Firing highlights double standard
Last week, Susannah Collins was fired from her job as a sports reporter at Comcast SportsNet. She was let go after a gaffe on live television -- she said "sex" when she'd meant to say "success." She immediately corrected herself, yet the video went viral because the Internet is basically a junior high school cafeteria.
With the ensuing curiosity about Collins -- people asking, "Who is this?" -- Googling unearthed some pretty unfunny sports videos she'd made a few years ago and had made no effort to hide. They were for a series called Sports Nutz, and the amateurish videos used profanity and made offensive jokes about race and sex. Comcast SportsNet knew about the videos before hiring her, and they were even mentioned in her official bio.
But after the videos followed the blooper into the giggle-filled cafeteria, Comcast SportsNet fired Collins. "Due to circumstances unrelated to her on-air remarks Tuesday night, Susannah Collins and Comcast SportsNet Chicago have parted ways," Phil Bedella, vice president and general manager of CSN Chicago, said in a statement.
So it appears the very videos that launched her into a trajectory to be seen by future employers contributed to her ouster. It's a process that highlights a double standard in sports media, where women are expected to be experienced and professional without looking a day over 22. An applicant with two decades of experience in the business can be passed over for a runner-up in a junior miss pageant.
The only relevant question: Was Collins good at her job?
"Even in that hit when she made the mistake, she got out of it well," said one experienced woman with years in the business. "It shows she's good at reacting on live television."
The reporter complimenting Collins didn't want to be named, but it should be noted that she was told she was just passed over for a position similar to Collins' old job because the outlet wanted "to go younger."
After a wave of support for Collins rose in Chicago, she issued a statement that read in part: "It has always been my dream to cover my hometown teams on the network I loved watching. I have worked tirelessly to develop my skills as a sports reporter, anchor and host, and I want to thank the city of Chicago for allowing me that opportunity."
Collins' hiring and firing are indicative of some uncomfortable trends in our business. Collins is beautiful, which -- breaking news -- is a hiring factor in television more for women than for men, who need merely to be well groomed. It used to be that television converted sports writers like Lesley Visser and Rachel Nichols into analysts and sideline talent. But the hiring process appears to have changed.
If corporations were looking for the next female Edward R. Murrow, they might scout her at a local journalism school -- which Collins attended -- rather than links to homemade sports videos. But that's not where employers are finding all the women they hire for television jobs. Some are conventionally trained, like their male counterparts, but others aren't.
Another veteran TV sports reporter said women were held to exhausting standards when it came to looks: "Be cute enough that we can put you on TV but don't be overtly sexual because that's threatening."
Collins, 33, was hired with a relatively thin résumé, her few jobs including a Showtime gig that she got after a producer saw her Sports Nutz videos. She has a broadcast journalism degree from the University of Illinois, but hadn't used it as she pursued acting opportunities and appeared in a music video before her Sports Nutz break in 2009.
When television jobs are filled, there are sometimes more-experienced men and women who don't get the job. Sometimes a woman can advance on her merits, getting a degree and worked her way up from smaller markets to bigger jobs. Bonnie Bernstein, for example, started her career as the news and sports director on radio in Delaware, before moving to television in Maryland as a weekend news anchor. She then became a sports anchor in Nevada before joining ESPN and CBS.
But, working your way up is no guarantee of success. I've spoken to women in the industry who have been told they were passed over for jobs because the station was looking for a blonde. That may sound like a case for a lawsuit, but they know that would immediately close any doors that remain open.
Sports reporting for television is one of the few places where experienced journalists vie for the same job with -- and can lose it to --telegenic women with little journalism experience. Where, after your first big on-air piece, the only feedback you get is about your hair.
In Hollywood, where looks are also a factor in who gets the job, there are various roles for women. But in sports, Meryl Streep can be competing with Tara Reid or Dakota Fanning.
So Collins or another inexperienced aspiring reporter may get the job. But it's hard to blame an ambitious young woman for being hired. Who wouldn't take that opportunity? And there are plenty who do have the ability to learn on the job, which by many accounts was exactly what Collins was able to do.
So the "sex" slip. Plenty of men in the business have made similar gaffes -- try saying "bulging disc" without producing a personal blooper reel -- but they rarely face the same scrutiny. And more than a slip of the tongue, some may make genuinely offensive comments. Last month, NHL broadcaster Don Cherry controversially said female reporters shouldn't be in locker rooms and emerged with his job intact.
Many in Chicago have noted the possible politics behind Collins' firing. But hopefully her work as a reporter speaks for itself. The Sports Nutz videos are awful, but there have been plenty of men hired as analysts because their talent overshadows their skeletons or, in some cases, arrest records. Collins' videos can be classified as an offensive and failed attempt at edgy humor in the digital age, where youthful indiscretions last forever.
Too often the female role in a sports production is as eye candy. Because these roles are finite, more-experienced women can find themselves shut out at the moment they have mastered the job. But then when a woman like Collins uses the fast track, she can find herself subject to a double standard. Collins' nontraditional background bit her even though she was becoming pretty good at the job.
Collins may get another shot, because she did show ability and hasn't lost the appeal that probably prompted Comcast to hire her.
Her Sports Nutz past may be a black mark but, let's face it, it isn't nearly as hard to overcome as being a 45-year-old non-blonde.