A Front-Row Seat with the Sportswriters Who Sat There
Sit down with host Todd Jones and other sportswriters who knew the greatest athletes and coaches, and experienced first-hand some of the biggest sports moments in the past 50 years. They’ll share stories behind the stories -- some they’ve only told to each other.
Being among the trailblazers for women sportswriters came with certain stakes. “I knew there would be people watching and probably hoping that I’d fail,” Christine Brennan says. Hear what it was like being on the front lines of the NFL’s locker room issue in the 1980s. Christine discusses her daily dealings with Joe Gibbs, and takes us into the wider world of the Olympics. The USA Today columnist has covered 18 summer and winter Games, where drama ranges from the great Greg Louganis hitting his head on a diving board to a fur-cloaked Russian figure skating judge admitting “the fix was in.” And, oh yeah, Christine will tell you about Nancy and Tonya. She was there every day of the soap opera.
Christine Brennan writes columns on national and international sports issues for USA Today. She’s also a commentator for ABC News, CNN, PBS NewsHour, and National Public Radio, as well as a speaker and a best-selling author of seven books. Brennan was the recipient of the 2020 APSE Red Smith Award, presented annually by the Associated Press Sports Editors to a person who has made “major contributions to sports journalism.” The APSE has named her one of the country’s top 10 sports columnists three times in her 40-year career. She won the 2019 APSE Breaking News award for her coverage of the Olympic sex abuse scandal. Brennan has covered the past 18 Olympics, summer and winter, and is known as one of journalism’s foremost experts on figure skating. She broke the pairs figure skating scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics and the Russian judging scandal at the 2014 Sochi Games. Her coverage of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga led to her 1996 national best-seller, Inside Edge, which was named one of the top 100 sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated. Brennan was the first woman sports writer at The Miami Herald in 1981 and the first woman to cover Washington’s NFL team for The Washington Post in 1985. She was the first president of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) and started a scholarship-internship program that has supported more than 175 female students over the past two decades.
Todd Jones: I've always had a lot of respect for Christine Brennan, because she's never been afraid to take a stand on an issue in sports. Locally, nationally, internationally, she reports it, writes it, says it, and stands by it. Christine has done so for four decades, and she's still doing it as a sports columnist for USA Today and a commentator for ABC News, PBS News Hour, and National Public Radio. Today, she's our guest on Press Box Access. Talk about fearless.
Todd Jones: Well, Christine, thanks a lot for joining us. We really appreciate your time you taking the time.
Christine Brennan: Todd, it's great to be with you. Thanks so much for having me.
Todd Jones: Well, I want to start off with a congratulations to you. 2020, the Associated Press Sports Editors named you the Red Smith Award winner. Quite an honor. Quite an honor. How did that make you feel?
Christine Brennan: Oh my gosh. Well, I think it means that I'm old. I think Todd, you got to be around a while to get that one. No. I wasn't expecting it at all. And it was actually right before everything changed. It was March. Early March. And I was flying back to D.C. and I had an email to get in touch with someone from APSE who I would normally not hear from. And I thought, "What's that about?" So it was in Baggage Claim at Washington National Airport D.C.A. as I was waiting for my luggage from a trip, I'd just been down to Florida, I think it was March 2nd, that I got the message and then found out that I had won this prestigious award. And so many great names from sports journalism, as you know, including my boss at the Washington Post, George Solomon. And a lovely honor. Just almost overwhelming.
Todd Jones: Your career has been quite the career. You were a trailblazer for women sports writers in so many ways, covered 18 straight Olympics. I think about all those times that you were the first person to do something for a female sports writer. When you think about the summation of your career, how do you put it all together?
Christine Brennan: I just was doing what I loved, and I'm still doing what I love. And I was able to be launched out of Northwestern University, my alma mater, and just got very fortunate to go right to the Miami Herald at a time when the Herald still had not hired a full-time woman sports writer. And you remember those times. I'm sure some of your listeners do too.
Christine Brennan: Go right out of college to this top 10 newspaper, the Miami Herald, and I covered the Florida Gators football team in '81 and '82. So I had this major beat right away. And this was when Miami didn't have the NBA or major league baseball or hockey, it was just football. So the Dolphins and then the colleges. And so it was a big deal.
Christine Brennan: But this happened because I was a woman. And I'm going to be perfectly honest, if I had been a white man, I would not have gotten a job. Billie Jean King says it best: you need to see it to be it. And here I was, had an opportunity at 22 to be a role model for young women, and the Miami Herald gave me that opportunity.
Christine Brennan: And I wanted to make the most if it, including doing interviews about being the first woman, even though for me it was like, "Hey I just want to write a story today. I just want to go out and cover a Dolphin's practice and talk to Don Shula, one of my heroes who's now someone I'm covering." And yet I also knew that there would be people watching and probably hoping that I would fail.
Todd Jones: When you think about all the different things you covered, I think... But I think if there's one story that just jumps out in your career, it's a story that really just continues to live in the history of Olympics but in American sports. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
Christine Brennan: The most amazing story I've ever covered, Todd. You describe a little bit of it and people now go, "Yeah, that was a big deal." I mean, that story took over the nation and in many ways the world for six or seven weeks. And it just had this [crosstalk 00:04:05] started October 6th, 1994 with the attack on Nancy Kerrigan's knee.
Todd Jones: Where were you at the time when she was struck by what later we've learned was a baton by somebody? We didn't even know who this was! This person shows up and hits her in the leg, Nancy Kerrigan, the great figure skater at the US Championships. Where were you at the time and were you in the arena?
Christine Brennan: I was in the other arena next door, Joe Louis, at which, of course, as you know, they are connected. And Cobo Arena was the practice arena, and that's where the women were practicing. And normally I would be watching the women practice, but in this case the pair short program was going on, so I was sitting in a relatively empty Joe Louis Arena. Obviously some fans were there, but in press seating in just one of the sections with a group of Olympic writers, including Eddie Harvey of the LA Times and [crosstalk 00:04:59] of the Chicago Tribune, and a few others. And someone came by and said that Nancy Kerrigan had been mugged.
Todd Jones: What?
Christine Brennan: Now, it's only this could be figure skating, right? You're kind of like, "What?" But meanwhile, there's [crosstalk 00:05:13] they're skating, music is playing, and it's this [crosstalk 00:05:17]. And it's [crosstalk 00:05:18] interesting [crosstalk 00:05:25] and so none of us got up, because we're just kind of like, "What was that?" [crosstalk 00:05:31] five or six guys [crosstalk 00:05:36] stand up and without saying anything, just filing to the [crosstalk 00:05:45] press chief, the spokesperson, the chief PR person for US Figure Skating, a woman named Kristen Madda.
Christine Brennan: I looked at her, she was sitting at a table, and I just looked at her, and I... I know that, obviously, people listening can't see it, but I kind of did that shrug, like put my hands up like, "Huh?" Kind of this look. And she had this pronounced nod of her head like, "Yes." So without saying a word, I had said, "Could this be true?" Without her even knowing what I'm asking, she's nodding yes, and we were off and running on the wildest, craziest, most amazing story I have ever and will ever see in my journalistic career.
Todd Jones: Now, I want to carry this through, because it did go on for weeks, because this was leading up to the Olympics. Really it was every day in January and February. I was not there. I was covering college basketball at the time in Cincinnati. And I got to be honest, my idea of figure skating at the time of my career, not that... I just kind of thought it was a joke.
Todd Jones: I remember one writing a column, the very lazy thing where you just rip the sport and I... And it twigged my mother. I cut it out and I mailed it to her because my late mother, she worshiped figure skating. Dick Button was a saint in our house. So I send her this column and a couple of days later she writes back to me and says... She didn't write back, she called. She called me and she said, "You're an asshole."
Christine Brennan: That's your mom?
Todd Jones: But what I realized though is that I thought it was crazy, but it meant a lot to a lot of people. And why do you think that story just caught on like brushfire?
Christine Brennan: At the time, Todd... By the way, you were not alone among a big segment of our population, probably mostly guys, who were thinking, "Skating? Okay. I mean, Peggy Fleming, yeah. Dorothy Hamill, sure." Every boy wanted to date her and every girl wanted to be her. But it turns out at the time, figure skating was the second most popular sport on television to the National Football League in terms of ratings.
Christine Brennan: Your listeners are going to just keel over at this, but this is a fact, it is true. In 1996, so two years after Tonya and Nancy, the Figure Skating World Championships in Edmonton, and the men's long program, men's final [crosstalk 00:08:11] with the NCA Men's Basketball Tournament, it was the sweet sixteenth, and figure skating beat it. Head to head in TV ratings. And it wasn't a minuscule decimal point. It was like two or three points. It was a nine something to a seven something in ratings.
Todd Jones: Wow. Well, I know my mother was watching.
Christine Brennan: That's how the... Yeah. But you know what it was? It was women's football. Women took the remote control and said, "Honey, sit down and watch or leave the room. I'm in charge." And it really was extraordinary. I think it was a eye-opener, not just with you and your mom, but you knew that the Olympics, it was huge TV ratings. It was must-see TV so, literally, I'm on the front page of the Washington Post almost every day with story. I mean, who would have thought that? You remember, it's the lead story on NBC, ABC, CBS every night. It was the first reality TV story, frankly.
Todd Jones: That's a great point. Yeah.
Christine Brennan: Yeah. This is about four months, right? Five months before OJ Simpson [crosstalk 00:09:08].
Todd Jones: OJ Simpson trial, right.
Christine Brennan: And two dead bodies. And this was about a bruised knee, and it spurred Nancy Kerrigan on to the greatest performance of her life. She recovered. She was okay. So it's the most famous bruised knee in history.
Todd Jones: Well, again, it just transcended sports. That's a great point that you made about the OJ trial, that the murders happened a few months later. That trial obviously took on a life of its own. I heard OJ played football. But what I'm saying is it became sports and culture, it just all meshed together. There was something about the time that we were living in 1994 that just brought something like this to life.
Todd Jones: And really kind of changed your career, right? I mean, you went on from there to write the Inside Edge, a book that Sports Illustrated has said is one of the top 100 sports books of all time. And that led you to the job you have had since at the USA Today with being a columnist. So really Nancy and Tonya played a part in your career. Is that right?
Christine Brennan: Absolutely. You will not find many serious journalists who would say this, but I will. Tonya Harding changed my life. Obviously, again, I'm not making fun of someone attacking someone, clearly. But again, because Nancy Kerrigan survived, thrived, and is great to this day, I think what it was for me was...
Christine Brennan: And I tell young journalists all the time, you just never know what story it's going to be. You probably feel this way, Todd, about your career. But you never know. I mean, who would have thought that it would be a figure skating story that would then I would be able to write Inside Edge which became a bestseller and then get another book deal which then reflected the success of that [crosstalk 00:10:49]?
Todd Jones: Before we leave that topic, give me your best Nancy/Tonya story.
Christine Brennan: Well, I think there's... When I think about the craziness at the Olympic Games... And it was nuts. The whole story, everything that was happening, it was just this crescendo building and it all just drops into the beautiful, pristine countryside of snow-covered Norway. And there was a lot happening. I mean, any hiccup, any sneeze, and it was major news. Tonya and Nancy, you couldn't get enough of it.
Christine Brennan: And I remember a dear friend, in fact the spokesperson for the US Olympic Committee at the time, I think you knew him as well, passed away last year, Mike Moran. And Mike was in the center of this hurricane, constantly. And they had this press conference about two in the morning in Norway. It was the day of the opening ceremony so we'd already covered the opening ceremonies. Frozen, it was brutally cold, writing story after story, and now at two o'clock they're going to have this press conference. In the morning.
Christine Brennan: And they're announcing Tonya Harding is going to be coming to the Olympics. And with that, all the US Olympic Committee executives and officials leave the room, as we have nothing but questions on how this is going to happen.
Todd Jones: Right. They're gone!
Christine Brennan: And poor Mike Moran is standing there, and there's a picture that actually a dear friend of his sent me after he passed away, Mike in the eye of this hurricane. And you can see the back of my head, you can see all... There's probably 150 journalists all gathered around, and Mike looks like literally the eye of the hurricane.
Christine Brennan: And I remember asking Mike... I was kind of on his back shoulder, back right shoulder. I remember asking Mike this question as he's just getting peppered with questions, including, "Are they going to live together?" Because there was an apartment that they... And yes they were. And so I asked the key journalistic question of, "Are they going to be brushing their teeth next to one another?"
Todd Jones: What was the answer?
Christine Brennan: Mike Moran, who was a good friend then, obviously, and a colleague, of course, and someone I quoted a lot, and became an even better friend, he turned slowly, in slow-motion, and he gives me this look I will never forget, this glare. He says not a word, which is one of the first and only times Mike Moran didn't have something to say. He glares at me and he just turns his head back and he goes, "Next question."
Christine Brennan: But I think they might have been brushing their teeth next to one another, which again, when you consider that one's ex-husband and others of the one attacked the other, and Tonya admitted knowing about it... Actually I thought it was a good question. But Mike Moran was having none of it at two in the morning in Norway.
Todd Jones: Yep. No part of that. No part of that.
Christine Brennan: No.
Todd Jones: Well, we talked so much figure skating, and you were not a figure skater, but growing up you played a lot of sports though, right, growing up in Toledo, Ohio. Tell me a little about sports in your youth and how you even got into sports writing.
Christine Brennan: So I was tall and athletic and wanted to play sports, and back then a lot of parents told their daughters no. I mean, they really did.
Todd Jones: Oh yeah. Right. I mean, in the 60s, girls didn't play sports, right?
Christine Brennan: You didn't do this. No way. No way. And my mom and dad said yes. And I couldn't wait until my dad would get home, and I'd throw the baseball with him, I'd play catch. And he got me a mitt. And most girls wanted dolls when they turned eight and... I mean, I had some dolls, but I wanted a baseball mitt. My dad and mom just went out and got it for me.
Christine Brennan: The term 'throw like a girl' is so ridiculous because, of course, now we're teaching millions of girls, generations of girls to throw the ball properly, so I guess it's a compliment, but back in the day it wasn't a compliment. It was that pushing motion. But I never threw like a girl. My dad taught me how to cock my arm and go behind my ear and throw the ball. So that was.. How lucky was I to have these parents who were so comfortable in their skin that they-
Todd Jones: Encouraged you. Right.
Christine Brennan: ... felt that they didn't mind? What were the neighbors saying about what's going on in the Brennan household? Who cares? My dad went out and got a bat and invited all the kids over and we hit baseball [crosstalk 00:14:44] every weekend. And boys and girls.
Christine Brennan: And so that really was my background, which then led to being a six sport athlete at Ottawa Hills High School, not because I was such a great athlete, but back then girls didn't specialize. But at mostly basketball and softball, tennis, field hockey, those were some of my big ones in high school.
Todd Jones: It's one thing to play sports, and even then that was revolutionary for women to be playing sports at a young age. But to write about it... I think one time you told me that you used to listen to the Tigers radio games and write about the games when you were a kid. Is that right?
Christine Brennan: Yeah. That is true. Not even the Major League level, the Toledo Mud Hens. The Triple A team, of course, were the Tigers, as you know. And we had season tickets for the Mud Hens. My dad was the Pied Piper with season tickets with Michigan Football. And we looked north in Toledo, obviously. We were right there on the line. And as Michigan games and Tigers and...
Christine Brennan: But Toledo Mud Hens were huge for us, and so I'd listen to an entire season of Toledo Mud Hens games on the radio, keeping score and writing up little stories. And I was like 10 years old. And like you say, not only was no girl in America doing that in the late 60s, probably very few boys were doing that. So that's how into this I was.
Christine Brennan: And I remember my dad walking through the living room once, and that's where I had the radio for a lot of... And I was probably writing some little story up on just a notebook paper. And he kind of looked, "What are you doing?" And I said, "Oh, I'm just writing up about Hens just scored a couple runs and I'm writing kind of..." Even he was kind of... My biggest supporter was kind of like, "Okay. Sure. [crosstalk 00:16:19]."
Todd Jones: Yeah. Well, I got to admit I had that same response from my own parents. I used to play this game APBA, was a dice game, baseball.
Christine Brennan: Oh yeah! Oh sure.
Todd Jones: And you had these cards, and you'd play, "Oh, the 75 Reds would play the 61 Yankees." And I had a notebook and I would write game summaries after every game. And I kept stats, and I made trades to help the Reds. But I would write these little summaries-
Christine Brennan: You didn't need much help, yeah.
Todd Jones: And then my parents would walk by and like, "Oh, this geek."
Christine Brennan: Yeah. Well, and by the way, the Reds didn't need much help in '75 and '76.
Todd Jones: No.
Christine Brennan: Yeah. Even though we were up north, absolutely, I would get those games on the radio, and really cool.
Todd Jones: So sports is such a big part of your life growing up, writing. You go to Northwestern, you get your Masters there. Great journalism school, obviously. And then you go to the Miami Herald in 1981, as you mentioned, as the first full-time female sports writer. But you had interned there the year before, right? In Miami I think?
Christine Brennan: That's right.
Todd Jones: And yeah.
Christine Brennan: And kids, anyone listening, parents of kids, internships are the key. I'm sure you agree, Todd. Grades are great, and I'm all for getting all As and the pride you have in that, but boy oh boy, it's so important those internships. And I was lucky, I had four internships while I was at Northwestern, two at the Toledo Blade, my hometown paper. And the first one, Todd, was city desk, writing obits and things like that, covering country fairs. But I kept wandering back to the sports section.
Todd Jones: Came real, yeah.
Christine Brennan: I just thought, "This would be so cool to be a sports writer." So next summer was sports, and that was the US Open was at Inverness. [inaudible 00:17:51] that one, I was an intern covering that. And every time I think about covering golf now, I've been so lucky to cover a lot of the Masters, the US Opens, et cetera. And I think about being that... What was I? Probably a 20-year-old student just wandering through the press room looking at all the names: Tom Boswell and Dan Jenkins, the name plates. And it does make me smile because of course I knew Dan so well, and I knew Tom well, and now, of course, those name plates at those tournaments, I'm now covering them and I'm in one of those seats.
Todd Jones: Now you're at a name plate.
Christine Brennan: It's pretty cool. Yeah. I never lose sight of how fortunate I am.
Todd Jones: But as an intern in 1980, the Herald sent you to an NFL locker room, right? You went to the Vikings/Dolphins pre-season game and... So they send you in there to an NFL locker room, you're probably 20 years old. What was that like in 1980 for you to all of a sudden be challenging the status quo?
Christine Brennan: I was an intern. I was in between undergrad and Masters at Northwestern. And so the sports editor of the Miami Herald, Paul Anger, who was instrumental in so much of the opportunities I had, and whatever success I've been able to achieve, Paul pulled me aside a few days before the...
Christine Brennan: These were exhibition games, so the old Orange Bowl, and it's the Miami Dolphins against the Minnesota Vikings, as you said. And I'm going to do a feature, just a sidebar, on the Vikings after this pre-season game. So I'm part of the Miami Herald's team covering that game. There's probably six, seven, eight of us. Larry Dorman was on the beat at the time covering the Dolphins.
Christine Brennan: Anyway, so Paul pulls me in and says, "We're going to send you to... You're going to do a Viking sidebar which means you're going to go in the locker room. We've talked to the Vikings people, they know you're coming in there. They've never had a woman in the locker room before, but they are going to let you in." And there was something about it, I was like, "I'm ready for this."
Christine Brennan: So game's over and I go into the door of the Orange Bowl, which I ended up being in many times after that. And I walk in, and first is the coach, as you know, Todd, well, is the coach, and so that's Bud Grant. I mean, my goodness, the legendary Bud Grant. And yes, I am 22-
Todd Jones: Chiseled out of rock.
Christine Brennan: Yeah. I'm 22 years old, and all those Super Bowls that he coached in... I mean, I've watched every football game on television. I mean, I could recite everything about Bud Grant, and there I am.
Todd Jones: So what did Bud think when you walked up?
Christine Brennan: So he had been told as well, obviously. I got to give credit to Paul at the Miami Herald for making sure that the word got out so that they at least knew about it. Although what did come was kind of interesting.
Christine Brennan: But there was a few [crosstalk 00:20:44] and I have a question specifically to ask him, a couple of questions. We all have done that occasionally. And I also, by the way, I was wearing a skirt, probably below my knee. I was conservatively dressed, but I thought, "I want to make it clear that if anyone's even just glancing around, there's a woman in here." I had such respect for the fact that I was doing this and for their privacy, the players, and the understanding that this is the workplace. And it's a strange workplace, but it is the workplace for reporters. So that's why you have equal access to it.
Christine Brennan: Anyway, and so I looked at Bud Grant and he goes, "You're going in there?" And I said, "I am." Now, there were coaches, as you know, around that time who would stop women. There were many who were not at all understanding of the idea of equal access and equality for women, so that was not a good time for a lot of [crosstalk 00:21:41]-
Todd Jones: Yeah. And that went on all through the 1980s. I mean, so-
Christine Brennan: Sure. Even you could probably find a college coach right now who doesn't believe a woman should be in the locker room. Which, again, shame on them. Thankfully the laws and the rules have changed and the commissioners made the decisions and what have you. But Grant, to his great credit, said, "All right. There you go." How about that? How about that? This is a guy born in... I think Bud Grant was born in the 20s, probably.
Todd Jones: Probably 1620s.
Christine Brennan: Yeah. Exactly. So anyway, in I go, and I would love to have a camera video of me and my face and just what I was doing. I'm sure I was fine, but inside my heart was starting to race a little bit, because what I walked into... There were players in all kinds of stages of undress. There were some players still in uniform. There were some who were naked or wearing towels. And everything in between.
Christine Brennan: Now, my goal, and I knew this, was to just beeline to a few lockers and get a couple quotes and get out of there. And of course, the idea, I'm sure it's hard and I can't believe we still have to talk about this, for those listening who thinks this is somehow exciting or sexy, it's the complete antithesis of this, as you know, Todd. And if you were in a women's locker room, you'd feel the exact same way. You've got a job to do, you're going to get these quotes and get out of the room.
Christine Brennan: But for a pre-season game, there's no names above the lockers.
Todd Jones: Right. So you don't know who's who. Yeah. Yeah.
Christine Brennan: Right. So I've got my flip card, because I knew I needed to be prepared. [crosstalk 00:23:12], my whole life for these moments. And so I've got the names and the numbers, so if I need to find out who the [crosstalk 00:23:21] is, well, Tommy Cramer, I know he was. He was the quarterback at the time. But you've got, "Oh, number 88. Okay. There he is." And I can quickly look and find [crosstalk 00:23:29]. There's four or five guys I want to talk to.
Christine Brennan: Well, they're now starting to take off their jerseys, so now you don't have numbers, and you don't have any numbers above the lockers like in the normal regular season. And I'm stuck, because I cannot look around. I cannot. My eyes cannot wander. I knew this. I knew all this at 22.
Christine Brennan: So out of the blue, as I'm standing there, walks up this player, and it is Tom Hannon, a safety for the Vikings. And he looks at me, and he says, "Who do you need?" How about that? "Who do you need?"
Todd Jones: There's always guys that will be helpful, right?
Christine Brennan: Well, and this is extraordinary. I'm the first woman to ever be in the Vikings locker room. It's my first time ever being in a men's locker room. And I said a couple of names, and I then noticed Tommy Cramer was still there, and I could see him. And then I said, "And you." Because he had had two interceptions that day and I wanted to interview him.
Christine Brennan: So I talked to him and then I walked over to Cramer, talked to him. Fine, totally fine. There was sort of one other player I needed to speak with, and he, unfortunately Todd, wanted to stand there buck naked. And so he walks up to me and I walk up to him. I mean, we're both kind of walking towards each other, because I think he sensed that I wanted to talk to him. And he just had to be naked.
Christine Brennan: Now, the good news is that I just by chance carried an 8 x 11 notebook that day. And I learned very quickly that-
Todd Jones: Good to hide views.
Christine Brennan: And 8 x 11 notebook, especially with heels I'm probably six and half, six one, that 8 x 11.5 notebook was perfect for that position. And got the interview, got out of there. I will also say that before this, I went up... When in the locker room, I actually called back home. I got my mom and dad, of course, I'm sure many of us [crosstalk 00:25:28]-
Todd Jones: Yeah, I was wondering what your dad was thinking.
Christine Brennan: Mom's on one line, Dad's on the other, and I told them I was going to be going into the men's locker room for the first time. And I said, "Dad, do you have any advice for me?" And he said ,"Honey, keep eye contact at all times."
Todd Jones: Father knows best.
Christine Brennan: That's right. So that's been my... That's exactly what I did.
Todd Jones: Well, from-
Christine Brennan: Saw the whites of their eyes.
Todd Jones: Well, from there football became your life throughout the 80s. I mean, you covered the Miami Hurricanes for the Herald, the great Howard Schnellenberger. I always think of Howard with his pipe, he always looked like he was teaching a philosophy class, like he's going to tell you about Socrates or something.
Christine Brennan: Exactly.
Todd Jones: But you covered that great '84 Orange Bowl when the Hurricanes upset Nebraska.
Christine Brennan: What a team that was. Miami was an incredible underdog. But, by the way, that experience of covering the Hurricanes in '83, I'm out there watching practice in actually the spring before that fall season, and Jim Kelly was still there working out. He had had a shoulder-
Todd Jones: Injury, yeah.
Christine Brennan: ... separation and surgery. But he was getting back in shape for pro scouts. So he's throwing passes right on the same sideline as a couple other quarterbacks are throwing passes. And I'm looking at these guys going, "My God, they all look fantastic." And then I'm saying to myself, even though, again, I'm a relatively new reporter, I know football so well from going to all kinds of... Season tickets at Michigan, season tickets University of Toledo, watching every college and pro game. I'm thinking, "These guys look really good, this is only one campus out of the country. How is it possible?" Well, in addition to Jim Kelly, the other two guys were Bernie Kosar and Vinnie Testaverde.
Todd Jones: Amazing. One team.
Christine Brennan: So lucky me, covering that. Yeah, one team. Now, Kelly then graduated, and then Testaverde and Kosar, of course, were freshmen, and Howard Schnellenberger made the choice. There was a third guy as well, Al Vanderwende that they were deciding between. But Schnellenberger picks Kosar. They lose their first game to Florida, and then of course they never lose again. And as a young journalist I'm covering every second of that. I'm the only outsider, probably, of any kind that was around that team every single day.
Todd Jones: What a great ride.
Christine Brennan: What a wonderful, amazing experience, yeah.
Todd Jones: Yeah. Yeah. And that really kind of took you up to the Washington Post, right? The Post reaches out, hires you, and then it's more football. You become the first woman to cover what was then the Washington Redskins, what we now know, rightfully so, as the Washington National Football Team. 1985. Now you're on the NFL beat. The great Joe Gibbs was the coach. You had players like Joe Theissman, Dexter Manley, Dave Butz. So how were you received and treated on a day to day basis as a woman covering that NFL team?
Christine Brennan: I can't say enough, Todd, about Joe Gibbs and what a class act he was and is. We stayed in touch. And here he is, he is told that... First of all, we know that they don't love any beat writer, right? I mean, that's the essence of the job. If I'm doing my job-
Todd Jones: Yeah. You're doing your job but they don't like you, right?
Christine Brennan: Yeah. If I'm doing my job properly and they're doing their job properly, they're not going to like me. You don't go in, by the way, wanting to be disliked, but my role is to serve the readers of the Washington Post, it's not to serve Joe Gibbs or any of his players or the owner or anyone.
Christine Brennan: So we're now in 1985. It was still piecemeal prior to '85 in terms of locker room, so I could go to the Miami Dolphins, cover them when I was down in Miami... And Don Shula, well ahead of his time, what a wonderful, wonderful human being, a terrific class act, just one of the greats of all time. He issued robes for his players back in 1982 and said, "Put on the robes and women reporters-"
Todd Jones: Yeah. It's not that difficult. Yeah. Be a pro.
Christine Brennan: Yeah. In this case, it was mostly me, and there was another woman in Daytona Beach. "They're going to be in there." And that was the end of the story. Other teams hadn't figured it out yet, or were, I don't know, dragging their feet. Back then, this was the norm.
Christine Brennan: And so Gibbs did not believe women should be in the locker room. He's a very religious guy and he didn't think women should be in the locker room. At the same time, he's being asked about all this, George Solomon and other sports editors are going up to meet Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner of the National Football League, and saying, "Hey. Time has come." This again, is summer of '85. The Washington Post is going to put a woman on the beat, this is the most important beat in Washington, obviously, the football team. "So the time has come."
Christine Brennan: And whether it was because specifically of me or not, I don't care, I don't know what's ever said and I don't need it to be, but this accumulated point, we reach a critical mass here, and Pete Rozelle issues an edict, "All locker rooms have to have equal access for male and female reporters. Done. We cannot keep women out by the loading dock, smelling the bus fumes." Which happened to be a lot.
Christine Brennan: So Gibbs does an interview. I'm up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, so I'm not seeing the interviews back in D.C., but friends are all over my voicemail, Todd, saying, "Gibbs was just on with Glenn Brenner," late Glenn Brenner, your sportscaster in D.C., "And he went on and on, he doesn't believe women should be in the locker room. 'I don't think she should be in the locker room. I don't think she should be in.'" So that's what I heard from these friends of mine.
Christine Brennan: Well, then when I got home and actually saw the tape, there was a second part to Gibbs' comment. And even though he personally did not believe that a woman should be in the locker room, he had been told by Commissioner Pete Rozelle that I would be allowed in the locker room, "So that is that, she will be allowed in the locker room."
Todd Jones: Wow. Good for him.
Christine Brennan: End of story. That's all you can ask for. And Gibbs and I had a terrific relationship. He's one of these guys that never went off the record ever. So he-
Todd Jones: Really? He just always-
Christine Brennan: Yeah.
Todd Jones: He was on the record at all times?
Christine Brennan: Always. Always on the record. If he was mad about something, he'd call my home landline. Of course, back then it's all we had. I'd get a call at 6:30 in the morning, and he'd wake me up probably, and that's fine, and he'd be mad about a headline off it. And I'd say, "Coach. As I've told you before, I don't write the headlines." And he would then kind of laugh and he'd go, "Okay. Well, bring that guy who writes the headlines out with you today." And I said, "Well, I'd love to bring them all out because it doesn't make my job easier either."
Todd Jones: But did he ever hold a grudge? That's the key, right?
Christine Brennan: No. Yeah, never.
Todd Jones: And they can get mad at you, and you can talk it out, but it's the ones who didn't hold a grudge that you had more respect for, because they know that you're doing a job, and you know they're doing a job, and you just go about your business.
Christine Brennan: This is what Gibbs would do. There was one time I wrote... We were supposed to write about plays, except for some of their fun stuff they'd do at the end of the practice, and then you could write a little feature on something or an item. Well, I thought they were practicing some crazy flea-flicker where a running back almost ran into a brick wall because they ran out of room on the practice field. And I wrote that up, because that looked to me like fun end-of-practice stuff. Well, the next day I get a call from Gibbs. And he's not mad about the headline writers, he's mad at me.
Todd Jones: At you.
Christine Brennan: He goes, "You wrote about one of our plays." And I said, "What?" And he goes, "We'll talk about it when you're coming out today." And I said, because obviously I came out to the park every day, so he goes, "We'll talk about it more then." And I'm just feeling like, "Oh my gosh, I thought that was a joke. I didn't realize that was part of the..." There was this gray area of what it was. I didn't think there was any gray area at all. I thought it was just a fun thing that they were doing.
Christine Brennan: So now I'm out at the park, Gibbs calls me into his office, feels like going to the principal's office a little bit, and he said, "That was a play we were going to use this week against Philadelphia, and now we can't use it because of you writing about it." Well, I'm what, 26, 27 years old. Again, I'm not emotional, but I'm like, "Oh my gosh, Coach, I'm so sorry. I hope you understand, I thought that was goofing around stuff, and when Gary Clark or whoever, Gary Sanders, almost ran into the wall, I actually thought that was... Everyone was laughing. I thought it was kind of funny."
Christine Brennan: He goes, "I see what you're getting at." He goes, "To me, though, that was a mistake." And I said, "I see where you are on this too." And he looked at me, "Do you have anything else to say about it?" I said, "No, I've given you my best explanation." And he said, "You know where I'm coming from?" I said, "Absolutely, Coach." He said, "Good. Now we'll move on."
Todd Jones: That's great.
Christine Brennan: And he did that every single time.
Todd Jones: Wow. I always enjoyed covering the players. I always thought they felt grounded and they had a sense of perspective that other pro athletes... I don't know if it's because they were on campus for four years, and it's such a violent game their careers could end at any play, they just... For the most part, in general, NFL players were good to deal with. How did they treat you in Washington?
Christine Brennan: Yeah, they were really good. Some guys got mad because you wrote a story that talked about that they missed five tackles or gave up three touchdowns or something, or fumbled on the goal line, of course. But that comes with the territory. But, I mean, these guys are some of the greatest football players ever, and those offensive lineman especially were terrific to deal with. You respect people. I respected Dave Butz, he had every right to not want a woman in that locker room. He respected me enough to come in on his day off to do an interview with me. And I have incredible warm memories of that time.
Todd Jones: We talked a lot of football, but really your career has been about the Olympics. Are there lessons that you learnt as a beat reporter covering the world of football that you expanded out into the great world of international sports competition?
Christine Brennan: I learned that I had to stick up for myself. I learned that I had to be strong. I learned that I had to be honest, that I would report something and I had to then face the music the next day when someone would be furious with me.
Todd Jones: But you learned about standing up for yourself, you learned about the idea that you take a stand, and then you become a columnist at USA Today in '97. And you're covering Olympics, every Olympics since '84, and now you're talking about world issues, not just football. You're talking about world issues, world sports. And when you think about your career, the Olympics really has a special place, I would assume?
Christine Brennan: Oh my gosh, it does, as I mentioned earlier about being a girl growing up in Toledo and loving the Olympics. And I would have hoped, Todd, to go to one Olympics as a fan. "Maybe some day I could have tickets to an Olympic Games." And instead, 18 in a row, winter and summer, every single one since LA in '84.
Todd Jones: It's amazing.
Christine Brennan: And not just, of course, for the newspapers, but also doing the TV work, including ABC News. And of course ABC was the network broadcasting those Olympics as a girl as I watched it. I mean I could almost-
Todd Jones: Oh, Jim McKay, yep, yep.
Christine Brennan: ... burst into tears at the thought of how full circle this is, as well as, of course, CNN now. So yeah, it's just amazing to me, and I never lose sight of it. And you know what it is? And it goes back to the reporting, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, on being that tough reporter. I mean, sports is life. It is the toy department. We used to hear those stories all the time.
Christine Brennan: But this is a... It's now a part of our culture. It's no longer a mirror... Or it's no longer an escape from our reality, it is a mirror of our reality. And my goodness, my whole career, so much of what I do now is that intersection of sports and culture, which is now a 12 lane super highway.
Christine Brennan: But it still starts with the reporting, and it starts with treating people right and asking the questions. And I might not always ask the right questions, but I'm willing to work hard enough to get those answers and to be able to hopefully break news as I have been able to do.
Christine Brennan: And also to treat people right. Just yesterday I was working on something involving the Olympics and Tokyo, and I was talking to a couple of sources and I said, "It's a two-way street here. You've answered my call. If there's something you don't like, if it's on the record, then [crosstalk 00:37:06]."
Todd Jones: Yeah. What have you got here? Right. Right.
Christine Brennan: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, "Please, please, you call me, and you can tell me anything. And if you see something, the minute it's online..." Obviously now it's online, so the old days of waiting until it hits your doorstep.... "I want to hear about it right now."
Christine Brennan: And because those relationships... That, I learned from covering Don Shula with the Miami Herald and Howard Schnellenberger and Charlie Pell with the Florida Gators, and then all the way to Joe Gibbs and everything in Washington, those relationships are everything. And that's what journalism is.
Christine Brennan: And frankly, that's what the attack on journalism... That's what has been so unfortunate about this enemy of the people thing. But we are not enemies. We work with you, whether someone's covering-
Todd Jones: Yeah. We're asking questions, right?
Christine Brennan: ... the school board about your kid, that journalist is going to do the job for you. And for me, if you love sports, or if you care about these issues, I'm one of many sports journalists who's out there doing this. We work with you. We work with coaches. We work with players. We're not the enemy. And thankfully, I've learned those lessons early on, and I hope to this day... Well, I promise you this, Todd, I'll never forget them.
Todd Jones: Well, I've always had a lot of respect for your willingness to take a stand, even if it might not be popular, and it all starts with the reporting. You make the calls, you do the research, you form an opinion, and then you stand by it. And I think that that's not always done, and I think that the wide array of experiences in your career have led you to the point where you've become such a respected voice that you end up winning the Red Smith Award. So it's great.
Christine Brennan: Oh, thank you. Thanks.
Todd Jones: I have one final question. Is there any Olympic story besides Nancy and Tonya that still stands above others for you?
Christine Brennan: '88 Olympics in Seoul. It's the middle of the night. Of course the time difference is such, right, that it's... I literally looked at Kornheiser who I worked with at the Post at the time, Tony Kornheiser, and, "Are you going to have lunch?" I said, "No, no, I'm going to go over to the diving venue and just watch the preliminaries. You never know if someone's going to hit their head."
Todd Jones: Oh, Greg Louganis, right? Yeah.
Christine Brennan: Right. But I said that. I literally said that to Kornheiser. "I never know if someone's going to hit their head." So I get some popcorn, I take one of the shuttles and I buy some popcorn at the concession stand of the diving venue. And I wander in up the stairwell. And Greg Louganis is the greatest diver who's ever lived, the greatest ever, and he's on the board of the 3 meter springboard.
Christine Brennan: At that exact moment, I come in, so I'm quiet, and I'm literally at the same level he is, and I'm probably only 20 feet from him. I'm just at this edge of the stands, and there's the boards right there. And I can see this... I have this great view of him, and up he goes...
Christine Brennan: And I covered Greg all the way through the LA games in '84, and this is going to be his swansong in '88. And up he goes and my brain's looking at it, I could see it, I mean, I'm right at it. And I'm thinking, "He didn't really jump out far enough." And then the other side of my brain's saying, "It's Greg Louganis, don't worry-"
Todd Jones: He knows what he's doing.
Christine Brennan: And this is all in a split second. Yeah, exactly. He's the best ever. "But he's too close. But it's Greg Louganis. Too close." Boom!
Todd Jones: That sound.
Christine Brennan: And he hits his head, and I thought I had just watched someone die. And I just remember going, "Oh my gosh." And he goes [crosstalk 00:40:22] into the water. Thankfully there's no blood. Now, he appears from the surface of the water, from beyond the surface, and he's up now. And he's rubbing his head and people rush over and they help him out of the pool. And those 30 minutes were one of the most amazing sports dramas ever.
Christine Brennan: We now know he's not dead. We don't know how seriously he's injured. And we know this: that if he does not come back and do a few more preliminary dives, this is a qualifying round, he will fall like a rock through the standings and he will not qualify. I think it was 12 that qualified. He will not be in the finals to win an Olympic gold medal to defend his Olympic gold medal.
Christine Brennan: So this, on so many levels, this is the story that is amazing. It's the middle of the night in the United States. So what's fascinating is he does come back, one of the more heroic things I've seen in sports, with a patch on his head 30 minutes later. He's not retiring, he's not giving up, he's coming back on the board. He has to do almost the exact same dive, dive back in to the board.
Christine Brennan: We all held our breath. I remember feeling my... We're on the pool deck, actually looking up now at him, because that's where the press kind of well was, to be there, the press section. And looking up, I remember my heart was just racing. Again, you're a journalist but you're also a human being.
Christine Brennan: And he nailed it, no problem, far away from the board. He went on to dive the rest of the dives. He had fallen from first to third by getting zero. He didn't even fall... Just from that one dive, he only went to third place, he was that great.
Todd Jones: Sounds like my chemistry grade, yeah.
Christine Brennan: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It was like getting a zero, right? But anyway, so he comes back and makes it, and then the next day he wins the Olympic gold medal and then he goes on to win the platform as well, and wins both gold medals.
Todd Jones: That's a great story to wrap up, because it shows the value of being there. You have been there for journalism itself, especially for women journalists. You've always given back, sponsored scholarships, you're always available for lectures and podcasts like this, and I know you made sports writing a lot better because of your presence and your work. And I really want to say thank you for taking the time to be with us.
Christine Brennan: Well, Todd, thank you. What a delight to relive these stories. And to you as well, I always enjoyed seeing you and I always enjoyed saying, "Okay, this is a triple toe loop. And this is a double axle."