New York Times sports reporter Karen Crouse got her start in the field young. Her love of sports reporting began with an extra-credit eighth-grade project to put together a magazine. She decided to make a swimming magazine, went to her local swim club and asked to interview Mike Bruner--the Michael Phelps of the 1970s.
The way Crouse tells the story, Bruner's coach, Bill Rose, told him he had to stay after practice for an interview with a journalist.
"So you can imagine how he feels when he walks out on the pool deck and sees me, a 12-year-old girl in pigtails, with index cards and a pen shaking in my hands," Crouse said. Afterward, she told her dad that this is what she wanted to do when she grew up.
"My whole life changed on an extra-credit assignment," she said.
Crouse was invited to speak at the Andrus Center Conference on Women and Leadership for the second year in a row on Sept. 11. Her speech packed the Simplot Ballroom at Boise State University with about 500 women--and like most of the conference, only a handful of men. She spent an hour telling stories to the audience about her experiences as a female journalist in a male-dominated field of reporting: sports.
Originally from Northern California, she landed at The New York Times in 2005 on the football beat. She's covered all mainstream sports including Nascar and boxing. Now, she covers golf--a place where she said she rarely looks like she "belongs." But she's used her time in the field to help change stigmas and even advocate for the breakdown of male-only memberships.
As recent as the Sunday before the conference, when she was supposed to interview a golfer, Crouse was told she couldn't enter the male-only clubhouse.
"The attendees even started to form a human chain to keep me out," Crouse told the crowd. "And this was not 1964. This was Sunday. The manager told me, 'I do not want a woman coming in here so she can watch the players shower.' I couldn't do my job."
After a speech that left the audience in a standing ovation, Crouse sat down with Boise Weekly to further explore what it's like to do her job, and the barriers she deals with on a daily basis.
For Crouse, one of the biggest goals with her stories is to attract people who wouldn't normally pick up the Sports section of the paper.
"Sports sections are always going to attract the diehard sports fan. It's like opening a chocolate shop and hoping that chocoholics will come in. You don't need to worry about that. The person you want to get in is the person who thinks they're a salt person and they don't like sweets. If you can get them in to sample your product, then you're doing something right," she said.
Crouse takes special aim at the wives and girlfriends of those diehard sports fans, who might have a "reflexive aversion" to the section.
"It starts to feel like a clubhouse that they don't have the password to, so they just ignore it altogether," she said.
To get those who savor salt into the candy shop, Crouse strives to write stories about golf that aren't actually about golf.
"People who cannot relate to the trick shots, or how patient [a golfer] is with fans when signing all their autographs, they can relate to his frustrations about his kids doing all these activities and him not being around for that," she said.
One of Crouse's most powerful stories was published shortly after she started working for the Times. It starts, "If you want to plug into Laveranues Cole's inner life, borrow his iPod," and continues to tell the story of the New York Jets football player who grew up being sexually abused by his stepfather.
"There were people who didn't know him and just thought he was one of those entitled NFL players, and when I was able to tell his story, there were so many people who are suffering in silence who thought they were the only ones living this nightmare," Crouse told BW. "Then they find out this prima donna, overpaid football player has experienced the same pain. ... People who couldn't relate to him as a football player could relate to him as a human being."
Crouse doesn't just differentiate herself in the field by being a woman and writing stories that delve deeper than scoreboards and overtimes. She said she also asks the most off-the-wall questions in press conferences. And she wears "crazy pants."
During her speech at the Andrus Center's conference, she wore a pair of slacks covered in a collage of headlines, photos and newsprint. One of her proudest accomplishments, she said, is still being able to fit into those pants, which she bought in Orange County in 1998. Since then, "crazy pants" has become her signature.
"Patty Hearst is on my pants," she said, looking on the back side of her knee. "That is just too great."
When she first started covering sports, she said she got sick of her outfits being critiqued--is her skirt too short? Is her blouse not buttoned up enough, are her heels too tall? She said, "forget this," and started only wearing pants.
But she said she couldn't wear plain pants. That's not her personality.
"When I first walked into a locker room, being a woman was a total disadvantage," she said. "People are thinking, 'Who is she, what are her motives, why is she here?' All those things. By the second day, I'm the 'crazy pants lady.'"
Crouse described being a woman in the field of sports reporting as "these little battles where you're not even sure if you're leaving a mark."
"'Why do you keep doing this?' It's the question my husband asks me on occasion," Crouse said. "The answer would be because it hasn't gotten old to me."