Women In Sports: Nicole Auerbachst

So Nicole and I actually met when I started doing the Women In Sports series (does that mean people are actually reading?!). We instantly bonded over our love for Hamilton (the musical, not some random dude), and having wine and/or pizza for dinner.  Nicole is one of the very few female national college basketball writers, working for USA Today, and in my opinion, is a pioneer in her own right.  She has previously worked for The Boston Globe, The Detroit Free Press, The Cape Cod Times, and The Trentonian.  Here is her story.

When was the first time you noticed that you were noticed that you were a women in industry?

Well, honestly at the student paper we always were trying to get more girls to join. Obviously sports had the least percentage of any other staff. We had 3-4 person beats for ice hockey, for men’s basketball, and then football and I never covered any of them with another woman. But it was actually during my internship at The Trentonian which was in the summer of 2008. So I was covering the Trinton Thunder, the double A team in the Yankees organization, and I remember the first two or three games they wouldn't let me in the locker room. And it was 2008.

What? Really?

And I’m like are you serious? I am on deadline. I need this - literally these games would end in a 10 minute window within my first deadline. There's no other woman on the beat and they just weren't used to it. And I remember I stormed back in and my editor called them and blah blah blah. They tried to pass it off as oh, she's an intern, that’s why we were doing it. She's not a full time employee, and I was like that is not what you were doing. Anyway, so it changed and I was able to get all the quotes with all the guys and all the guys wore towels, like they always did and I was able to build relationships with some of those players The following summer I interned at The Cape Cod Times, and which was an amazing internship. That’s the premier collage baseball summer league.  Chris Sale for example of the White Sox, he was the Allstar Game MVP that summer, and lot of guys are now in the majors and they're all doing really well. I would basically get to pick what game I would want to go to each night and then write about it, just bounce around the 10 teams.  And early in the season I made it a point to go and meet all these different managers.  A lot of them were high school coaches from the area who coached these collage kids literally every summer.  There's some that have been doing it for 30 years. So one of these coaches - I honestly can’t remember his name, I could certainly Google it but I don’t like to think about him very often - so he and his team had won, and one of his best player who had hit maybe 2 or more runs in the game was a temp player, and so I interviewed him about the game. Then I asked about him about his players - are you guys going to sign him for the season? And what’s the deal with his temp status? And he got all defensive and angry. And then I asked him a couple more questions about the game itself, for maybe a couple of defining plays, and he literally ends the interview dumbing down an explanation of a sacrificed bunt or something really dumb.  And he goes, "Did you understand everything I said?"  And I was like "YUP!" And I drove straight to my office, and just yelled about it to my boss and he was like you do not have to cover that team for the rest of the season. I was like I’m not.

 I remember the first two or three games they wouldn't let me in the locker room. And it was 2008.

I’m so angry for 2008 Nicole. I am so angry.

That was actually 2009!

I’m so angry for 2009 Nicole!

But It was amazing because in both situations my editors were awesome, and totally had my back.  And like I said, I had the power there. I chose who got coverage, and I literally was like, oh they're playing? Not going. And when I went back and wrote about that game, I made sure not to quote him. I was just like, I don’t have to deal with this person if I don’t want to and my editor had my back on it. So that was great.  But those were two really really frustrating moments pretty early on in the career. Kind of even earlier, you and I were talking before we start recording, a little bit about similar women in the field and mentors and different people. You know that was kind of before I had some of those women in place to call up and handle some of that. So thank goodness I had fantastic male sports editors that really had my back in those moments.

I feel like you got started right before there were a lot of women in the industry, before you know more than now obviously, so I cannot imagine what it must've been like.

Yeah and social media and the fact that everyone knows what everyone looks like, even print writers, and stuff like that, that sort of has changed the game so there definitely is another level of crap that I think we go through now. Even when I’m talking to Lisa Olson or Christine Brennan, who I am so grateful that I get to call and they pick up (I consider them close friends and mentors), and they're amazed at some of the crap that I've gone through. Not even those examples, because those are almost even more just old school, stuff that women shouldn't have to deal with in 2008, 2009. But more just the comments and just the way that social media kind of changed the game. So it is a different ... I’m trying to thinking the right word, but it is a different era almost.

It’s a different type of ... pioneering? I don’t know if that is the correct word but it’s a different type of shit that we have to face. What kind of stuff you have gotten on social media? Dare I even ask?

“You are so sexy. Who's telling you all that stuff about football to make you sound smart?”

You know it's interesting. As you know people who follow you, who follow me, are aware that they're following a women who is going to tweet about sports. So my followers are great. What I would say, and I remember saying this on The Audible with Stu Mandel and Bruce Feldman, that if I tweeted an opinion about who should be starting a quarterback at I don’t know, wherever there is a quarterback controversy.

Pick UGA. My alma mater always has a starting quarterback debate.

There ya go, okay! Who should be the starting quarterback at Georgia. I'll get people who will respond, and you know it also depends on if the tweet get shared, and it's beyond kind of my immediate follower base. But I'll get tweets with people saying "You don’t know anything, you're a girl!" Like, "You don't know anything about football," or this or that. Or my favorite, "Get back in the kitchen." And to that I'm always shocked. I'm like the kitchen is an amazing place.  That's where all all the food is. That sounds like a great place to be. So I don’t know why that’s an insult, but I get all that. It'll all be gender related, or it will be, you know, if I will break something, break news, you know maybe it’s, oh you only got that because you're doing so and so. Whatever it is, there's always a gendered or slut shaming element to it. And I was telling them and I said, Stew, if you tweeted the same opinion about the starting quarterback or you know, whatever it is, people argue back at you about the content of your tweet, not about your gender. I was on the podcast and I'm begging them, like, people argue with me about the content of my tweet! So then I got a bunch of tweets from people like, I will argue about your content! I was like yes! I am all for that. So I mean that sort of just how it manifests itself on a daily basis.

I think I've become a little bit more outspoken or comfortable sharing my opinion on some of the domestic violence and sexual assault cases and issues that are going around, which thank God the awareness has increased. I have also worked with different survivors. I did the story with Brenda Tracy, she's the Oregon State gang rape survivor, who just went and talked to Nebraska and she's incredible. So I have written about it. I have also shared my opinions about it, and that - you get a stronger reaction. It’s amazing if you write about or tweet about just straight news stories about sexual assault or domestic violence, there are violent mentions. Violence is in your mentions. It's almost like that subject matter, if people really disagree with you, well they're going to threaten things that are tied to the thing, the subject matter. It’s really nasty and really horrible and I just end up you know, blocking people. I have had to alert people in my - I don't know if they got the legal department involved but there were definitely higher ups who were monitoring certain people who were harassing me. It’s a really ugly place and I know you have done a lot of video work and I've noticed since doing TV work for the Big 10 Network, there is also an extra kind of social media presence. I get a lot of Facebook messages. So apparently Big 10 Network viewers are big on Facebook. I will get messages that are either like - oh my favorites one was like, “You are so sexy, who's telling you all that stuff about football to make you sounds smart?” I was like ... is this supposed to be a compliment? Because I really don't see how you thought this was going to work. So I get stuff that's either like someone must be telling you something or just entirely based on looks, good or bad looks. You should do your hair different!  You shouldn't wear that color! Really? You're some fashion fashion consultant middle aged man on the couch writing me a Facebook messages? It’s just very weird that people can interact directly with me - like I am not by any chance famous. I’m not by any chance like the athletes we cover and the coaches, which makes it even more amazing. Like if I was a student athlete, I would not be on social media. The fact that people are saying whatever they are saying to me or whoever in our industry, it’s so much worse for the people who actually playing the games and the coaches making the decisions. There's just no filter. The fact that people can say something, and if that person chooses to look at their @ mentions or their Facebook messages or whatever, that they can see it is just this game changer, and I am not a fan of that part of social media at all.

If you write about or tweet just straight news stories about sexual assault or domestic violence, there are violent mentions, violence is in your mentions.

It’s like the feedback back you never asked for! You're giving out this information to people, you're talking about this stuff, you look how you look because that's what you look like, and it’s like unsolicited feedback. I didn't ask for that? Why? Men don't get that.

No and it's not about the article you wrote or the content. I would just so much rather get feedback on the content, argue with me on the content. Tell me that my opinion is wrong for xyz. But yeah, it's something that is so different for male colleagues. I mean I always, I actually try to talk about it a lot with them, especially on the college football circuit just because like they are very really, barely any other national [female writers].

That's actually very alarming. I didn’t notice that until you pointed that out, that there are so few women that cover stuff on the national level. Because when we talked before this, I said there are so few women that cover the smaller beats and the local beats and then you say that, and it's just disheartening.

I mean yeah, you got of the big games or the Cotton Bowl and you're there for the whole week and literally only interacting with guys the entire time. Because you're interviewing men, you are eating dinner with men, you're talking to men, your editor is a man. I mean it’s very much like that and so if things like this come up, or Amelia Rayno, who is a friend, when she went public with her sexual harassment stuff in Minnesota, I got a lot of text and calls from my male colleagues and people asking: is this, is this you know what it’s like? And this and that. And I was trying educate them and talk about  it. Because women, even print writers, even if I'm not doing a video, I'm always thinking about what I am wearing, and I'm thinking about how I'm asking a source for their number. I'm thinking about what tone I'm using in a text message. What time I'm texting and calling, all of these things and their mouths open and they're just like, I never thought about any of that stuff. I’m like right, because you're a guy , you don’t have to. These are thing that people judge, maybe not judge, just automatically think about you.

Assume, yeah.

Yeah, and think that it’s maybe something they can comment on, or they can jump to a conclusion about any of those things. And the men, they just don't have to think about it. I'll be talking the coach or player or whatever and I'll a half hour interview and then I'll end it and I'll always look down at my notebook and say, "Hey, so and so, I was just wondering if it would be possible to get your phone number in case I have any further questions and maybe keep in touch in future". I always phrase it that way. And these guys, my male colleagues, are like wow, I never think about that, because they could just say, "Hey what's your number? Keep in touch." But I can’t ask the male coach. "Hey, what’s your number Keep in touch!"

And it just sucks because you know, your male colleagues they can go out they can get a drink with player or coach or assistant couch, and it’s not a big deal. I told Lauren [Brownlow] this story when I covered UNC.  Chapel Hill was a small town, the UNC community is a small one and so you're around the same people all the time.  I became friends Bobby Frasor. Bobby and I were in the same group of friends. We hang out all the time. Bobby is great he and I still keep in touch, but there were seriously several message board threads about my relationship with Bobby, and what was going on, and how long we've been dating, and it’s just like come on. It's like you have to go out of your way to prove you're a professional, but also it sucks because it hurts your contacts because you can’t form casual friendships with people. It’s infuriating.

I think with the college players now though, they're just so used to seeing women around the sports things.  They all know who the Erin Andrewses are and they've watched Hannah Storm deliver sports and Sage Steele. They're just so used to it, it's normal and I think players realize that and coaches too.  I think that sometimes there's certainly advantages to being a woman in the position.

You should do your hair different! You shouldn't wear that color! I’m like really? You're some fashion fashion consultant, middle aged man on the couch writing me a Facebook messages?

I was actually going to ask that, yeah, please go on.

Yeah I certainly think of a lot of stories I pitch, or some of the angles I think of are different. I think that maybe, potentially, I am able to get someone to open up about something in a different way than a male colleague might not; particularly maybe a family or touchy subject potentially. And I have also done stories like that, so that kind of helps build credibility along those ways. But you know, I did a story last summer about what college football programs were actually doing to educate their players about domestic violence and sexual assault. Were they bringing people in? And what was the message? And I talked to maybe a dozen head football coaches, and I found out that Tennessee has brought in Kathy Redmond Brown who has been raped when she was a student at Nebraska, and she goes around and speaks as a survivor and she talked to other teams. And I also met Alexis Jones who, her message is a bystander intervention message.  She talks to Elite 11 quarterbacks and she has gone to USC and Texas and UCLA and all of these places. So I wrote about these women who are getting brought in. I wrote about what Mark Richt, what his message is, and all these things.  And it was kind of this comprehensive package. No one else wrote anything like that.  I mean everyone wrote individual stories each time last off-season, that there were arrests or videos of people punching girl at bars or whatever it was. But I think that was a story and an angle that I was thinking about, well okay so there's been a string of these things, what are people actually educating? What is the message? And finding that schools had been bringing in certain women in recent years to raise awareness and to make sure people understand consent and this and that. That is an issue that effects women in a different way. So I just think A) the way that maybe I am able to interact with people, maybe I am more memorable if I am the only women in the room? So I certainly think there are advantages, but I think mostly I think it's just come at it from a different angle and that's kind of why you always want diverse newsrooms in terms of minorities, but also women and just the more people who come at things with different angles and ideas, the better. So I think that’s been probably a really big strength that I've been able to bring to USA Today and I think that, that’s kind of the story that I point to as an example.

Oh yeah, I haven’t talked much about advantages of being a woman in the industry and there are definitely are some. There have been times where I've seen that guys have opened up to me little bit more just because of the way -  I don’t know - just the way I interact with them, the way that I talk to them, it's not the same old thing. And you know it’s not another old man type of thing. It's a refreshing thing for them.

What type of advice you give to girls coming into the industry now? Because I look back at when I started out and there so many things I wis I would have done different. There was an example that you used earlier about when you speak out about rape and sexual assault on Twitter, the stuff you get tweeted back at you. It took me a very long time to speak out about stuff like that, because a lot times I'm sometimes nervous to state my opinion. I was always very nervous to be myself. I kind of felt  pressured, like I needed to fit this certain mold. Okay, I am women in the industry, that means I need to do sideline or I need to just read the teleprompter. I wish that I was told that I could be more than that. That I could be like Katie Nolan, and be funny, and have my own personality and do that stuff. I could be like Rachel Nichols and do investigative stuff and real journalism. I could be more than just a sideline reporter or reading off a teleprompter. And I wish somebody had told me that before I started this.

I'm really glad you brought up Rachel Nichols. She is amazing and she is also the nicest person, so down to earth. But I think what her path and you mentioned Katie Nolan's, hopefully are showing girls who are in collage, maybe considering this that there are multiple jobs in this field. I mean for the longest time, even though I was writing exclusively for print newspapers, everyone always asked me, so do you want to be sideline reporter? And I was like, but that’s not even at all what I'm doing and I don’t.  I want to tell stories and write them. But people - and this wasn’t in a mean way, this was friends and family who genuinely wanted what was best for me - they just didn’t know what jobs there were for women. And I think that what's really helped hopefully, with people like Rachael and Katie, is that people are seeing that there is a lot of different ways to do this industry as a women. Dana O'Neil and I have had this conversation a lot too because there is generation of women who are in print journalism, but there is gap and Dana believes that gap is because for a long, people either were told or felt that the only path to be a woman in sports was sideline reporting and TV and maybe being a host. So the advice I would give would be, if you love to write, write. If you love to do radio, do radio. There are so many women on sports talk radio now and ESPN has done incredible job of giving women voices and platforms to give their opinions. I am so grateful that The Big 10 Network has hired me for last 2 years and I will do it again this fall, as a studio analyst for college football.  I get to give my opinion and I get to analyze things and I’m not the girl asking the guys the questions. And that was something that really important to me and I just would hope that girls who loves sports, who love journalism, realize that you don’t have to be the girl who asks the guys the questions for their opinion. You can give you opinion and that’s something that like I've said, about now kind of speaking up more on some of those issues. I did not feel like I could. I was sort of like, well I'm not a columnist, you know eventually later in my career maybe I'll be able to do that. But there are way that you can analyze things, and there are ways that you can show your personality and your beliefs and things that are not obnoxious, that are not above your pay grade, that are inappropriate for your job, or whatever it is. But there are ways to make it clear that you have an opinion that matters, and you can share it and you can argue it, and I think that guys are clearly not afraid to do that. I mean my Twitter mentions tell me that all the time. But also guys who are starting sports blogs or this or that. I mean they're not afraid to be opinionated and that’s something that women are.  I wish I had felt more comfortable being opinionated or felt my opinions were strong enough.

For the full interview you can listen to the podcast here.