Women in Male-Dominated Fields: Linda Cohn
October 20, 2016 | Focus on Women
Linda Cohn has always been at home in a man’s world: “It’s totally in my comfort zone. I get along with guys more than girls. I’m just in my element talking sports with guys.”
Cohn has been chatting about sports from the anchor chair of ESPN’s SportsCenter since 1992. This past February, she celebrated her 5,000th show, making her the longest-tenured anchor of any gender in SportsCenter history. Cohn is a trailblazer in an industry once filled almost exclusively with men. When she started, there were no women working in the sports departments of the local stations where she honed her craft. Even now, the field is dominated by men as on-air as hosts and behind the scenes as producers, directors and technical folks. Cohn has proven that women can talk sports with authority.
“The best compliment I ever got was early on at ESPN when people would say ‘Wow, I never enjoyed hearing sports from a woman until you.’ I really am proud of it. It’s one of my biggest accomplishments.”
Cohn certainly never saw herself as a national television personality. In fact, she suffered from low self-esteem as a child growing up on Long Island. “I wanted to fade into the walls. I listened to depressing songs on the radio, I had thick glasses until I was 14, I didn’t like the way I looked, I didn’t have a lot of friends and school was not a great thing for me.”
Watching sports with her father was an outlet that helped to fill a void. “It’s what got me through.” Other breakout moments came when her mother signed her up for tennis lessons and later let her join ice hockey. Cohn made the high school boys’ team as a backup goalie in her senior year and was so talented that she joined the women’s team in college at the State University of New York at Oswego, where she would later be inducted into their Athletics Hall of Fame. Sports instilled confidence, and Cohn came into her own. One night in the late 1970s she told her college girlfriends in the dorm that she had decided on a career path: sportscaster.
“And they looked at me like I was from Mars!”
There were almost no women on air at the time, but Cohn had conviction in both her abilities and her love of sports. “If it wasn’t for sports, I never would have had those building blocks in my confidence to realize that anything is possible.”
She worked her way up through small radio stations first, then national radio, local TV and, finally, ESPN. “I just put my head down. I was always hoping to prove people wrong who didn’t believe in me.”
She would tell employers one thing when they took a chance on her: “I won’t let you down.” It was the same statement she once said to the high school hockey coach. The saying became a personal mantra and motivated her to work harder than anyone else in her developing career. Cohn has now covered almost every major sporting event, including the Olympics, Super Bowls, Stanley Cups, NBA Finals and the World Series.
There are only a few things she hasn’t accomplished yet. She lists a sit-down interview with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and reporting from the Masters golf tournament as two items on her personal bucket list.
In 2008, Linda penned a memoir, Cohn-Head: A No-Holds-Barred Account of Breaking into the Boys’ Club, detailing her entire rise to the top of the national airwaves, which wasn’t always easy. From a co-worker once making an unwanted sexual comment, to earning trust from athletes and coaches, to dealing with a few locker room issues in the late 1980s before the behavior became unacceptable, Cohn had to focus on proving herself in an arena that wasn’t used to women.
“Back in the day when I first started, athletes would whisper, but I blocked it out. I had to go out of my way to show [athletes] I knew what I was talking about. Male athletes treated me well once I got to ESPN, where they got to know me and where I earned their respect.”
Overall, she’s thrilled with where her career choice has taken her and with her longevity in a very volatile industry. “I’m thankful and grateful that I’m in such a profession. I think I’ve stood the test of time and lasted so long because I’m a fan first. I’m real, and I think people see that. I didn’t turn into a talking head.”
Cohn has two adult children. She gave birth to her son in 1996 just 36 hours after signing off after SportsCenter one night. When the kids were young, she juggled their schedules along with hers. Anchoring the late SportsCenter at the time, she would get home after 3:00 a.m. most nights. Her husband decided to work from home, and Linda made it a priority not to have the job dominate or awe the kids. “My kids have been to ESPN four times in 24 years; that’s it. That includes the night they surprised me on my 5,000th show. I’m Mom first and foremost.”
Cohn continues to anchor SportsCenter as well as talk sports on national radio. One of her favorite things to do is to speak to women, sharing a message of motivation. “Have no fear; go with what you feel. Be persistent, be confident and remain true to your goals. Remember to be patient. If a wall goes up, don’t be discouraged; step to your right or left and find another way. The consistent theme is the continued belief in your ability and yourself.”
She also mentors young women at ESPN and through social media. It’s exciting to her that so many women see sportscasting as a viable career path and deserve the same chance to talk about sports as a man.
“It means so much to me. It’s such a change from the past, and when I see young women who remind me of me and have passion and energy and excitement and want to get into this business because they truly love sports, not just to be on TV, that gets me fired up. I just give them a hug and tell them to stay in touch.”