [postgame],” Barker said. “I would try and enter the locker rooms, but the security wouldn’t let me in [...] because I was a woman.”
However, in 1978, a lawsuit filed against the New York Yankees ruled that no female journalist could be denied entry into a locker room, citing a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Either women must be allowed in the locker rooms with their male colleagues, or all interviews had to be conducted outside. While covering University of California Los Angeles football in the early days of her career, Barker had a startling experience when the team was forced to conduct their interviews outside.
“I was the only woman there, and a man turned around and pointed at me and said, ‘You did this!’” Barker said. “They blamed it on me when they weren’t allowed in the locker rooms.”
Over time, however, Barker has noticed it’s been a lot easier for women to conduct interviews in locker rooms.
“Athletes don’t care anymore. Everybody has cameras now, who cares if there’s a woman in the locker room?” Barker explained. “Any given day for baseball, there are at least four women in the locker rooms.”
Barker said she also faced difficulties depending on the sports she was covering. While she has spent a majority of her career covering the NBA and NFL, Barker has reported on most major sports and has found that certain athletes more difficult to interview than others.
“Interviewing baseball [players] was never difficult,” Barker said. “Football was much harder — some people didn’t talk to me.”
Barker has also noticed similar trend within the fans and officials of the sports she reports on.
“NFL fans are different than NBA fans,” Barker noted. “The league [board] is not as diverse, they offer one perspective. When you don’t have diversity, it leads to problems.”
Over her years of reporting, Barker has also noticed a sharp increase in the marketability of NBA stars, like Stephen Curry and LeBron James, and their fans.
“Basketball fans skew the youngest and have the most advertisers. The players are likeable guys who’ve transcended sports.”
During the interview, Barker also discussed the new struggles for reporters in the past couple years, including the inflation of reporting outlets and athlete marketing strategies.
“There’s so much media now — it becomes very difficult to access players,” Barker explained. “It’s very controlled.”
“Athletics are also much more savvy about realizing their marketing potential,” Barker added. “They’re more careful about what they say. It’s not good for journalists.”
Barker’s struggles in her field were not limited to her interactions with athletes or other journalists, but also facing the stigmas of readers.
“People used to call newspapers to look up statistics,” Barker said. “I would answer the phone for the sports section… and people would ask to talk to a male reporter [instead].”
The conversation was also held on National Women and Girls in Sports Day, a national celebration of the achievements of women in sports and acknowledgement of the progress and continuing struggle for gender equity in sports. Fittingly, Barker also talked about the importance of accessible athletic programs for young women.
“I wasn’t much of an athlete...There weren’t that many opportunities for girls,” Barker said about growing up in Ohio. “Teen sports build character, they take the tools they learn and apply it to their lives.”
After her conversation with Fuchs, Barker answered audience questions, ranging from her own experiences covering particular stories to the future of female sports reporting.
“We need more coverage of women’s sports,” Barker said. “There is a large inequality in the number of fans between men’s and women’s leagues, mostly because a lot of fans and advertisers don’t know about them. If they get more reporting, these sports will become just as popular and successful as men’s.”
With more than two decades of sports reporting under her belt, Barker’s career in journalism has not only paved the way for more female sportswriters, but contributed to an ever-evolving conversation about the need for gender equity in athletics and journalism. As this conversation continues, Barker’s own personal philosophies have been shaped by her work in the field, something she made a point of noting in her interview.
“I was not a feminist before I went into the job,” said Barker. “Now I am.”
Bella Rowland-Reid '21