Katie Nolan was running late to this interview. She appeared a few minutes later and apologized: A deaf fan tweeted that he wished YouTube clips of Garbage Time, the Fox comedy sports show Nolan hosts, had captions. After seeing his tweet, Nolan personally began to transcribe a recent episode, even though she'd never done it before.
That Nolan unquestioningly took on this task is perhaps unsurprising, given that her success is in no small part attributable to building and fostering an intimate, social-media based community of fans. After graduating from Hofstra University in 2009 and then working as a bartender in Boston, Nolan launched a pop culture blog called Bitches Can't Hang. The sports commentary on the blog eventually attracted the attention of Fox Sports, who gave her her own show, Garbage Time, in March.
While Garbage Time is simply a solid sports show, its popularity stems from Nolan's ability to eviscerate deeply problematic behaviors and attitudes in the industry. She is relentless in speaking out against domestic violence perpetrated by athletes, as well as other inexcusable behavior that has previously been all but normalized in the sports world. She has pushed back on the relatively tacit acceptance of athlete Ray Rice's domestic violence charges and skewered a sexist article titled "How to Land a Husband at the Masters," published by another Fox News outlet.
Taking on sexism in sports. So how did this bold beacon of hope in sports media get here? Her mother. While she certainly bonded with her father over sports, going to Fenway Park to root for the Red Sox, Nolan's mother sparked her deeper fandom. A bartender herself, her mother perpetually kept sports talk radio on while home with her daughter because she said "she was a better bartender if she could talk to everybody who came in and the best thing to talk about was sports," Nolan told Mic.
A little trivia: Nolan's mother insisted she maintain a boy's haircut for the duration of her adolescence. For years, her youth hockey team believed she was, in fact, a male teammate named Kyle. That perspective gave her the freedom to just be a wholehearted sports fan as a child, no questions asked.
"It was very formative for me as a person," Nolan said. "I had to be better at other things than just being cute."
Yet as Nolan aged and her sex became visibly undeniable, she found not everyone was so welcoming toward female sports fans. Nolan, like many other burgeoning female fans, felt out of place. Male fans tended to immediately assume women only engage in sports because their boyfriends are fans, they want to sleep with athletes or they got free tickets to a game, while women who maintain other interests were challenging to bond with.
But the everyday sexisms of being a female fan pale in comparison to the inequity evident in the sports media industry itself. Older white men still rule the terrain, Nolan observed. Sports viewers can "tune into this network and listening to this white man, or this network and listen to this white man," and "as different as those options are," viewers are still overwhelming presented with "the opinion of a white man."
Evidence backs up Nolan's point. The number of women in sports journalism hovers at around only 10% — a decline from 17% in 2013 — according to a recent Women's Media Center study, and women in the industry have spoken out about this disparity before.
This inequitable representation is not only sexist in terms of parity, but it also tacitly perpetuates the very cultural attitudes that make the sports world feel inhospitable to so many women. One need look no further than the way the sports media recently handled comments from Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy: After returning from a months-long suspension based on being found guilty on multiple domestic violence charges, Hardy stated he was ready to return "guns blazing" and sidestepped a question about remorse for his actions.
"What are we fucking doing?" Nolan recently asked in response to what she saw as the media's blasé treatment of a troubling comment from Hardy, who was convicted of physically assaulting his girlfriend. "Seriously, what matters to you? ... Because expecting a garbage human who has been punished for being garbage to come back from his suspension and not immediately resume being garbage is asking the bare minimum."
As Nolan said on the Oct. 7 episode of Garbage Time, Hardy's comment was not only problematic in and of itself, but sports media outlets and individual male journalists failed to see it as such. Both the official websites of the NFL and Dallas Cowboys published Hardy's statement without fanfare, and a reporter even asked Hardy to evaluate the attractiveness of other players' significant others, revealing just how little the industry at large considers women.
Beyond the sports industry's unique brand of sexism, Nolan has faced challenges simply as a woman working in an industry surrounded by men. Regardless of the fact that sports itself has been culturally coded male, offices in the industry are "male-dominated," which results in "gender politics within the office that don't have anything to do with sports," she said. Nolan experienced this as the only woman in her office who was also a first-time boss in charge of exclusively male employees.
There's also the very gender-based vitriol online, which can sometimes be particularly debilitating, Nolan said. For example, Nolan was proud of her Hardy segment, and received positive feedback from those in her life, but she "immediately felt awful" after facing a barge of attacks in response on Twitter.
The tweets ranged from telling her to "shut the fuck up" to "leave your feminism out of my sports," and that she was a "dumb slut/whore/cunt," she recalled. She now tries to limit her social media engagement, she said, although avoiding interacting with her fans — one of the major components she attributes to her success — feels like "losing a part of what I like about myself." It's also, she's found, a necessary sacrifice for her sanity.
This is where Garbage Time comes in. Nolan said she hopes that Garbage Time will turn these toxic, normalized attitudes in the sports industry on its head. While she has perhaps received the most attention and praise for discussing substantive issues like domestic violence and antiquated sexism, Garbage Time is, in fact, a comedy show. And that, Nolan noted, is not only an intentionally novel choice, given the landscape of sports media, but one she believes can be a game changer for female fans.
Sports media may feel inhospitable to many women not just because of thriving sexist attitudes both overt and covert, but because much of it feels inaccessible. The 24-hour cycles on major sports networks are often a barrage of insider references made by a parade of generally white, older men, who often pose their views in highly serious, aggressive ways.
Garbage Time does the opposite by "celebrating and remembering the fun part of the game," Nolan said. That the show is hosted by a woman who takes great care not to "talk over anyone's head" has led many female viewers to reach out and say they feel safe watching her show. The end result is a sports show that is both "serious when it matters" and cognizant of the fact that "sports are games" that should be, above all, fun.
In addition to this uniquely approachable tone, Nolan said authenticity is key.
"I don't think anybody should be using a platform to say things just to say them," she said. "I think everybody should strive to only say things they genuinely believe and genuinely believe people need to hear."
But she can't do it alone. Nolan wants more women will follow her lead and demand change. Nolan said she's been been criticized for perpetuating the culture and behaviors she has called out by continuing to support problematic leagues and players by watching and reporting about games. But doing so actually creates the opposite effect, she argues: Making their presence — and power — as fans known empowers women to effect real change.
"If we all turn the TV off and say, 'I'm boycotting the NFL,' then the NFL is like, 'Cool, the women are gone, we can go back to what we're doing, nobody will notice,'" Nolan said. "I think women being here and voicing their frustrations and telling the NFL and whoever else what they need to do to change and why this doesn't work and why this isn't okay is important. I think it's what's going to lead to things changing to the point where hopefully this isn't happening as often."
Of course, having women like Nolan in the industry itself can also make all the difference. As fellow female sports journalist Rachel Nichols of CNN told Nolan, "We're better when there's more of us."
And numbers alone aren't enough, according to Nolan. Women must band together to truly change the game.
"We let people tell us that what we should do is put other women down," Nolan said. "We need to embrace each other, accept our differences and find the value in every woman you meet. We just need to lift each other up."