Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Why is Doris Burke a (huge) exception?

By · Friday, March 11th, 2011

Doris Burke doing an NBA game with Dan Shulman. (Google Images)

As I sit here watching way too much sports — that is, 24-7 college basketball and a fair measure of the NBA mixed in — I marvel again at how few women are part of the television broadcast teams in play-by-play and analyst roles. Like maybe ONE woman?

That would be Doris Burke, who has been doing a lot of the Big East games that feature Syracuse University, and a lot of NBA telecasts, too.

SU, of course, has produced dozens of sports broadcast legends — and the halls of the three Newhouse School buildings are swimming today with students who want sports careers in all facets, from production to on-air jobs in TV and radio. (There are others who aim for print and Web jobs, of course, but broadcasting draws the big crowds.) A lot of these students are women. In fact, Newhouse is dominated by women; some 60 percent or so of all of our students are women.

The communications industry has long been known as “female-friendly,” a career where women can do well and pierce the glass ceiling, so it attracts a lot of females.

But the sports side of the media business is not so embracing, and especially on-air. Why is this?

Big-time sports — and thus big-time TV revenue — is all about men. So is it just simple math and genetics? Men cover men and women cover women? Or is it, more likely, that men don’t like to watch and listen to women (unless they are on the sidelines, and pretty), and broadcasters know the largely male audience would raise heck with them if more women were in the booth in more substantive jobs? (The truth is, though, that sports audiences include many, many women.)

Thirty-five years ago, in the 1970s, I joined the sports staff at the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. We hired a woman beat reporter (to cover women’s sports, of course), and I still remember what members of our staff said about her. Not too kind. Not too welcoming. Not too fair. Today, it doesn’t seem we’ve come all that far, does it? Try this experiment: Google “Doris Burke” for the Web and Images and see what the top hits are. The second is Among the first couple of dozen, it’s as likely to be a criticism of her as a woman as analysis of her as a broadcaster. This deadspin piece from awhile back hits the nail on the head. (Warning, it hits the nail on the head if you’re OK with the blunt language).

True enough, every passionate sports fan (is there any other kind?) has a favorite and “can’t stand” list of broadcasters. So maybe the guys who just “can’t stand” Burke feel she doesn’t know her stuff, simple as that. Or maybe it has more to do with women and men, culture and sports. And maybe it’ll never change. Given that it’s 2011, folks, I am thinking maybe it won’t.

In a short 2008 story about Burke, New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir quoted an ESPN executive as saying it was “passe” to talk with surprise about women such as Burke making it in this traditional male role. Yet this simply defies logic and our own two eyes.

I know some will bring up the summer incident with the New York Jets, when Ines Sainz, a reporter for Mexico’s TV Azteca, charged players with harassment. She is famous for practically wearing her lingerie on the job. Others will say with the way women dress for work (Erin Andrews on some occasions), what do you expect when it comes to professional respect? These critics argue that attractive women are just trying to use their looks to advance, and they are to blame for perceptions. It’s easy to turn the discussion into this. But let’s not take the easy way out. It is a serious question to be pondered, especially as sports — and sports careers — continue to explode.

Whatever the answer might be for why things are the way they are, from my own perspective this is a good weekend to give a shoutout to Doris Burke. And not because March is Women’s History Month.

Let’s just say she’s doing a good job. Period.

Steve Davis







Thanks for this article. I’ve been watching Doris Burke this NBA playoff series and think she’s been doing a great job. But online she gets a LOT of grief from sports fans. Do you know if she is on Twitter? I found a Facebook fan page, but don’t think it’s actually her..