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Lawrie Mifflin's Story: Get What You Need and Leave

Fitness, Sports, Title IX | February, 13 2013

By: Lawrie Mifflin, Senior Editor for New Digital Initiatives, New York Times

I grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.  My first love was field hockey.  So when I was accepted to Yale in 1969, I walked through the university gates with my hockey stick tucked under my arm.  After signing up for college classes I wanted to try out for the team.  I asked around and was surprised to hear that Yale didn’t have a women’s hockey team.

When I told the athletic department that I wanted to start one, they looked at me like I was from Mars. So a classmate and I began holding informal practices, knocking the ball around one of the quads.  Our sophomore year, the school finally gave us a “practice field”—a grassy area that was used as a parking lot on football weekends.  Monday practices started with picking up charcoal briquettes and beer cans left over from tailgating parties.

I’ll never forget our first road game at Princeton.  Unlike us, the Princeton players had official hockey uniforms. We were in cut-off jeans and tee-shirts—not exactly top of the line.  We ended up borrowing uniforms from Southern Connecticut State’s team. The night before the game we were housed in two of Princeton’s famed eating clubs.  Both were hosting wild parties. Half of our team slept in an attic room with no locks on the doors.  Princeton guys showed up in the middle of the night, laughing hysterically at us.  The next day we were totally exhausted.  Princeton won by a goal.

After playing for nearly three years under these conditions, it was time someone started paying attention to us. I asked the Yale Daily News to cover our games. I was told that staff members didn’t know anything about “girls’ sports,” and it was clear they were in no rush to find out.  So after field hockey season ended, I started covering all the women’s games myself.  I loved it and realized I wanted to become a reporter.

After journalism school I landed a job at the New York Daily News—an exciting, freewheeling place in the mid-1970’s.  I spent two years as a city reporter covering a broad range of topics from City Hall to New York’s fiscal crisis to life on the Bowery.  Since I still kept track of what was happening in women’s sports, I knew that the Queens College women’s basketball team was ranked as one of the best in the country in 1976.  I ventured into the sports department’s dingy office and said to one of the editors: “You know Queens College is playing in the national championships? Are you covering it?”  At first, the answer was “No.”  Then the editor thought a moment and asked me if I’d like to cover the tournament. I jumped at the opportunity. The stories were edited down to a couple of short paragraphs, but I had a great time writing them.

When the 1976 Olympics opened its doors to female basketball players for the first time, none of the male sports reporters were interested in covering it.  So I got my first big break.  I went to Montreal and covered women’s basketball at the 1976 Olympics.  While I was there, I also covered women’s gymnastics, track and field, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving.

My experience playing sports was an asset to my reporting.  It gave me insight into the rigor, discipline and struggles of any athletic endeavor. I covered women's events the same way I would report any event — no cutesy phrases, no bad puns, no descriptions of their hairstyles or makeup, no questions about how someone’s marriage was holding up under the spotlight or whether she hoped to have children someday.

After the Olympics, I was asked if I’d like to stay in sports and become the paper’s first woman sportswriter.  I thought, why not give this a shot. I was only 25, and I was having such a wonderful time. I got assigned to cover the New York Rangers—the city’s hockey team. It was a whole new sport to learn.  Every day I went to their practices and watched their sessions.  In the beginning, some of the players wouldn’t talk to me.  They were wary.  Sometimes I’d overhear them say, “Oh, they’re just trying to make a point for women’s lib.”

But I kept showing up and asking questions to the coach and his team.  They began to see that I was serious.  As the season wore on, most of the players came to see me as part of their entourage.  If an outside coach or player asked the Rangers about me or questioned my credentials, they’d say, “Don’t worry, she knows her stuff.”

My biggest challenge was getting into the locker room to interview the players, fresh off the ice.  It was critical.  If I wasn’t in “the room,” as it was called, I wouldn’t get the great quotes other reporters were getting; I’d miss spontaneous reactions to what had just happened. Working for a morning paper, I had tight deadlines—and I had to make sure that I wasn’t scooped by my competitors.  It was especially tough to get into the locker rooms of opposing teams from other parts of the country.  Many of these athletes had never come into contact with female reporters.  There were only 8 to 10 of us in the entire country in the mid-to-late 1970s.

After one game, I was in the locker room talking to a former Ranger who had recently been traded to the Vancouver Canucks.  I started getting yelled at and called the C-word by a player.  He marched over to me, grabbed me by the upper arm and threw me out the door.  It was scary.  And I was angry.  I found the coach and told him what happened.  I asked him to talk to this guy.  He did, and when he came out he said, “Okay, you can go back in, but do me a favor.   Just talk to the one guy you know.  Get what you need and leave.”

As a reporter, I saw how editors gave more extensive coverage to male sports while often steering clear of women’s sports.  I saw how tough it was for women who weren’t Olympic athletes or tennis players to get any coverage at all. I heard women athletes describe themselves as feeling invisible.  But over the last 30-plus years of my career, I’ve also witnessed the transformation of women in sports.

Without question, Title IX has been a central game-changer, expanding the numbers of girls and women playing competitive sports. It’s also boosted the caliber of women’s training and athletic abilities.  Looking back to my years in college, when it was hard to cobble together a makeshift field hockey team, I find it inspiring to see how much progress has been made.  But there are still many women athletes—even the pros—who feel disregarded by the media.  There’s still more work to do—and I’m confident we’re going to get there.
 

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Lawrie Mifflin, a pioneer in women’s athletics and the first woman sports reporter at the New York Daily News, has witnessed the progress and promise of Title IX—a law enacted during her junior year in college.  In 1998, Mifflin won the prestigious NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, given to former student athletes who have excelled in their fields 25 years after college.  Since 1982, Mifflin has worked at the New York Times as Deputy Sports Editor, National Desk Reporter, and supervisor for video and web production.  She is currently Senior Editor for new digital initiatives.

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