Women In Sports: Laura Keeley

I met Laura when she started covering Duke for the News & Observer while I covered UNC for Inside Carolina. She quickly established herself as one of the best beat writers not just in the Triangle area, but in the country.  Prior to her time at the News & Observer she worked at The Tampa Bay Times and Bloomberg News.  She is one of the most talented writers I have ever been around.  In a big shock to everyone, she announced her departure from sports writing about a week ago. Here is her story:

Laura, I’ll just let you kind of take the reins here and kind of get a little bit of your background and break the news—I guess the news already broke, but Laura is unfortunately leaving the industry. She told me, you told me a couple weeks ago and I … it still hasn’t really hit me, I don’t know. Alright you take it, just talk, just go.

It’s totally bittersweet. I was talking to a friend outside of the industry about this, just because it’s like, I obviously have not hated my job and I’ve been the Duke beat reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer and the Charlotte Observer for the past four years, and there have been some great moments. I don’t regret a second of it, so it’s weird to be like, “Yes, I’m leaving. I am moving to New York City and going to Law school at Columbia.” It’s just, I’m obviously excited but like I said, bittersweet. But that is the job I’ve had for the past four years. Prior to that, I covered primarily high school sports for what is now the Tampa Bay Times, what was the St. Pete Times when I worked for it. So, those are the five years I’ve spent post school in the industry, and I have learned a ton and seen some crazy stuff and got (inaudible) in cool places. So, you know, definitely no regrets.

What went into the decision of you wanting to leave the industry? Because I look at your work and it’s so good, and I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. But then I look at your job and it just seems like such an exciting one, and one that so many young journalists would want. So what went into that decision?

Yeah, I agree with everything that you said. And it’s funny, I was hired to do this job when I was 23 years old—which, now looking back, is super laughable. It’s laughable how much I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know. But at the time I was like, “Yeah, sure I can do this, whatever.” And I did do it, so you know, it all worked out for everybody, but I don’t need to tell you and everybody else 23 is young, and I’ve done, I feel like, a tremendous amount of personal growing since then. So I’m 27 now. And I just feel like kind of as I grew up, and as the sports media landscape, particularly the college media landscape, continued to ,like, evolve, that it just kind of became less and less of a good fit. I’m somebody who like—I run a lot, I train for marathons, probably more than I should. So I run six days a week, and I have a group of people that I like to run with, and that is a big part of my day. And I have other interests, like I’ve been doing some volunteering stuff that does lead into why I’m going to law school. So I feel like I’ve always had a life outside of this job and that becomes a dicey proposition. You meet plenty of good reporters who are totally married to their job, and its tough. If you want to be really good at this, working a lot of nights, you’re working a lot of weekends and when things happen, you drop everything and you go get it. I feel like my current position covering Duke was still fairly compatible with having a life. You’re on a lot of weekends but it’s fine, it’s whatever. Kind of looking beyond my current situation, and I’ll be honest with you, and I told this to my bosses, I don’t make enough money to stay covering college the rest of my life. I just don’t. So it’s like, okay. I am going to have to leave here eventually. As much as I do love this area. So what is next for me? I don’t have a ton of interest in TV. Otherwise I would have gone into TV journalism. And I don’t want to travel like I would have to travel in order to cover the NFL, the NBA, or the NHL. And, like, to cover the NFL—just because I could never act like it was a big deal who the 53rd man on the roster was, like this was a life or death, like, paid to be fake. So it’s like, alright. I don’t really want to cover pro sports, and it’s like, but I don’t really want to move from market to market like every two to three years for the next 10 years and at times to climb up the pay scale just because that’s what you have to do. So that’s kind of where I was at. Obviously I feel like I could’ve stayed covering Duke for a long time. I don’t feel like I was probably going to get fired from that job. So I just kind of reached a point where I was like, what is best for me? And this is something again I talked about when I was telling my editors about the leave. College is, the game is changing, especially at Duke. Duke has a very aggressive in-house media operation. And Duke is ahead of the curve. But all of the big schools are headed in this direction. Duke at this point now has its own Players Tribune website, where they have players that write their personal essays. They make like mini documentaries. So Duke, at this point, views me as competition, to be honest. They’re not super interested in working with me in the old traditional sense. You need a certain level of cooperation with the school to tell full stories. Especially dealing with Duke basketball. So it’s just been a lot of different factors, I’ve gone on and on forever, but you asked what went into the decision.

I don’t make enough money to stay covering college the rest of my life.

I think those are all valid points. Because I feel like a lot of outsiders look at this industry as this big glamorous money-making thing, and I cannot tell you when I covered UNC, I cannot tell you how many people tweeted at me. Like when I had layovers, or my flight got delayed, or I got stuck somewhere because of snow—. Oh my God, that time I got stuck in Tallahassee, God bless my soul. People would tweet at me like, “oh, you don’t travel on the private jet with the team?” No! People have a very over-glamorized idea of what this industry is like. I talked to Nicole Auerbach on my last podcast about this, and her and I just talked about the grind. And she was telling me that probably 90 to 100 days out of the year, she’s on the road, and when you divide that up, that’s a lot. It really is. It’s a grind, and the pay is not what it should be. And it is getting so much harder with social media and the schools having their own media entities. You have players who have their own Twitter, Facebook, and Instagrams; they produce content. You have the schools who have their own writers, videographers, everything; they produce content. It’s starting to kind of be like, what’s the point? Kids are breaking their own recruiting news on Twitter. Schools are doing their own feature pieces on students. So you kind of have to wonder, is this shifting? And it’s a little bit scary, I think, for people that cover teams, especially college ones.

Totally scary. Because like you said, where do traditional reporters fit into that mix? What do you offer, and looking at UNC, the obvious answer is well, you can really go to war on something like a scandal. But it’s like, I can’t tell you how difficult it is to show up to work with people who do not want you there. Is that really what we’re going to? Like traditional media is going to have to have an absurdly adversarial relationship with the people they cover? That’s not fun; nobody wants that. Yes, that needs to happen sometimes; on some stories, there will be disagreements. But if that’s the only niche you have, to try to anger the people you have to deal with, that’s a tough way to do it. So yeah, I think it’s totally scary and I think this is a conversation that needs to be happening in newsrooms around the country. What is our niche? What do we do best? How do we go forward with minimal cooperation from these schools? I’m sure some people will listen to this and be like, you’re not supposed to work with them anyhow. Figure out another way. Yeah I get all of that, but at the end of the day, you do need a certain amount of cooperation and access from these teams to these players to be able to do anything meaningful and cool and in-depth, and all those things that we all want to do.

You were also one of the only women on the beat, kind of in that Triangle area. I talked to Lauren Brownlow and I talked to Brooke Pryor about that, and we discussed how few women there were on the local beat, and it’s interesting because when I talked to Nicole, I was like, “I’m sure it’s way better on the national level but this, and this, and this on the local.” And she was like, “Um, not quite. I’m one of like three women who covers national college basketball,” and she listed off the other ones. And I was just like, “holy hell.” This is, that’s true. Did you kind of realize that heading into the industry? Were you prepared to be the only woman? Or one of the only women, I guess?

You know, it’s funny. It’s something that, again, I feel as I have grown up, my view on this has evolved. I think people can pleasantly surprise you. I feel like I have never felt more like a female in a male-dominated industry [than] when I was covering prep sports in Tampa. You were just getting out of the car, walking across this disgusting, sweaty, swampy football field. Talking to these coaches who are just like, small-town Florida boys, have been there forever and ever and talking to, you covered a bunch of recruiting. High school boys have never been my favorite demographic.

I’m not sure they’re anybody’s favorite demographic. I’m sure we’ve offended all of the high school boys that listen to my podcast, but go on.

Yeah, but I will say, people were crazy nice and respectful to me. And I feel very fortunate that very few coaches and really no non-professional players have ever made me feel uncomfortable. There have been some exceptions, but I do feel very fortunate. But in the beginning when I was younger, ask me what it’s like to be a female. Well, I definitely think that people remember me easier, remember my face easier than the next white male. There’s 20 white males and one female. They’re going to remember that female. It’s easier, but as I’ve gotten older, athletes and everybody definitely relate different to women than they do to men. I’m not saying for better or for worse, but they just do. Our interactions can be a little bit different than when they’re talking to a guy, and I’ve never nailed down whether I think it is a benefit or a hindrance to be a female in this industry and to be one of the few females. I will say though that I think the Triangle media scene is full of absolutely amazing guys to work with. Some of my best friends—Andrew Carter who works for us, Joe Giglio who works for the News and Observer, Bret and Stephen Strelow who work in Fayetteville, Steve Wiseman who works at the Herald, Durham Herald Sun, great guy. Herald was fun. Adam Spiff in Burlington. The list goes on and on. Connor in Burlington. It was great always going to work and seeing those guys, so I think if I was working in a more cutthroat, petty market, maybe I would feel differently about it, but here, I felt like I was welcome and respected, and I definitely didn’t feel like being a woman in this area was a disadvantage for me.

It’s interesting that you say that you haven’t figured out if it’s a hindrance or an advantage because I think there are some times that I feel that way too. Because players and coaches will kind of sometimes talk to you a little bit more, or react to you a little bit differently, or give you a little more because you’re not just another old white dude—because the industry is filled with them. I’m not saying that in a disrespectful way; there’s nothing wrong with being an older white male. But the industry’s filled with them, so even in any way that you can stand out, it gives you a little bit of an advantage. But at the same time you also, or at least in my experience, is you experience a little bit of subtle sexism. And it’s nothing, I never experienced anything extremely blatant, but all the women that I’ve talked to, it’s like little things here and there. Like, men won’t tell dirty jokes, or “here, let me help you with that. Oh your hair looks nice today.” It’s like, are you telling Mr. Joe over here that his outfit’s on point? It’s that kind of stuff. Which I don’t necessarily think that they mean it in a disrespectful way, but it kind of singles you out. And I think that’s the tough part. You feel a little uncomfortable with the unwanted attention.

Yeah and it’s like look, if you’re going to make a dirty joke, like I’m sure it’s not one I haven’t heard. It’s just like, I feel like that stuff does bother me. And again, I do feel like most of the times it’s done by older men who were kind of raised in a different era who are trying to be polite. But it’s like yeah, I don’t want singled—like, I don’t want to be treated any differently. Like you can tell your off-colored joke and I won’t melt. I don’t know what you think is going to happen. I’ll probably laugh.

I just decided that I didn’t need to let these people who were attacking me and making me angry and sad, I didn’t need to let them live in my pocket, on my phone.

What about online? Because social media and the Twittersphere is a whole other animal. And I’ve had women tell me that they’ve had ridiculous things tweeted about them and about their appearance. Stuff about rape. Just unbelievable things. Have you had any of those experiences in the world of social media?

Yeah, I used to pay way more attention to Twitter than I do now. And I think part of that, I’ve had the benefit of knowing—I’ve known for over a year that I was headed to law school. So that made it easier to kind of ignore some of the Twitter discussions and some of the ridiculous things that people say. But I’ve definitely developed a thicker skin, there’s no doubt about it, from when I first started this job. For me, it’s just like, the personal attacks. People would come after me personally. It’s just like, why’d I go there? And I found this and I don’t know how much experience you had and I really think this is a thing, but like, NC State fans I felt were relentless about me. I don’t know why that was, or like, I feel like they definitely felt like I was picking on them anytime I would offer any type of opinion, and it got relentless. In the beginning I was like, I’m not going to block anybody just because that’s dumb and I oppose the restricting of information just on principle. But then I was like, I forget I read, it might have been a Wright Thompson thing because he got off of Twitter, and I don’t know if it was him or somebody else but somebody wrote—I just decided that I didn’t need to let these people who were attacking me and making me angry and sad, I didn’t need to let them live in my pocket, on my phone.

That’s a great way to put it.

Yeah, and so I’ve, like halfway through my tenure, about two years in, I got pretty aggressive with the block button. You know, I don’t need this. I don’t need you coming up with some type of personal attack or some, “make me a sandwich,” just ridiculous stuff. I don’t need this. I feel very passionately and strongly about violence against women. And this is something that I feel like comes up more and more and more with sports culture today, and I can’t decide whether we’re just talking about it more or if it’s becoming more and more popular, which is a terrifying thought. I can think of like, I had strong opinions about the Baylor case a few years ago; I had strong opinions about the Jameis Winston case and how the police handled that. And it’s like, the games I cover, and most of the stuff I cover is not all that important in the grand scheme of things. But like, a female’s safety and health and wellbeing—super, super important. We’re talking about life and death here. I don’t want to be silent about things like this. Especially when you see male reporters or just coaches offering ridiculous takes. Just for example, like last week. Dennis Dodd from CBS Sports. So, I don’t know Dennis; he’s obviously a national college football writer, well respected, blah, blah, blah. So the, I do not know his name, the Mississippi State, five-star recruit that was filmed punching a woman. Punching a woman senseless on the ground. Mississippi State lets him in. Everybody acts like, everybody goes on their savior complex, blah, blah, blah. Like we’re going to write this, we’re going to save him, blah, blah, blah. It’s really nauseating. It’s like, watch the video, he's beating the living crap out of this woman on the ground. And you’re just like, I don’t think that there’s a place for this in major college football. No punishment whatsoever. Like being suspended for one game against some terrible team. So anyhow, kudos to a lot of the male reporters that did hold Dan Mullen, the Mississippi State coach, accountable and did ask him tough questions and may have done it a month before the Mississippi State AD, so I was grateful that there were men who were willing to take up, like, this is not okay. How do you explain this? But Dennis Dodd decides to write a story, which Mississippi State clearly leaked to him, about how this kid had helped three women change a flat tire.

Everything’s fine; you changed a flat tire! Everything’s fine now!

Yeah, a friend, Kerith Burke, is like, “So what? I’d like to know more about this karma system where you help three women and then you get to beat the shit out of one.” And it was so off color and it was just like Dennis, what are you doing? Why are you acting as this Mississippi State spokesman? Spreading this clearly leaked story. And Mississippi—they did it for that reason. They knew they couldn’t sit up there and tell it, that that wouldn’t play well, but they found a reporter that was willing to get it out there. So stuff like that just absolutely makes my blood boil. When I do kind of get up on that pedestal and point out what I think everybody needs to hear, it’s not ok to treat women like this. Then I do get some blowback, but at this point, I literally do not hesitate just to block people and that’s their prerogative and my prerogative.

But a female’s safety and health and wellbeing—super, super important. We’re talking about life and death here. I don’t want to be silent about things like this.

I think it’s sometimes really hard to be a woman in this industry when it comes to stuff like that because we repeatedly see the sport being valued over women’s lives. And it’s mind blowing and it kind of gets hard to be around honestly and it’s like, oh not everyone is like that, oh this, and this, and this. But it’s like, come on man, I’m tired of the excuses. It started for me to become an internal struggle a little bit because I’m over here covering these sports and these players and these teams and these coaches and everything, and some of them are really terrible people. And I understand that everybody is different, but it’s all part of a bigger culture, and why is everyone not doing something to fix it? That was the frustrating part for me as a woman. And there were often times where I felt scared to speak up about this stuff because I didn’t want to offend anyone because it’s not my place to talk about this and this. No, it’s always your place to talk about stuff that’s wrong, especially that’s happening in your industry. And I think that that’s a conversation that needs to continue to happen, but it needs to also be an action. So we’re talking about Dan Mullen and the recruit and we’re talking about this player that did this, and this, and this. But are we, are coaches, are players, are programs actively doing something to fix it? That’s the frustrating part.

I agree absolutely, and it does—. I definitely at times have felt not good about my role and the college football machine. Everybody in the media is a pong in this machine, and it gets tough whether you feel that way about, like you said, how people clearly value football games over the lives of women, whether you don’t feel great about concussions and we’ve all seen guys just absolutely get wrung up and you’re like—. I feel like there’s a lot of reasons that people might feel uncomfortable. And yeah, let’s talk about this, and ultimately, do I cover Mississippi State? No, but like, do I sleep better at night having inserted my voice into a conversation? And I’m not just like Joe Schmo off the street; I am a college sports reporter. I struggle with that internally. It’s like, does my silence kind of implicitly endorse this type of behavior? Honestly, you can’t take every single instance to kind of jump on, but sometimes I feel like some things are just so grievous that you just have to be like, look, I just need to go on the record, this is not ok. And we have to do better. College sports, just society in general, has to do better.

Did you ever feel the need to act or I guess take a certain career path as a woman? Nicole and I talked about this a lot, about—actually, all the women that I’ve interviewed, we’ve talked about this. About how women kind of get pigeon-holed into certain things. Like, if you’re on camera, oh you do sideline. You’re the pretty sideline girl. That’s the role of women. Or you’re just an anchor that reads off a teleprompter. Or if you’re writing stuff, you only have these certain limited roles. There can only be one out of every 10 or something. I had a conversation with one of my friends who’s in the industry. I won’t mention his name because it was off the record, but he’s a black guy in the industry, and we were just talking about how being any type of minority, whether it be a woman, whether it be a black man, whether it be a black woman. The industry makes it seem like there can only be a certain number of you that make it. So you suddenly feel in competition with every other woman or every other black man, or every other non-white male. Did you ever feel that way? Did you ever feel pressured to go a certain path or compete against other women?

I did not ever feel pressured to compete against other women. And I think—it’s funny, I’m remembering the “Mean Girls” scene, when Tina Fey is like, “you got to stop fighting with each other.” And I found that colleagues like you and Nicole and Amelia Rayno in Minneapolis, Dana O’Neil, Shannon Ryan, who I’ve met briefly from Chicago. I feel like the females in this college sports industry all are very helpful and we’re not competing with each other. And for me, I grew up wanting to be a sports newspaper reporter. I like writing. I want to be a writer. That’s what I do. And thankfully lawyers write a ton too. So I don’t know if I necessarily ever felt any pressure, but I can definitely see in the TV industry where that is a thing. You look at what roles women and minorities are allowed to play on TV, and it’s certainly very selective. You look at the national media scene and national writers and voices, and I think Dana O’Neil is a great one. But there’s not a ton of examples. I guess I never got far enough down the line where I felt like I had to choose, if that makes sense.

Yeah, that definitely makes sense. I feel like we’ve been talking forever, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. Alright, the final, the big question—is there any chance of a comeback for Laura Keeley to the sports industry?

I mean, never say never. Obviously I’ve learned my lesson there. It’s hard to imagine after the financial commitment I’ve made to Columbia Law School coming back. But like I said, I feel like it’s kind of foolish to try to plot paths. But no, at this time, I definitely feel like I’m exiting stage right and I will take tremendous memories with me, and I don’t regret a second of the work that I’ve done. I think I’ve learned super valuable lessons about asking tough questions and having uncomfortable conversations and accepting the fact that there are going to be times where yes, you’re the least popular person in the room. But you know what? You don’t get to, like, shrink away and try to disappear into the wall. You still have to be there and do your job. So I am super grateful for my experience, but I do think that this is the end of the chapter of my sports writing career.

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