Joan Ryan: Making headlines in sports journalism

Ingrid Houtkooper

From the World Series and Wimbledon, to the Olympics and the Super Bowl, Joan Ryan, one of the first female sports columnists in the country, has covered an extensive variety of sports stories. With her diverse career profile as a sports and feature columnist, an author and a media consultant, Ryan’s work has been widely recognized and praised. However, entering the sports media industry as a woman, Ryan has not always garnered respect. 

During one of her first experiences on the job, writing a story on Joe Cribbs — a running back for the Birmingham Stallions who broke his hand during the game — Ryan faced a multitude of verbal harassment upon entering the men’s locker room for post-game interviews. 

“I was standing by a bench at the lockers where the guys were cutting off the tape around their ankles, and I felt something on my calf — and I had a skirt on — rising up toward my hemline. I looked down and it was this football player using the long handle of the razor, going up my skirt,” Ryan said. “I turned around and, in the doorway, [I saw] two middle-aged men in the red v-neck sweaters that all the coaches and staff wore. It turned out that one of the guys was the owner of the Birmingham Stallions, and he was just having the time of his life watching them totally harass and bully me.”
Despite this uncomfortable interaction, Ryan managed to finish the article, claiming the intimidation only fueled her desire to succeed in sports journalism. 

“Up in the press box after I was done writing, I thought, ‘Man, these guys really don’t want me. I mean really, really don’t want me and don’t want any women to be a part of this.’ And that’s when I [knew I] wanted to be a sports writer. I was like, there is no way they’re winning. I’m winning. I’m gonna outlast these guys,” Ryan said. 

Although Ryan’s first job in journalism was editing at the Orlando Sentinel, she soon realized the appeal of writing stories herself. Not long after mentioning to a colleague that she favored the sports section, she became the first woman working in the sports department at the Orlando Sentinel. 

After spending some years at the Sentinel, Ryan made her way to the Bay Area to write for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco (SF) Chronicle, where she became one of the first full-time female sports columnists in the country. Ryan’s coverage earned her several esteemed awards, such as 13 Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Journalism Award and the National Headliner Award.

Posing for a picture, Ryan smiles with Billie Jean King at Wimbledon in 1986 (Photo courtesy of Joan Ryan)


Eventually Ryan went on to write a feature section column. She was invited to be the Chronicle Metro Columnist and then later began to focus more on long-form journalism, which covers topics in great depth. Ryan also wrote several books — her most acclaimed being an exposé on the abuse in gymnastics and figure skating titled “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters,” which was named one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time by Sports Illustrated. Due to the attention the book received, it was adapted into a film and Ryan was featured on Oprah, Good Morning America, the Today Show, the New Yorker and Time magazine to speak on the contents of the book.

“What is the toll on a girl whose body is still developing? Her brain is still developing and she’s putting eight hours a day into this really brutal sport that can wreck your body,” Ryan said. “What happens to them when all of [that training and competing] is over? That’s what the book is. It was talking to gymnasts who had lived through all of that, and the toll that it did take on them.”

Having spent so much time in journalism prior to becoming an author, Ryan was able to apply many of her newspaper skills to writing books. 

“Maybe the greatest triumph of my career was that nobody ever found a mistake [in ‘Little Girls in Pretty Boxes’]. I was so meticulous about my facts and about double checking everything that I wrote. I probably interviewed about 100 people. I’m more proud of that book than anything I’ve ever written or ever will write,” Ryan said. “I still get emails and requests from young, aspiring journalists to talk about ‘Little Girls and Pretty Boxes,’ because it still resonates [with them]. And it’s very rare that you get to do something like that, that has longevity and is still relevant today.”

Long before Ryan ever started writing books, she was making an impact on those around her. For instance, Tamalpais High School alumnus Ann Killion, who is a good friend of Ryan’s and a sports columnist for the SF Chronicle, credits Ryan for influencing her to try sports journalism. Before pursuing journalism, Killion worked in public relations (PR). It was at a PR sporting event that Killion first met Ryan. 

“She was a very young columnist at the time, but I was so impressed by her. I was like, ‘These people really love their job.’ They’re so much cooler than other journalists I’ve met,” Killion said. “Joan in particular really influenced me because she was a young, short woman like myself. I didn’t know at the time that she would become one of my best friends. She was cool, she was funny and she asked good questions, so she had a huge influence on my career choice.”  

Similar to Killion, Alice Simenstad, the editor-in-chief (EIC) of Archie Wiliams’ paper The Pitch, reflected on the importance of seeing women working in male-dominated industries. 

“[Women working in these fields] show younger girls that they can do it. I remember, my first year in journalism, I had no confidence that I was going to [succeed in] the class — I almost left,” Simestad said. “And then I saw our [female] EIC lead the class in such a competent and bold way. I began thinking towards the next years like, ‘This is something I can do, something I want to do, something I can be good at,’ because I had this role model.” 

Today, Ryan has a job with the San Francisco Giants as a senior media consultant, working with the players and helping them with media training. 

“Part of [the job] is transitioning [the players] into adulthood and taking responsibility for themselves. They’re just so excited when they’re young, and it’s nice to see them evolve over time,” Ryan said. “I love baseball. So I really like [the job]. I like problem solving, and I like working with the front office people, whether it’s media training or sitting on a committee for their new value statements, it’s just fun and stimulating.”

Having worked with Brandon Crawford for years, Ryan feels like a mentor for him. (Photo courtesy of Joan Ryan)

Despite choosing to start on a new path, Ryan adamantly acknowledges that journalism will always be engaging, regardless of how long you do it. 

“If [journalism is boring], it’s your own fault. It means you’ve stopped discovering; you’ve stopped pushing yourself to get to that next level and to really challenge yourself,” Ryan said. “Somebody once said … ‘Every story you write should be the best story you’ve ever written.’”