Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mike Penner, Bruce Jenner and Me

Years ago, at the great media brouhaha that was the official unveiling of David Beckham, I was walking on the concourse of what is now called Stub Hub Center stadium, when I spotted a tall woman. She, like me, was on her way to the media rooms designated for different groups of reporters. Even though Beckham's move to the Galaxy was a huge story, there weren't that many women covering it, so I noticed her. I stopped for a moment, thinking that she might be an ex-athlete turned reporter, perhaps a former basketball or volleyball player. It even occurred to me that, if so, I should ask her about that, and get a unique perspective that might add some insight into a Beckham event reaction story. She looked somewhat familiar, so I tried to remember where I'd seen her before. Then I realized she was Christine Daniels, the transgender sports writer whose story I'd read about about earlier that year. 

Even before that galvanizing story, I'd read Mike Penner columns/stories in the LA Times for years, but never ran into him in the LA pressbox for Galaxy games, where Grahame Jones had the regular local soccer beat. I'd been keeping up with Christine's blog, and I wondered if it was ok to start with that as a intro comment, "Hi, I've read your blog; I'm a reporter, too, are you going to come to more soccer stuff?" 

But then Christine walked into the suite marked for national media reporters. I went to the one for local media. Maybe I'd see her after the interviews ended, I figured. Or perhaps she'd be out soon again to actually see Beckham play and I could introduce myself in the pressbox before a game. 

Beckham came to the local media interview room last. Christine and most of the other reporters were long gone by the time I stepped out of the suite into the bright sunshine. 

Selfishly, I hoped I would see her again soon. I had friends in the LA pressbox, but sometimes it still felt a little isolating to be the lone female reporter there. I imagined that Christine wouldn't be intimidated, at over six feet, walking into a locker room full of players amped up after a game. I, who was always more comfortable at a keyboard than speaking in person, would sometimes wonder if players refused interviews or ignored my requests for a quote because I was a woman and they didn't take me seriously as a reporter. I figured Christine wouldn't be so easy to brush off. I also thought I could help her if she needed anything translated from Spanish. We could be like a distaff soccer-writing Mutt and Jeff.

It wasn't to be. I never saw Christine again in person. Eventually, the stories from her disappeared.  I gave up the fantasy of us being the soccer reporter ladies together. When Penner returned to writing, he covered some Beckham news, on occasion, but he never came out to games. Other reporters who knew Penner better mentioned being concerned about him when I asked how things were going with him. I hoped he'd show up some time at a match, happy. 

Instead, Penner killed himself. I can't speculate as to everything Penner struggled with, but it's not easy to deal with being different sometimes. If I felt isolated just being female at times, how much more difficult would it be for Penner to feel it was hard for others to understand his life and issues? 

I met Bruce Jenner in 2003, when he was assisting the LA auditions for ESPN's Dream Job contest. Though I loved sports, I felt gawky and awkward during my interview, where I fielded questions from Jenner and two others. I envied his ease and confidence. I thought, maybe if you've won a gold medal, you don't have to prove anything to anyone and you can relax and just be yourself. I wasn't invited back for the next round of auditions.

If the widespread reports about his television interview tomorrow are true, Jenner's true self is female. Like Penner, he is apparently planning to begin a transition. I hope there's more tolerance to choices and lifestyles now to make Jenner's transition an easier journey. 

Penner actually interviewed Jenner more than once. I wonder, like I had wished to feel less alone on the local soccer beat, if Penner knew Jenner shared similar reassignment issues, would it have helped him feel less isolated? 

Though their stories are different, too, would Penner have been inspired by the coming-out stories of Robbie Rogers, Michael Sam, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe? The LGBT community has rallied around many who are stepping forward with the courage to be their true selves. 
Abby Wambach

I'm no longer a regular soccer beat reporter, though I still occasionally write on the sport. Last night, I was back at the stadium in Carson, writing late on a U23 match between the USA and Mexico. It all felt so familiar, even down to the post-game press conference, where I was the only female reporter asking questions of coach Andreas Herzog. 

Though I had a credential for the event, I didn't have a parking pass for the lot right outside the stadium. I had parked a few blocks away. By the time I sent in my story and began to trudge out to my car, it was past midnight. I wore a jacket, but I still felt that slight chill of anxiety walking alone in the dark, even though Carson is a pretty safe neighborhood. Obviously, I made it home safely, but that moment reminded me again that it can be scary to feel alone. 

Whether female sportswriters, transgender sportswriters, gay athletes, transgender sports icons, or anything different (although, what is normal any more - everyone's different), I just want to take a moment to offer you all a cybertoast. Have the courage to go and be who you are.

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