This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanne C. Gerstner. Joanne has been working in sports media for over two decades in various capacities, including working as a successful sports journalist, teaching sports journalism at Michigan State University, and owning her own media consulting services company Gerstner Media LLC. Read on to find out more about how Joanne got started in the industry, what she’s most proud of from her work with AWSM (Association for Women in Sports Media), and the new book that she’s co-authored called “Back in the Game” which discusses sports and concussions.
Q: As someone who didn’t get into sports until later in life, I’m always curious how other people became interested in sports. What is your earliest sports memory?
A: I’ve always been an athlete, so I really don’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in sports. It’s who I am. I played everything: soccer, swimming, basketball, downhill skiing, volleyball, tennis, ice skating, and intermural floor hockey. Everyone around me played - girls and boys. I kind of settled in on swimming, tennis, and golf as my main sports in high school. I was good enough at tennis to keep playing in college. Sports have always been a big part of my life.
I grew up in Detroit, so I’ve always been a Tigers fan. I remember falling asleep listening to Ernie Harwell on the radio. I would go to my uncle’s house and we’d watch the games and they would teach me how to score the games. Those were my earliest sports memories.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to work in sports journalism?
A: You would laugh if you went back to my grade school yearbooks. Basically, everyone wrote “Good luck being a sports writer” because that’s all I wanted to do since the 3rd grade. There wasn’t much ambiguity.
I love writing and my uncle’s a journalist, so there was writing in my family. But I think one of the most influential things was growing up near Detroit. I never grew up thinking women weren’t sports writers. I read Johnette Howard, Michelle Kaufman, Cynthia Lambert, and Angelique Chengelis. They were all working at Detroit News or the Detroit Free Press covering major beats like the Detroit Red Wings or University of Michigan football, so I had role models to look up to right there in the newspaper on my dining room table. It wasn’t until later in my educational career—basically college, when I realized there weren’t women doing this everywhere. I was lucky to grow up in a place that was progressive in the ‘80s and ‘90s where women were doing things that we’re still fighting to do.
But even if you still take a look at the Detroit News or Detroit Free Press, for example, they’ve never had a female sports editor or full-time columnist. Detroit News has one woman working in sports: Angelique Chengelis. The Detroit Free Press has one woman working in sports: Helene St. James. And that’s it, in 2016.
Now, that said, I’m fully cognizant of the state of the industry. I used to work at Detroit News, where Angelique and I were a tag team. There aren’t jobs right now. There isn’t necessarily discrimination against women, it’s just that the number of opportunities has been reduced. But it sends a powerful message for girls growing up today, if they open up a newspaper and they aren’t seeing many female fixtures in sports as journalists.
Q: On top of your mainstream sports writing, you have also developed an expertise in sports and concussions, over the past several years. Now, you have a new book coming out entitled Back in the Game that you co-authored with sports neurologist Jeffrey S. Kutcher, MD. How did you first come to write about this topic?
A: I’ve been writing about concussions for years. Every sports writer from high school on up has written about concussions: “They were dazed. They got their bell rung. A boxer was knocked out. A diver hit his head on the diving board. A gymnast lands on her head.” We’ve all been present for concussion events. We just didn’t always have the diagnosis or the information to call it what it was. That’s the evolution we’ve seen in our society. We used to see concussions as, “Suck it up, you won’t be dizzy in a few minutes.” Now, we realize that it’s probably your brain telling you, “Ouch, please stop and get checked out.”
Then I was selected for the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. It’s an opportunity for journalists to find a new spark or new ideas to inspire them. I was taking law classes, MBA classes, negotiations, all kinds of stuff. I ended up doing a lot of observational work and research in concussions. I got to observe patients, physical therapists and other clinicians that were helping athletes that came through the clinic.
In the process of my fellowship, I asked Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, who was then a sports neurologist at the University of Michigan, “Hey you’re the best in the world at doing this. Can you teach me?” Originally, the idea was for us to meet a few times and he would teach me some things. I would take the materials, like studies, home and try and figure it out. But as it evolved, we developed a fun conversation. I’d ask questions about concussions and then we would start discussing his perceptions of how the media covers concussion. We would just go back and forth. I realized we had a book here.
Q: Your book Back in the Game serves as a guide to sports and concussions for youth parents, coaches, and athletes. What made you want to write about the topic for this audience?
A: There are 40 million kids under the age of 18 playing sports in this country. I realized there were a lot of youth parents who love their kids, but have no idea what is going on with concussions and sports. They either think: “My kid can never play sports again because he’ll get concussed” or “I got concussions growing up, so he’ll be fine.” There is no middle ground.
At the end of my fellowship, we decided to write a book. Now after 3.5 years of writing, researching, interviewing, and talking, we’ve tried to create a really current resource—as current as we can, because knowledge of the brain is evolving every day. We wanted to write for the soccer mom, the youth coach, and the 13-year-old athlete--what each of them needs to know. Luckily, Dr. Kutcher came from the sports neurology side and I came from the sports writing side, and we met in the middle.
Q: What is an area we still need more research on in terms of sports and concussions?
A: Everything. It’s nuanced and complex. We could both run into a wall right now and slam our heads. You might be fine in a couple of days, but I might not be OK for weeks. Concussions are individual. All sorts of chemical and electrical things are going on. Your brain is your chemical plant, your soul, and your emotions. Right now, it is impossible to develop a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to determine whether someone is concussed right at the moment when a play happens. We’re not there yet.
We need more research on everything. Every other part of your body, we can look at them while you are alive, but we can’t do that with the brain. All these questions of “Do they have CTE? Brain damage?”, we can’t completely answer unless their brains have been donated to science. One neurologist told me that in his opinion, we’re looking through a keyhole into a room. We can’t tell where the furniture is; we can’t tell how high the ceiling is; we can’t tell what the floor looks like. But we know it’s all there. That’s like our knowledge of the brain. We haven’t unlocked it yet.
That’s why about 3 years ago, President Obama, announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative for $300M to research the brain for things like Alzheimer’s, ALS, and concussions. The research is ongoing and exciting, but it is going to take years because the brain is the most complex part of the body.
Q: After such extensive research and writing about the sports and concussions do you still consider yourself a fan of sports with high concussion incident rates like football and soccer?
A: I’ve never been a big football fan. I mean I cover football, I like football, but I don’t go out of my way to watch it on TV. I always joke that one of the reasons I’m maybe not the hugest football fan is because I grew up watching the Detroit Lions. But if I have a choice on a Sunday between the US Women’s National Team, the US Open, or a NFL game, I can tell you which one I would not be watching.
The sports I love are tennis and soccer, which obviously has a high rate of injury too with heading. I guess it’s one of those things where you know people are going to get hurt. You don’t want them to get hurt, but that’s the randomness and chance of sport. One injury can determine the outcome of the game.
Q: Do you think that the NFL’s slow response admitting the connection between football and CTE has impeded to research?
A: No, the NFL doesn’t control research on a grand scale like that. Places such as UCLA, the University of Michigan, and the CDC all have their own research. The NFL has a Head, Neck and Spine Committee, which has been around for several years. They were charged looking into injuries. People questioned the validity of their results and the connections that were drawn by some of the people involved, but I don’t get the sense that the NFL has the power to stop the world from looking into big questions like football and CTE in a grand conspiracy way. But we can’t discount that the NFL is a powerful business entity with a lot of reach. We all need to stay aware in the media.
I want to believe everyone wants the players to be as safe as possible, because football is a rough sport. At the end of the day, the players are human beings that need to have productive lives after football.
Q: Are there any rules that you think can be changed to make football safer? Do you think rule changes to make the game safer also make it less engaging as many fans fear?
A: Football is inherently violent. The very object of the sport is for us to run into one another.
Helmets, as they are designed right now, do not protect your brain from concussions. They are designed to prevent you from cracking your head open and bleeding to death, like what used to happen in the 1910s. They’ve made rule changes every few years and they have spotters, but right now there is a limit at the NFL level to changing the game until it’s not football anymore.
Guys are getting bigger, faster, and stronger. By the time they get up to the NFL, most of these guys have been playing football since they were 8 years old. That circles us back to the purpose of our book. The idea was that most of us will not be professional athletes, so what kinds of things should I be looking out for with an 8-year-old player, as opposed to a 27-year-old linebacker. There are concerns at every level. We really need to wonder about the small sub-concussive hits and how they add up over the years. If it’s like an odometer on a car, the NFL can’t stop how much football you’ve played before you got there. Maybe in the Pop Warner, high school, and college level we need to limit how much contact they have and how much they can hit each other in practice.
We’re just happy the issue being talked about. It switched within 10 years from “Concussions, whatever…” to “Oh my god, a concussion!” I hope we can have a really good discussion with science and medicine and all the relevant stakeholders in the room. There are things we can do as a society. If we really want to be promoting sports to our children—and obviously we do with our kids’ obesity problems and sports are a good thing for them physically, mentally, and emotionally, then we have to take care of things at the lower levels too.
Q: You also served as a past president and chair of the board for the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM). What are you most proud of from your time working with the organization?
A: I’ve been part of AWSM since I was in college. I’ve grown up with the group. It’s been an amazing lifeline and way to get to know women within the industry--both the women that came before me to now seeing the younger women coming in and being able to mentor them. We just had our convention in Miami and we had Suzy Kolber and Katie Nolan come. It’s a great sense of community and the powerful nature of getting 200 of us together. It’s a really powerful organization, and we represent our members well.
While I was president and chair, we did everything together as a board. We re-organized as a 501(c)(3) and we had a major fundraising campaign for more scholarships. We did a lot of housekeeping to position ourselves to become a more powerful organization because we are growing. More women want to enter the industry in broadcasting, public relations, SID [Sports Information Director] work, and social media.
I’m most proud of our internships and scholarships. We’re up to 120-130 women who have been placed in our paid internships and scholarships at great places with great people, like Sports Illustrated and ESPN. I’m most proud of paying it forward. Everything that AWSM has given me I plan on giving back and then some.
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