Sports Editor a Woman? Advancing the Cause Across Sexual Barriers

Sports Editor a Woman? Advancing the Cause Across Sexual Barriers

     “The delivery man looked embarrassed as he stood at the entrance to the Northeastern News office. ‘Um, I have some flowers for the uh — sports editor of the NU News,’ he stammered.” So began the press release issued by the university after I was elected the first woman sports editor of the News in the winter of 1970, my junior year at NU.

     It wouldn’t be the first time my job was greeted with “Whaaat?” And it wouldn’t be the last time I’d be called a “pioneer,” a label which could sometimes be hard to live up to.

     Yes, it was true. I was the first woman sports editor of the News, a promotion noted nationally in newspapers such as The New York Times, the Boston Herald and my hometown paper the New Haven Register, which, in turn, prompted calls for interviews on radio shows around the country. No pressure!

They say creativity loves chaos and a messy desk is a sign of genius; some excuse like that. (Donna Doherty behind her desk at TENNIS Magazine)

     I was stunned. To me, it was like everything else in my life: A natural progression toward a goal worked for and ultimately achieved, albeit not always greeted with welcoming acceptance. I got used to skeptics at every level of my career — even later when I rose from assistant editor to top editor of The New York Times-owned TENNIS magazine, covering the sport that was totally ahead of its time in acceptance of female reporters, though we were still vastly outnumbered by our male counterparts. 

     Veering at the employment fork in the road toward sports was all a happy accident, one of several in a career that has arced from legal and general reporting to sports and to the arts, my three great loves in life. It was all good preparation for what it was like to be an anomaly in the male-dominated world of sports at that time.  I was a White House reporter-bound English-Journalism major who found herself seeking solace in the comfort zone of sports on the school paper.  It was a respite from a stressful co-op job, where, as a barely-out-of-her-teens court reporter, found herself in a different kind of spotlight covering the Bobby Seale Black Panther murder trial for the New Haven Register. 

     The News was my solace from the drama of that national story which accidentally dropped into my lap when I was suddenly catapulted from backup reporter for the Superior Court beat into the main role. The regular reporter was immersed in a salacious trial of gang rape by a motorcycle club. It was the kind of on-the-job experience that Northeastern liked to tout to potential students: Earn your way through college and come out with two full years of experience in your chosen field.

     I was more than hooked. I was committed, diligent, yet confused by what the hoopla was, even though I was politically active and certainly not ignorant of the history. But this was a two-bit hit job on a suspected police informant by what turned out to be a bunch of young, impressionable people about my age swept up in the passion stirred by the charismatic and exciting Bobby Seale.

     It was easy to stay above that fray because of the sheer intensity and volume of work required by a neophyte reporter thrown into a huge story, learning on the ropes, and privately scared to death about making a mistake or, worse yet, worrying that this might be the biggest story of her career. One day I crumbled to the floor in tears at my parents’ house, betraying my ambition when I wailed to my startled parents: “What if this is the highlight of my career? It’s too big, too soon.” Little did I know, a White House assignment was in my future.

     When I got back to school, it was a relief. I was with friends, mostly writing types, all of them connected to my journalism classes or the News, Spectrum or Cauldron. I needed to relax and have fun with my extracurricular activities. Sports was going to allow me to take that breath.

     And, as it turned out, sports saved me and my career. Thanks to Woodward and Bernstein, after Watergate broke in 1972 while I was at graduate school at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications, everyone wanted to be an investigative reporter. The job market tightened up, and I was lost for a few years, mired in a go-nowhere job at a law firm which was supposed to be padding my legal resume and helping me toward that dream job of being the next Leslie Gelb, the esteemed New York Times writer (yes, I realized that Leslie was a male).

     My femaleness was always in my face, coming into play on so many levels, and, yes, there were accusations and innuendo about favoritism. Because the New Haven Register knew that I had been elected sports editor of the News, and because the paper was being sued for sex discrimination by its women reporters, when a job opened in sports, the sports editor offered it to me. Smart move on his part. We met over lunch, chatted casually about sports, though I knew the questions were loaded to see just how much I was up on. He never asked for a resume or even a clip of any articles from the News. 

     So, there I was, a pioneer again, totally oblivious to that status at first, because the guys on staff were both accepting and protective. It was an eye-opening experience, however, for them to see how cruel some people could be. I was assigned to the scholastic beat, writing game stories and features on football, hockey, basketball, etc., and was reminded by helicopter parents that you don’t put the name of the kid who was deked by for a goal, you don’t say who fumbled the ball, you don’t give your work phone number to a coach for a story because his wife might find it in his wallet and call you at that number to ask if you’re having an affair with her husband. 

     You don’t ever make a mistake in a story or else you’re a “dumb broad,” and you are expected to operate at a level 110 percent over your male peers, who, of course, never make mistakes, right? You never give too much credit to the archrival team who beat your kids’ team, because then “you stink” will be yelled from across a hockey rink.

Donna Doherty holds his racket as tennis legend Rod Laver shows off his stretch before an instruction article photo shoot in La Quinta, Calif., in the ’90s. (Photo: Mark Siegal)

     You just keep moving forward. One day my boss noticed me updating my index cards on all things tennis. He took the tennis beat away from one of the guys, who only covered the U.S. Open and a few nearby events. I expanded the coverage to a weekly column and features on all levels of the sport, covered World Team Tennis, the U.S. Pro Championships at Longwood, and some U.S. Tennis Association junior events. 

     But all good things must come to an end. Mine did when the assistant sports editor, who was also the assignment editor, took more than a liking to me, and responded to my lack of reciprocity by assigning me to the desk for weeks. My colleagues were outraged, I was distraught and threatened to report him to the top editor, which could ruin his career as he was ruining mine, because the paper already had one discrimination suit on its hands.

     He pleaded ignorance to my accusations, and miraculously, out of the blue, The New York Times-owned TENNIS magazine called with a couple of freelance assignments. I was given permission to write them, though they were never published. They were just exercises to see if I could handle magazine writing.

     When the managing editor offered me the entry-level job of assistant editor in December 1978, I went to the Fairfield County office to interview with the editor. I could tell it wasn’t going well …  déjà vu of the interview I’d had at Columbia U with a chauvinistic dean who asked why an attractive woman like myself was seriously interested in making this career choice. It was the same attitude toward women demonstrated by many of the all-male faculty at Syracuse. 

     Then, in popped his boss, the CEO of the Golf Digest/TENNIS division of The New York Times Magazine Group for an introduction. “Oh, you’re the Donna Doherty who wrote that line about Eddie Dibbs having as much chance to win that match at Longwood as Michael Spinks had of getting any more money out of the Tooth Fairy,” he said, sealing the deal.

     Fortunately, when the New York papers went on a wildcat strike for 84 days in the summer of 1978, the Golf Digest/TENNIS editors had been reading my tennis coverage in the Register. 

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who played tennis around the world as CIA chief, ambassador to China and V.P., gave a White House interview for a 1986 first-person article about his love of tennis.

     I climbed onto that wagon and traveled the world in the Golden Age of tennis, working with the top stars of the game: Pete Sampras, Chris Evert, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Bjorn Borg, my childhood idol Billie Jean King, and more. It was heady and exhausting, as I worked my way up from assistant editor to the top editor’s slot in 1990, three years after I’d talked then-Vice President George H.W. Bush into a White House interview about his lifelong love of tennis.

     As fate would have it, I’d forged an active volunteer life in the arts, which served me well enough to make a full circle career move back to the Register as Arts Editor. It saved my life after a heartbreaking ending at TENNIS when the Times sold all its magazines, and the new owners brought in their own people.

     For once, I wasn’t the “only” in the room. My pioneer days were over, but proving myself wasn’t. You can imagine how an arts community responds to a sportswriter taking over its coverage, but they soon realized my passion, and together we raised the standards of the section to new award-winning heights.

     I didn’t have to worry about sexism. I only had to make them feel appreciated and worthy of attention … something I’d learned a lot about.