As a Sideline Sports Reporter, I Wanted My Islam to Be Visible

On pursuing a career in sports journalism as a hijabi

TThe idea of being a sports broadcaster never crossed my mind when I was growing up. The scope of possible career options never went beyond teaching, medicine, law, or being “famous” without any true context as to what that means. Growing up Muslim in a non-Muslim society, I was never represented in media, at least not in a way that made being Muslim feel acceptable. I never saw images of women wearing khimar.

I chose my college major based on my father’s guidance; he said I should choose an area in which I excelled. I had a natural ability to write and speak, so I majored in communications, combining the two. At the time, I did not cover my hair, as I struggled with how others’ perceptions of me would change if I did. I also didn’t know just how impactful it would be once I did decide to be visibly Muslim.

As a junior in college, I took a sports broadcasting course taught by my uncle. He’d worked as a public address (PA) announcer and sports radio show host for as long as I could remember. He made our lessons less about the field of broadcasting and focused instead on the craft of interviewing: How can you make it conversational, entertaining?

I wanted to be a representative for any Muslim girl who may have wanted an alternative career path like mine.

I grew eager to learn more about the field. After a class visit from a prominent media professional, I received the opportunity to shadow Pam Oliver, a sports reporting legend. Oliver was also a Black woman who attended a historically Black college (HBCU), as did I, which made me even more excited about the opportunity. Her presence on TV provided hope that it was possible for me to break barriers as a Black, Muslim woman.

The first event I shadowed was an NFL Monday Night Football game. It was extremely cold. The job required us to move around the field the entire time. I had no idea how unglamorous the job was — the idea of being on television was much more appealing than the actual legwork we had to do off-camera. What’s more, most female sideline reporters wear makeup, their hair loose around their shoulders. Some spectators would scrutinize them, questioning their intelligence and necessity on the field.

Reflecting on this, I walked away from sports broadcasting for a while. I worked odd jobs until my uncle asked me to help out with his sports radio company. He’d spent years creating an independent sports network that broadcast HBCU football and basketball games.

“I need you to come on the road,” he said. “One of my guys is out this weekend.”

I was confused. I thought maybe he just needed me to help with marketing.

I was wrong. He needed me to fill in on the sideline.

AsAs a sideline reporter, my job was to provide the inside scoop, including interviews with coaches and players. I’d give injury updates and share information throughout the game to make listeners feel as though they were there. Though it may sound simple, this required constant movement: running to gather information, keeping an eye on the field and tracking every element of the game—the plays, the coaches, and the players. I did all of this initially without a hijab, believing I should fit the cookie-cutter “look” of sideline reporters around me.

During my first couple of games, I was obviously still a novice. But I knew I had to represent my uncle and his network in the best way. I was working alongside professionals who’d been in the business my whole life, so I had a very small window of time to step up my game.

I realized that, as a Muslim, I had no choice but to be confident in visibly carrying my faith.

After that season, I zoomed out and examined the scope of my career. I realized just how many people I was interacting with and influencing indirectly as a media personality. That’s when I knew I needed to wear the hijab next season. I wanted my Islam to be visible and needed people to see something outside their norm. It was imperative that I be a visible representative for any Muslim girl who may have wanted an alternative career path like mine. I wanted to be like Pam and break barriers while dismantling the oppressive rhetoric about being Muslim and female.

I studied other professional reporters, in-depth game analysis, and sports jargon. I learned the craft of football (and basketball) while asking lots of questions and taking constructive criticism from my colleagues.

Pam Oliver once told me that, as a Black woman, I would always have to prove and assert myself in this field. I realized on my own that, as a Muslim, I had no choice but to be confident in visibly carrying my faith. Some people talk about sideline reporters as though we’re merely eye candy interfering with the game. I made a point to be knowledgeable about sports while making sure people kept their eyes on the right parts of me.

I truly feel that wearing my hijab as a sports reporter demanded its own respect without me having to fight for it. There has never been a moment, in the hundred or so games I’ve covered, when I felt that proudly wearing my faith compromised opportunities for me to do my job and do it well.

As the network expanded to cover more games at larger institutions, I was met with high-fives from fans and spectators of all ethnicities. Ultimately, I believe, their acceptance of me was rooted in my unapologetic acceptance of myself.

This story is part of “On Ramadan,” a collaboration between Human Parts and Muslim Women Speak.

Writer & World Traveler IG & Twitter: @sheisimanib!

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