Women Are Saying Enough Is Enough: A Conversation with Journalist Melissa Ludtke ’73 on the Tokyo Olympics

Hidilyn Diaz lifting weights above her head and looking strong
Image credit: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

Melissa Ludtke ’73 is an esteemed reporter and journalist, perhaps best known for being the plaintiff in the groundbreaking 1978 federal court ruling that established equal access for women reporters to report alongside male reporters in Major League Baseball locker rooms. Ludtke, who is in the middle of working on writing a memoir called Locker Room Talk about the 1978 case, took a break to chat with me about the Tokyo Olympics, how the media tells the stories of women athletes, and her favorite sports reporting from this summer.

EB: Thank you so much for taking time away from working on Locker Room Talk to speak with me! First, I’d love to hearhow did you get your start in journalism? And in particular, what is your history with sports journalism?

ML: My first full-time job was as a reporter and researcher for Sports Illustrated magazine, which I came to after majoring in art history at Wellesley. I reported and wrote for Sports Illustrated until 1979, and during that time I became part of that federal court case. After I left Sports Illustrated, I went to CBS News, and then I ended up at Time magazine, where I covered the 1984 Olympics. I wrote about Carl Lewis, who won four gold medals in track and field, and I also wrote about swimming and diving. Those were my two assignments: one took place the first week, and the other took place the second week. It’s not anything like how the Olympics are covered today. This was before social media, before any streaming services. Viewers basically had one television feed and lots of print coverage.

EB: That’s pretty different from today’s journalists having to live-tweet every single Olympic event.

ML: Yes! So, the 1984 Olympics was the last time I was formally paid to write about sports, but I’ve continued to write about women and gender issues, and I’ve always kept myself in the mix, which is why I am able to write an essay for Cognoscenti about Simone Biles and mental health in sports when the editors ask. I also run a Facebook vertical called Locker Room Talk, where I curate stories about girls and women in sports, as well as post about what’s happening in girls and women’s lives in general.

EB:How do you think sports reporting has changed—or hasn’t changed—since the 1984 Olympics?

ML: This year is the first Olympics where they’ve had equal participation across gender in sports. And this year a lot of the stories from the Olympics have focused on issues challenging women, in part because women athletes are finding their voices and demonstrating their desire to control their lives as athletes. Just look at the documentary LFG about the women’s soccer team players taking their own federation to court for equal pay and treatment. There are new mothers speaking out about the unfair rules preventing them from bringing their breastfeeding babies to the Olympics or about how Nike treated athletes while and after they were pregnant. How can the media avoid covering women this Olympics season?

EB: And these athletes can speak for themselves more now too, right? Just look at Simone Biles using her Instagram account to speak about mental health and competition.

ML: Exactly. Women are saying, enough is enough, we’re speaking up, we’re going to make you listen—and they can do it through social media, through the t-shirts they wear. As for Simone Biles, she is the only gymnast who was sexually abused by the former U.S.A. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar who is still competing at this high level. She felt it was important for her to be a leader this year—and there are so many who have spoken up for her, like former Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman and Dominique Dawes. And there are many people speaking out against the sexualization of women athletes! There was the story about the German gymnastics team with full-body leotards and the Norwegian beach handball team that wore shorts instead of authorized bikini bottoms and the runner who was accused of wearing shorts deemed too short. The federations and associations that have set these rules were led and run largely by men, but now women athletes are changing these rules by choosing what works best for them to wear.

EB: We haven’t even touched on the racism of these Olympics yet, either—specifically as it affects Black women athletes. Like the whole issue with the swim caps for natural Black women’s hair.

ML: What does it mean to compete while Black in a sport that is predominantly white? I would say gymnastics and swimming top that list. That these women are not putting up with the racism anymore and are speaking out is what I love about this Olympics. They are doing individual protests when they can. And on the soccer field, teams representing several countries, including the U.S., have kneeled in protest before their games begin. We are seeing major societal issues being spotlighted on the Olympics stage.

EB: How do you think the coverage of an event like the Olympics is affected by who is reporting on it?

ML: There are some amazing women in sports reporting now who are bringing these stories forward, and many of them are columnists—Tara Sullivan of The Boston Globe, Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, Christine Brennan of USA Today, Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle—and, sure, men and women can report on these issues, but I think a lot of female journalists convey a perspective that comes with being a woman. The best profile of Simone Biles I read was written by Juliet Macur in The New York Times. The details Macur includes—like the Maya Angelou tattoo Biles has on her collarbone—I hadn’t read anywhere else. I think it matters that Macur is a woman, that more women are reporting on women athletes.

EB: Speaking of Simone Biles, between her and Naomi Osaka, there has been a lot of coverage this year on the mental health struggles of professional athletes—especially athletes who are women and people of color. Do you think this coverage has been fair? Helpful? How can we support them?

ML: Well, who is the “we” here? We are no longer a “we” in this country, right? Athletes know that no matter what they say, they are going to get pummeled by a certain number of people who don’t believe them and go after them. It’s a courageous act to come out with anything personal these days. I mean, I was just on a segment of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel about a month ago with women sportswriters talking about how they’d been sexually harassed in their coverage of sports. They aren’t even the women competing in sports themselves, just women who talk and write about sports. And it’s horrific—the sexual harassment some of these women have endured , women covering baseball, in particular, have taken so much abuse.

As soon as a woman expresses her opinion—especially about sports, especially about men’s sports—all anyone wants to do is put them down. That’s what’s happening, too, with women athletes when they are sexually objectified. By doing that, their detractors are attempting to take their power away, to diminish the power of their voices. It’s still such a boys’ club. In the ’70s, when I was the only woman reporting full-time on baseball, the men saw me as an invader, believing that if they let me in through any door, more women would follow and we’d ruin their boys’ club. Today, such things are not so prominently said or expressed, but this atmosphere is still there. Sports are still perceived by many as belonging to men.

EB: A friend of mine reports on sports, often specifically about trans athletes and the amount of harassment they face on Twitter and beyond—I don’t know how they keep writing.

ML: It’s emotionally exhausting, and it’s why so many women leave sports media. And engaging on social media is a key part of your job now; it’s part of the deal.

EB: Seriously. You can’t escape it.

ML: But let’s not forget the inspirational stories! I think the most encouraging and exciting stories from this Olympics have been about women, too: Mongolia’s three-on-three basketball team, the cyclist from Afghanistan, the swimmer from Alaska, the young women skateboarders. My favorite is the one about ;the weightlifter from the Philippines winning her country’s first Olympic gold medal.

EB: Yes! I loved that one! And that photo of her with the gold medal!

ML: From the moment these Olympics started with Naomi Osaka lighting the cauldron, I knew that these games are not going to be remembered only for medals won but also for the larger issues they encompassed, such as the debate that ensued in Japan about her identity. The issues that led us into these Olympics will follow us out.