On my first day at NFL Media I signed paperwork promising that I wouldn’t harass players for autographs. That struck me as odd, given that I was a professional reporter being hired to work in a newsroom; this was a newsroom that answered to 32 NFL owners, yes, but the strangeness of that fact didn’t seem like it would supersede every other newsroom rule. Did I really need to be told to not ask players for autographs? Anyway, I didn’t ask any questions about it. I was otherwise unemployed, taking on credit card debt, and borrowing money from friends and family was getting embarrassing. I signed, and I moved on.
Not asking questions. Moving on. Those were the two keys to working at NFL Media, the organization that includes the TV station, NFL Network, and the league’s website. You do not ask questions because the answers would be horrible. Why does the news operation rely so much on seasonal workers, like myself? Because that was cheaper than giving so many people health insurance. Why don’t seasonal employees get parking passes? The answer one manager gave me after an all-hands meeting: Because then the NFL would have to be willing to be liable for any accidents you commit in your car on the lot. Why do the cheerleaders interviewed on “Behind the Pom-Poms” (yes, that was a real segment on NFL AM) almost always appear in their skin-tight cheerleader outfits? Because that’s their uniform. When I pointed out that the players don’t show up in their uniforms, I was told by a TV-side employee to be careful about asking that question in the newsroom when the bigwigs were around.
NFL Media is in Culver City, Calif., close to 3,000 miles away from the NFL’s posh Park Avenue offices, and the newsroom was stacked with people culled from sports journalism outfits who hadn’t been on the league’s payroll before. But, for all that literal and figurative distance, I left NFL Media with the feeling that I had, in the end, been treated like a true NFLer. Which is to say that I don’t think, outside of the good individuals who cared about me, that the broader organization ever quite thought of me as a person. This is the key to understanding how the sort of demeaning behavior and harassment outlined in Jami Cantor’s lawsuit, Lindsay McCormack’s Instagram post, and the words of another reporter who used to work there could be allowed and even condoned. Outside the chosen few at the top of the food chain—the handful of star players turned into analysts, the famous few plucked from places likes ESPN and NBC, and the men who ran the newsroom—to work at NFL Media is to be reminded, constantly and in ways great and small, that you meant nothing to the people in charge. I was as disposable as third-string lineman, and there was no forgetting that.
So I took their money. And I said nothing.
I worked at NFL Media for nearly a year as an online producer, between May 2013 and May 2014. My main job was editing and packaging stories for the website. The gig was pretty straightforward: When a blog post was done, I grabbed it, copy-edited it, fixed any errors, added links, added video, then informed the content editor, who would in turn place it somewhere in the headline stack. If all the Around The League writers were busy, we were also expected to step up and do some quick aggregations for them.
When I worked there, the NFL Media newsroom had very little institutional memory. There was no way it could have, in retrospect—a significant chunk of the newsroom, which gathered information for online as well as TV, was comprised of seasonal staffers with no benefits. You worked during the season, and disappeared during the offseason. When the NFL returned, you either said sure to coming back or declined. Some people did this for years, and others were one and done. The core of the institutional memory—the top of the org chart, the people with big salaries, benefits, and their own offices—was dominated by men like vice president and executive editor David Eaton. They stayed, while the rest of us rotated in and out. I was one of the lucky ones; somehow, my various bosses got me approved for several extensions until, finally, they ran out and I had to disappear for a while. Nobody in upper management ever explicitly told me what happened if I overstayed, but the scuttlebutt among the grunts always was that staying too long meant we would have to be given health insurance.
A typical day as an online producer, when I was there, went something like this. We worked nine-hour shifts that were staggered throughout the day. The earliest shift started at 5 a.m. and went until 2 p.m. The latest shift went from noon to 9 p.m. There also was an overnight shift, which I never worked but which seemed pretty brutal. Because the staff was constantly in flux, our schedules were also constantly in flux, to the point where every week saw a new schedule. None of the online producers got paid time off—when I was there, those jobs were all seasonal—but the people right above us, the content editors, did. It’s hard to not be bitter when a huge chunk of the newsroom has no choice but to work or lose money, while the other openly talks about its vacation plans.
I have no idea how much of the newsroom is still seasonally staffed, but enough are that you’ll still see advertisements for jobs like the one I had.
This was the NFL Media class system: Full-timers at the top, some part-timers in the middle, and seasonal employees at the bottom. Even full-timers had some fear for their job security; they would tell stories about when the network used to have more full-time employees, before a bunch of them were abruptly laid off. It was in some ways a fun job: We got free lunch and dinner on game days, the team store discount was generous, and in the most basic sense I got paid to sit around and watch football. I made friends, we told jokes, we had a good time. In that sense, it was like any other workplace.
And the NFL didn’t mind paying us. I never got yelled at for racking up two, three, or four hours of overtime multiple times a week, and that certainly was part of the job’s allure. It let you rack up cash really fast. But there was an undercurrent of fear through it all. It was decently fun while it was going on, but just as with players in the league, the NFL could always not ask you back next season.
I was a weird hire: A burned out cops reporter with a handful of sports stories to her name. But I knew a lot about football—maybe not as much as some of my coworkers but more than the average fan—and I could pick up the rest. I would be another woman in a newsroom dominated by white men, but this was not really a new experience, either. Also I knew how to get police reports. I was really good at getting police reports.
NFL Media is, by its very construct, in a tricky position. It’s a league reporting on itself. That means that when a coach or player or owner gets arrested, the NFL is, in a sense, reporting on its own employee. As such they have to be incredibly careful, and that’s before you factor in the risk of potentially pissing off an owner. I had a lot of experience on how to write and report when someone got arrested from my previous gig, and that made me valuable—especially when Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder. Very few people in the newsroom wanted the headache of convincing police public information officers to fork over information, but I didn’t mind doing that. In retrospect, it also gave me power, at least to the extent that a seasonal employee could have power. There was some protection in that: Fuck with me, and that meant you would be the one dealing with Los Angeles police or some random Massachusetts courthouse. Early on, in a fight over whether we should aggregate anonymously sourced reports on Hernandez’s murder case, Eaton sided with me and my feeling we should wait until something came out on the record. Afterward, very few people fucked with me, at least directly.
While my official title was “online producer,” my unofficial job was often making calls and gathering documents when someone got arrested. I made calls on Hernandez’s murder charge. I made calls on Jim Irsay’s DUI arrest. I was working the day a higher-up got the tip that Darren Sharper had been arrested by Los Angeles police and then spent most of the day trying to convince the LAPD to tell us something, anything, while all the important (and properly insured) men far above me on the organizational chart hounded me over why I didn’t have anything yet.
Everybody in the newsroom that day and the days afterward remembered Sharper, who eventually was convicted of serially drugging and raping women across the country. The people I knew who had worked with him on the TV side of the operation said that he had been a really nice guy; it shook them how someone so nice to them could be so cruel to others.
The moment that sticks out for me where Sharper was concerned is a detail from one of the Los Angeles police reports. In both reports, the women say Sharper drugged and raped them in his hotel room. It didn’t say explicitly that NFL Media was paying for those hotels, but I suspected it. After all, Sharper came to Los Angeles for his NFL Network appearances. I pointed it out to one of the top guys in the newsroom, John Marvel. I did hear Marvel yelling into the phone once about this; I have no idea who was on the other side, but Marvel was trying to tell them to ditch Sharper. Marvel lost. It took the network bosses—whoever they were, they were people so far above everyone in the newsroom as to be invisible—more than a month to fire Sharper.
Looking back, it doesn’t feel so isolated at all.
There is a parking lot at NFL Media that functions as a sort of airlock between the newsroom and the TV production sides of the company. The newsroom, where I worked, was in one building, and the TV studios were in a separate one, on the other side of the parking lot. I rarely went to that building except to go to the cafeteria there. Honestly, I’m not even sure that my pass would have let me into the TV studios. Reporters like Ian Rapoport would periodically be in the newsroom to relay information or do live hits from there, and producers would swing by to get information and updates. Those producers often were a blur to me, though, just random men asking me what to say. I told them, and then they moved on.
Some top executives, like Eaton, did sit in the newsroom but also spent time in the TV studios as well. Eaton would come in with his newspapers and read them, in print, every bit the self-styled serious news man. I didn’t interact with him much, outside of that one Hernandez argument, mostly because my job rarely required that; he was so many levels above me that it’s hard to imagine how we might even have come into contact most days. It wasn’t until I left that I heard from other ex-NFL employees that they thought he could be a real asshole.
The faces of the network that most fans would recognize almost never appeared in the newsroom. I never saw Andrea Kremer. I never saw Rich Eisen. The former players mostly stayed away from the newsroom, where I worked, with the exception of Warren Sapp, who would regularly come in and bullshit. I left before he, too, was fired, in his case for his arrest on charges that he solicited a prostitute.
There were several aspects of my job I utterly despised. I had to stare at Twitter, a lot, and was expected to be reading ProFootballTalk constantly. Many of the people around me, mostly men, took football so seriously that sometimes I wanted to scream at how ridiculous it all was. I have never lied as hard as when I feigned interest in the NFL combine’s 40-yard dash. Now it can be told: I think the combine is a dumb and meaningless event that can’t predict future player performance and only serves to help the NFL generate something that looks faintly like news. But people there really got into the 40-yard dash, and it seemed better to go along than lose my job.
I monitored a lot of football press conferences, and the experience mostly made me sympathetic to the coaches and players because so many of the questions asked were so stunningly bad. How many times can a person answer, “So why do you think you lost?” without sarcastically responding “maybe because we scored fewer points?” The answer turned out to be an infinite number of times.
Granted, this isn’t quite the reporters’ faults either; they are all trying to get quotes and hit their impossible deadlines. The entire NFL press system is backwards and messed-up and insulting to everyone involved. It doesn’t serve anyone very well. This was a big part of why I so hated watching some of the NFL Network’s own programming.
I knew people who worked on the TV side, and they were good, hard-working people like anyone else. The NFL Network’s most fundamental problem is to some extent built into its premise—24 hours devoted exclusively to football is, invariably, going to be filled with some fluff. But as I watch thousands of people proclaim shock about all the horrible sexism that women say happened at NFL Network, I have to wonder: Did you ever watch the shows? One in particular: NFL AM’s “Behind the Pom-Poms.”
The premise of “Behind the Pom-Poms” isn’t bad. The idea, more or less, is to have a team cheerleader on to talk about football. It’s the execution that always made me want to vomit. The women were almost always interviewed in their uniforms—players got to wear anything from casual clothing to suits and ties, of course—and so many of the questions were just so dumb. They ask Ashlee if she was always a Bucs fan. They ask Stephanie some stupidly easy questions about the Saints; the answers were Drew Brees and Archie Manning, as if they thought a cheerleader couldn’t identify the franchise’s two most famous quarterbacks. They note, when introducing Megan, that, “If you can believe it, she calls herself a nerd!”
“Behind the Pom-Poms” never asked the cheerleaders how they felt about their meager salaries for a lot of work, so much so that women from multiple teams have reached financial settlements. It did not ask them how they felt about potentially being cut for even the slightest bit of weight gain. It did not ask them if they, like the Buffalo Jills, were given instructions on how to wash their “intimate areas.”
Beyond my one errant time bringing up the show’s lameness in the newsroom and being told to not ask questions about it in front of the big bosses, I never said a word. The segment appears to have stopped, as the last “Behind the Pom-Poms,” according to the NFL’s website, is dated in 2014. I guess that could be seen as progress. More to the point, it never should have been done in that way in the first place.
There were a few other keys to working at NFL Media. Our most sensitive day was Black Monday, when the regular season ends and coaches get axed. Just as NFL Media had an internal hierarchy, our reporting had one as well. To me, it felt like we could say more or less whatever we wanted about the players, but news connected directly to the owners—things like hiring and firing head coaches—was treated as extremely sensitive. Before Black Monday, Marvel reminded us all that we had 32 bosses; these were, as you’ve probably gathered, the NFL’s owners. Commissioner Roger Goodell visited once, and we all had to dress “professional” for him. Perhaps the schedule maker knew it was best to put me on a late shift that day, but thankfully I missed his appearance. When Goodell and his entire group left, a group of us converged on the big conference room in which they had been served a catered lunch. We found it piled high with uneaten food and grabbed it, like scavengers.
I spent a lot of time at NFL Media reading Deadspin. It was my respite from nine-hour days of considering the question, “Isn’t football the greatest thing in American history?!?” One of my favorite days was when Deadspin dropped its project on how different words are used to describe black and white football prospects; I read that story while the idiotic NFL draft hype machine rolled on around me.
But I also noticed what Deadspin didn’t report on—us. There was one month, back when Albert Breer still worked for NFL Media, that I was pulled aside and told to not aggregate any of Breer’s tweets for the rest of that month on the website. I was never told why, and Deadspin didn’t seem to notice or care. Another time, I had a supervisor suddenly leave to “spend more time with his wife.” Almost immediately rumors kicked up that it was for creeping on women in the newsroom. Deadspin didn’t seem to have any answers about him, either. Since leaving there, I’ve gotten the impression that Deadspin and other outlets took the stance, “It’s the league’s media arm, so of course it sucks.” This approach has the effect of making the people who work there—and already are worried about job security—even less likely to take the risk of speaking out. Why take the risk when, until recently, it seemed as if there was no one who would have listened or cared?
And yet, I have some good memories of the job. I did work with some great people, and I’ve kept in touch with a few friends from there in the years since I left. I fondly remember hate-watching the NFL’s godawful cartoon for kids with a friend when I had to work the 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. There were only a few people around, nobody important, and so we just shouted all our stupid thoughts out loud, a bunch of punchy, drowsy content drones staging our own personal Mystery Science Theater 3000. The food on game day was ridiculous, and I gained several pounds from eating it. There was, despite the strangeness of the circumstances, still that bond you develop in a newsroom, especially a TV newsroom, when the hours are weird and the demands are insane. Everyone around feels like a comrade in arms.
Still, it never could last. Another season would end and the newsroom would empty. Some would come back, and some wouldn’t. It was not built to last, and it was impossible to forget it.
Despite everything, a job is a job. A full-time job came open and I applied; I felt pretty good about my chances. They already had me doing the job I had applied for in the interim, my interviews went well, and I brought a “different perspective” to the newsroom, which I suppose could be interpreted as referring to my news background, or just being a woman. I had the respect of all the men at the top because, hey, wasn’t it me who gathered all those police reports and didn’t take any crap? Anyway, that’s what I thought.
Then Marvel pulled me into his office and told me they were going “in another direction.” Which, really, turned out to be the same direction—a white guy got the job. And, hey, maybe he did deserve the job more than me. But I still remember it, and I’m pointing it out, because all these years later I’m still talking to people and they’re still asking me why there aren’t more women in sports journalism, to which the answer is obvious: Why aren’t there more women working in sports journalism? Because you aren’t hiring women.
Marvel told me that he could slide me into a part-time position as a digital content producer when I came back. That, at least, would be a year-round job. As it happened, it was a job that just had been vacated by a woman. And then I said, out loud, OK and thanks very much. Because I figured I’d need the money.
For months afterward, I went over in my mind what went wrong. How did I blow it? Should I have done something different in my job interviews? Should I have been less aggressive on the news desk? Was it because I didn’t go out drinking with the boys after work? A mentor later cut to the chase, telling me bluntly that, “The problem was you don’t have a penis.”
I was supposed to go back to the NFL in September, but the email never came. This was fine by me, as by then I was working full-time at Deadspin. In some ways, as my friends from NFL Media like to remind me, it really did work out in my favor that I didn’t get that NFL job. In three and a half years, I’ve gone from entry-level blogger to senior editor here, I’ve done a lot of reporting that I’m proud to have done, and I couldn’t be more excited about the staff we’ve built here at Deadspin and everything we have to look forward to next year.
But going over the details for this story the past few days, I can’t escape the familiar workplace contours. At Deadspin, like the NFL, I had a unique source of power—nobody at Deadspin when I arrived was excited to spend hours harassing police and other public institutions for information, and I was more than willing to do just that. That power protected me, for awhile, but at some point Gawker’s problems treating women with the respect they deserved came for me as well. On the good days, now, I feel like I’m making a difference. On bad days, I worry that I’m little more than a thing for my male coworkers to point at and tweet about to prove wokeness by association. This story is running on a website with a disgusting past that can never be fully atoned for. And at the end of the day, part of the reason I am still here is for the exact same reasons I worked for the NFL. The paycheck clears.
Of course that doesn’t make what happened at NFL Media okay. I hope more women and men speak out, although I understand if nobody says anything. All the speaking out against sexual harassment and sexual assault, brave and worthwhile as it is, doesn’t change the fact that these abuses unfold within a system that is, fundamentally, rigged in favor of the people with the most power, who tend to be men. I tell people that my main takeaway from my time at NFL Media was that the NFL treats most of its employees like the players—as disposable things barely worth an investment beyond seven months. One question ruled that workplace just as surely as it does the locker room, and it is the bosses asking how can we strip away as much inconvenient humanity from this endeavor as possible? That, truly, is the NFL way.