Network executives can argue convincingly that when they are trying to satisfy 250 million viewers and protect millions of dollars, they are under no obligation to broaden horizons. The so-called expert analyst is allowed to be shaggy or offbeat or clownish—or even female—but chancing young or original voices is not encouraged, regardless of sex. So, for the time being, the most realistic avenues for women will remain in cable and hard news, where knowledge and diversity—not just the viewers' comfort—have some value.
"Comfort is very important," Gardner says. "But you know what? It isn't what makes your existence special, or unusual, or creative. If I was a manager with 10 slots open, I would feel it was incumbent on me not to fill them with 10 replicas of myself."
Audience acceptance is a particularly sensitive topic for women sportscasters when the issue of personal appearance enters the discussion. Sullivan has constantly been advised to dye her prematurely gray hair. "If I don't, I'm considered belligerent," she says. Gardner must guard against weight increases and her Brooklyn accent. Carillo played a wicked joke on Visser at last year's U.S. Open tennis tournament by telling her that in the control truck, "They say they'll have to live with your hair."
Though de Varona, a mother of two, remains incandescent at 44, she wonders when she will outlive her usefulness at a network that already favors the attractive, competent 30-year-old Ruyak. "Am I still going to be attractive in the business?" de Varona says. "Jack Whitaker is. But I'm competing against younger women now." So, perhaps, is Gardner. Ebersol has made no secret of the fact that he covets CNN's Storm, a talented 29-year-old who will probably be the beneficiary of a network bidding war when her contract expires next year. "Can you be a 55-year-old woman sportscaster? We don't know," Gardner says.
Unwillingness to experiment with women has told most heavily in the play-by-play booth, the place where experience counts most and is most difficult to gain, and where an uneducated voice sounds the silliest. At ABC from 1977 to 1981, Kirby was a highly regarded feature reporter getting nowhere trying to break into play-by-play. She won a concession when ABC put her in an audition booth for Monday Night Baseball, but she didn't get the job. "Because I wasn't the best one," she said. "I could have been as good, but I just didn't have the background." On Dec. 27, 1987, Gayle Sierens became the first woman to do play-by-play for an NFL game, broadcasting a Seattle-Kansas City contest for NBC under then executive producer Michael Weisman. It was an interesting experiment and one that was not repeated, partly because Sierens decided to switch to straight news. "Truthfully, even I thought it was strange to hear a woman's voice doing it," she says. Agent Ed Hookstratten, who represents George and Visser, predicts that women won't succeed at play-by-play until "the guy with the six-pack who wore spikes accepts them."
Even the mildest of network experiments, like George's debut on The NFL Today, in 1975, appears more daring in that light. As Hookstratten describes it, George was "a piece of showmanship" on the part of then CBS Sports president Bob Wussler. "She was never intended to be a sportscaster," Hookstratten says. "She was a personality." So it was fashionable, for a while, to regard the role that George played as a setback for women: She was too pretty, her work was too soft, her role demeaning. However, George was something of a breakthrough. She made it acceptable for a woman to appear on a Sunday football show, and did so gracefully in the face of hate mail from high school football coaches and some initial sneering from male colleagues in the studio. "I think I cracked the door," she says. "That's all you could do. There was some heat at first. But I'm not taking any credit. Others pushed it open."
George defends the work she did as interesting and personable. If nothing else, she made the female voice in sports less discordant to male viewers. "She went where no one went," Visser says. "And you know what? She was good. Everyone liked her." Now 41 years old and a mother of two, George is considering reentering broadcasting and is curious to see what has changed.
The progress can only be described as hiccuping. "It seems like we go in waves," Kirby says. De Varona has experienced more of that than anyone. In the early years she traipsed around the country, taking any sort of on-air work. She called stations to see if anyone was sick or on vacation, and she worked for union scale. "It took me years to get off the pool deck," she says. Gradually she built a base in Olympic events other than swimming and is now more broadly versed than most ABC reporters. But she has never become the voice she aspires to be, particularly after doing some critically acclaimed reporting and host work at the '84 Summer Olympics. "I don't feel the rewards came after that," she says. "You do good work, and then wait and wait for another good assignment."
While they are waiting for progress, most women in the business debate whether they are wiser to agitate or to keep silent. "It's hard enough to just do your job and keep the peace," de Varona says. A summary of their status: They continue to be judged more critically than male colleagues for what they wear, say and do; they are given fewer prestigious assignments; and they are paid less. They are tired of being exceptions in a supposedly enlightened modern industry.
"It's too easy to play the victim," de Varona says. "We're making progress. It's coming. It's just taking longer than I ever thought it would."