Friday, April 2, 2010

Don't Tell Sportswriter Joan Ryan She Can't

...because she will. In fact, she became a sportswriter because people told her she shouldn't. Take that, haters!

In 1985, 25-year old Joan Ryan walked into the locker room of the Birmingham Stallions, a franchise in the now-defunct United States Football League. Ryan was not looking for a boyfriend. Or trouble. Or a peek at the male athlete anatomy. She was looking for answers from star-player Joe Cribbs so she could file a game story for the Orlando Sentinel on time.

Ryan pushed open the locker room door and walked in, focused on finding Cribbs. Everything stopped as all eyes turned to Ryan, just over 5-feet tall, standing in the entry in a skirt with her notebook in hand.

She turned to a player who was cutting tape off his ankle with a long-handled razor.

“Where’s Joe Cribbs’ locker?” Ryan asked, her face heating up with anxiety.

No response. All she could hear were players’ taunts and jokes made at her expense.

She turned to other players, asking the same question.

No response. Instead, Ryan felt something on her leg. She turned to see the handle of the razor making its way up her calf to the hem of her skirt.

Ryan yelled at the player, and whirled around to see several players—and a man in a red sweater—watching, laughing.

Still fuming about the incident the next day, Ryan went through the Stallions’ media guide and identified the man in the red sweater; he was the Stallions’ president, Jerry Sklar.

“I said to myself, ‘These people really don’t want me to be writing sports,’” Ryan said. “’Theyreally don’t want me here.’ And so that was the moment I decided I really wanted to be a sportswriter.”


The third of six kids—three boys, three girls—Ryan was born in the Bronx, New York, then lived in New Jersey until her family moved to South Florida when she was 12.

“I was introverted,” Ryan said, “but I was extremely competitive.”

Her mother worked at Entenmann’s Bakery as a cashier. Her father, Bob, was an air conditioning draftsman, and his daughters’ softball coach.

Bob remembers Ryan loved to read, but she was also “a great line-drive hitter.

When Ryan was about 13 years old, she played a softball game at a family reunion in New Jersey. The teams were Bob’s family versus his wife’s family.

“One of the guys there was a blowhard kind of guy who thought he was pretty good,” Bob said. “Joan was plying the field, and this guy hits a wicked line-drive to left field. Joan sticks up her glove and catches the ball, and this guy couldn’t believe it—his mouth dropped to the ground.”

Ryan said the best advice she ever got was from her father, when he was coaching her in softball.

“He always told my sisters and me, ‘When you step on that field, it doesn’t matter how good you are. You have to convince yourself that you’re the best player on the field,’” Ryan said.

She used this strategy when she began her job as the first woman in the Orlando Sentinel’s sports department in 1982. She would need the confidence—even if she were faking it—to help her overcome the “painful introversion,” Ryan said, that kept her behind the editing desk throughout college and the beginning of her career in journalism.

“I’d be sitting in the press box or ringside with the giants of sports journalism, and I could convince myself for that period of time during the game that I was as good as any of them,” Ryan said.


Ryan, one of only two members of her family to attend college, graduated from the University of Florida in 1981 and immediately went to work at the Orlando Sentinel as a copy editor.

“I loved it. It was like getting a window to the world in that I knew what was going on and was the first to find out all this stuff,” she said.

But she realized in order to move up at the Sentinel, she would have to become a reporter. She thought the sports section would be a fun place to work, and wasn’t aware that no other woman had worked there before.

Bit by bit, she said, the sports department gave her small stories while she worked as an editor. Bit by bit, she worked at overcoming her own introversion so she could report more effectively. “I found it’s way more fun outside the office,” she said. “I realized that the notebook was my passport—all of the sudden, with that notebook in my hand, I could ask anybody anything and they’d answer me.”

Jan McAdoo met Ryan while McAdoo was also working for the Sentinel, in the online news department. McAdoo was going through a break up with a boyfriend when a Sentinel colleague suggested she move in with Ryan, who was looking for a roommate.

On Dec. 1, 1983, McAdoo moved in with Ryan. They have remained friends to this day.

McAdoo remembered Ryan’s 1985 struggles with the Stallions, because the locker room episode was highly publicized after Ryan wrote a story about it for the Sentinel.

The publication of the locker room episode “was a turning point for women in sports reporting. She was becoming part of the players’ world, breaching that invisible line of ‘You don’t cross here if you’re a woman.’”

Ryan said that “99.9 percent of the reader responses, both men and women, were ‘You slut! What were you doing in the locker room anyway? If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!’”

But, McAdoo said, Joan “didn’t get intimidated, she stuck with it.” The buzz surrounding Ryan’s article was “pretty exciting,” she said. The phone in their shared home was “ringing off the hook—she must’ve done 20-30 interviews for radio stations.”

Later that year, Ryan moved to San Francisco to become a full-time sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.


Barry Tompkins was covering Wimbledon in London as a sportscaster in the mid-1980s when he knew he was going to marry Ryan.

She walked into a London restaurant to meet him, after they had dated on and off for several months whenever he was in San Francisco.

“It was just one of those magic moments,” Tompkins said. “She’s independent and really smart. I just love the way she handles people and treats people—she’s just a really good person.”

It’s this goodness, friends and colleagues say, that makes her an effective reporter.

Ann Killion met Ryan while Killion was working at a public relations firm in San Francisco. Killion, now an award-winning sportswriter herself, counts Ryan as one of her inspirations for getting into the business.

Ryan is “very personable, she’s super-smart. She’s the way all good reporters should be: very detail-oriented. She gets to know people and they like her and that’s why they end up telling her what she wants to know. She has a very personable style,” Killion said.

McAdoo described Ryan’s reporting style a little differently.

“She’s a pain in the ass,” said McAdoo. “She asks the same question 14 different ways. She’s intense, and that’s why she’s so good. She makes people comfortable and is a good listener.”

When Ryan and Tompkins adopted a son in 1990, Ryan knew it was time to plan her exit from the full-time newspaper business.

“I always knew I wanted to be a mom,” Ryan said. “I knew I was giving up something, but I was happy to.”

Ryan traded daily newspaper work for motherhood, and soon found herself reluctantly thrown into the world of book writing.


“If I ever decide to write a book again, lock me in a room until I get over it,” Ryan said to Tompkins in the early 1990s, while she was working on a book about women in Olympic figure skating and gymnastics.

A literary agent had approached Ryan following the publication of a series of articles Ryan wrote for the Examiner about young women in Olympic sports.

Ryan said she was coerced into writing a book proposal—she did not really want to write a book. Once she started getting rejections, however, she decided she really wanted to write the book.

The book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, came out in 2005 to critical acclaim. Sports Illustrated named it one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time.

“I lived in fear that I had made some factual error” in the book, Ryan said, since she had not played either sport. One of her proudest accomplishments as a journalist, Ryan said, is there weren’t any factual errors in the book.

When Ryan covered gymnastics at the 1996 Olympics for the San Francisco Chronicle, she found out people on the gymnastics circuit referred to her exposé of elite gymnastics as “the book.”

“I was like the devil in gymnastics circles,” Ryan said. But she knew she was right to publish the book, because former gymnasts would come up to her during her book tour and say, “Finally, somebody told our story.”


“I haven’t written sports for over 10 years,” Ryan says while she sips a cappuccino in a quiet back room at Perry’s on Union Street in San Francisco, one of her and Tompkin’s favorite restaurants. Her hot pink nails and cropped red hair blaze against her black ensemble.

It has been 15 years since she published Little Girls, and 12 years since she published Shooting from the Outside, a book she co-authored with Stanford women’s basketball coach, Tara VanDerveer.

But Ryan never stopped writing. She recently published a book about her family’s struggles after her son suffered massive head trauma from a skateboarding accident.

And sports have never been cut completely out of her life.

“Somehow we always go back to what we’re good at, and what we’re comfortable with,” said McAdoo. For Ryan, that is sports.

Ryan currently works for the San Francisco Giants as a media consultant, and if the rumors are true, she will soon start working on a book about baseball.

“I always consider her a sportswriter first,” said McAdoo. “When I think of Joan, I think of sports.”

No comments:

Post a Comment