Female sportscasters have come a long way, baby. From 5:45 a.m. To 11 p.m. To be exact. On a typical monday during football season, you can tune in to Eyewitness News this Morning’s Janib Abreu as you pour milk on your Cheerios; catch a mid-morning version of ESPN’s Sportscenter that features coanchor Linda Cohn and reporters Andrea Kremer, Suzy Kolber, and Ann Werner; see Melissa Stark’s sideline reports during ABC’s Monday Night Football; watch Monica Pelligrini coanchor the sports on the UPN 9 News at 10; then flip to cohost Inga Hammond’s wrap-up on CNN-Sports Illustrated right before bed.
These days, women are as much a part of sports broadcasting as reverse-angle replays. And sure, some of them are still hired strictly for their ability to make male viewers drool down the fronts of their officially licensed alternate road jerseys. But listen to Kremer dissect the Rams’ pass coverage or Cohn deliver a one-liner that would make Dennis Miller envious, and you realize that the “fairer sex” can dig out a story or piss off a head coach just as well as any guy can.
In large part, the ladies do their job without discrimination. That’s because many of the doors were opened, the barriers pushed aside, and the narrow minds widened a long time ago by a somewhat unlikely pioneer: a soft-spoken, petite brunette named Jane Chastain.
“She’s our Jackie Robinson,” says CBS Sports reporter Lesley Visser.
Adds Bernie Rosen, the former sports director at Miami’s WTVJ-TV, where Chastain was a sports anchor for nine years, “Every woman sportscaster ought to kiss the bottom of her feet for what she went through to pave the the way for them. But most of them don’t even know who she is.”
Chastain was the first female sportscaster on both the local and national levels, enjoying a career that spanned 1963 to 1978. She was pretty and poised, and with long hair flowing from beneath a beret, she resembled the Mary Tyler Moore character of Mary Richards. But Chastain didn’t make it after all when she broke network ground and arrived at CBS Sports in 1974. In fact, had she thrown her hat in the air, à la Mary, it would have struck a glass ceiling that was thicker than a Coke bottle.
“I had 15 great years, and one miserable one—the one at CBS,” says Chastain, who’s now 57.
Chastain started her career in Atlanta before moving to Raleigh and, eventually, Miami. Her audition tapes never failed to open eyes, not because she was a novelty act, but because she knew sports.
“On cut-down day at the Dolphins training camp, I could have made the cuts myself,” she says.
Says Rosen, “Joe DiMaggio showed up at spring training in Fort Lauderdale once and refused to talk to Jane. She said to him, ‘Mr. DiMaggio, I’m going to go back and tell my boss that I didn’t get the interview because I’m a woman. Would that make you happy?’ DiMaggio thought about it, gave her the interview, and told her later, ‘You know what? You did know what you were talking about.’ ”
For a woman sportscaster in the ’60s and ’70s, the obstacles were much more than just getting the jocks to talk Xs and Os. In those days, stadium JumboTrons didn’t exist, and when the five-two-and-a-half Chastain would work the sidelines, she couldn’t see over the players. She also didn’t have the benefit of an on-field producer or live audio feed. As a result, she often didn’t know what was unfolding in the game she was covering. For a long time, she wasn’t allowed in any locker rooms or most press boxes. Athletes propositioned her. She was even burned in effigy by some feminists who thought it demeaning to women that she did things like use a shopping cart in a supermarket aisle to demonstrate to viewers how to set a basketball pick.
“She took a lot of abuse, a lot of behind-her-back stuff,” says ESPN’s Roy Firestone, who interned at WTVJ during some of Chastain’s tenure. “I’d see players literally check out her skirt when she sat down. And she had to do things that today would be considered sexist: wearing coaches’ outfits to do a “Coach Friday” segment, wearing miniskirts. She got things done by being persistent, not militant. If she were more uppity, she could have raised a ruckus, but that would have probably set back the cause.”
When the pioneer got to CBS, though, she was considered more Jaclyn Smith than Jackie Robinson.
“They thought I was too glamorous, even though they’d go and hire Phyllis George a year later,” says Chastain. “They made me tie my hair in a bun and take off my makeup. When I’d cover football, the producers would tell me to talk about what the women in the stands were wearing or how cute a player was. They wanted me to interview cheerleaders. I said, ‘I don’t know how to do that. I’ve been doing sports for 10 years.’ ”
For a while, Chastain’s assignments were gems: the NFL and NBA, the Cotton Bowl and Sun Bowl, the Pan-Am Games, golf, and tennis. But she was forever being shuttled between producers, never quite sure what was expected of her. One week she’d be instructed to “not sound so much like a woman” and the next be told that she sounded “too technical, too much like a man.” On top of that, as the first woman on a man’s turf (or, sometimes, AstroTurf), she was often the story. While on assignment in some cities, Chastain would grant more interviews than she conducted.
She seemed to finally prove herself to the CBS brass when she snagged injured Portland Trail Blazer Bill Walton for a halftime interview one day, and her grilling got the star center to reveal that he thought team doctors cared more about serving the front office than the players. But soon after that, Chastain told her bosses she was pregnant and she was banished to the junk-sport hinterlands. “No more NFL or NBA,” she says. “It was surfing and water skiing.” When her contract ran out in ’75, Robert Wussler, then the VP of CBS Sports, told her it wasn’t being renewed.
Says Chastain, “I was told, ‘You’re not the person we hired.’ After everything they’d changed about me, of course I wasn’t!” (Numerous attempts to reach Wussler were unsuccessful.)
She returned to Miami for a year, then worked at KABC-TV in Los Angeles for two years before leaving sports in ’78 to raise her son. These days, Chastain lives in California and writes a weekly political column for WorldNetDaily.com, having recently given up the daily talk show she hosted for nine years on Christian radio. A staunch conservative (“Bill Clinton should be in jail, not the White House”), she has appeared on Politically Incorrect with the likes of Drew Carey and Ralph Nader.
Chastain says she’s not bitter that her big shot at the CBS limelight flopped. She admits to being rankled, however, by the fact that too many people think it was a certain ex-Miss America who broke the gender barrier in TV sports. (Typical of the response of young reporters the Voice spoke to was that of CBS’s 30-year-old Bonnie Bernstein, who said, “I never actually heard of Jane. When CBS got football back, most of the talk here was about the days of Phyllis George.”) Chastain also finds it “curious” that no one has ever thanked her personally for her contributions.