A Conversation with Hannah Storm: Part II

Hannah Storm and Magic Johnson

I had the opportunity recently to interview the one and only, Hannah Storm. With the launch of The Fierce 50 Campaign honoring women over 50 on February 19th, Hannah graciously agreed to share her secrets to success and self empowerment in the male dominated world of sports. She’s a powerful role model who leads by example and has no qualms about being precisely who she is to blow through any glass ceiling that may be in her way! In Part II of our conversation, we continue with Hannah sharing the dramatic changes she has experienced in the world of sports and broadcasting in her amazing career that has spanned more than three decades.

CGO: Hannah, when we last spoke, you brought up a very interesting topic for women: the world of social media. There’s immense pressure to make your world look perfect in the images we share on social media. There’s a real fear in allowing yourself to be real and authentic. As a woman in a world that was traditionally dominated by men, you have really helped to open the door and give other women permission to do the same. How have you seen the sports world transform since those early years?

HS: The field has changed exponentially. When I was growing up, I didn’t have any female sportscaster role models to emulate because they simply weren’t there. What I did have were the women covering the Olympics. Jane Pauley was the first person that made me think, “That’s what I want to do!” She did a morning show and she was able to go to the Olympics and she also had a family. I am fortunate now, to be in a position where I’m the person that a lot of young women are seeing. They see me on the NBA sidelines or in the studio. Or, “there she is at the Olympics,” at tennis, figure skating, or baseball and football sporting events. I was on TV and it wasn’t just cable; I was on network television. It’s been both a blessing and a responsibility.

When you’re young and you’re a fan of something, whatever it is, from musicians to athletes, you gravitate toward a role model. Every musician had musicians they loved. Every athlete had other athletes they looked up to. I knew that I loved sports. I wanted to go into broadcasting and I was kind of a ham! I loved performing. I loved the whole adrenaline of being on TV or talking in front of people, or being on the radio or even on stage. I’ve always loved it. Had I not been aware of how much I truly loved sports in my core, I’m not sure I would have said, “I want to do sports.” There wasn’t anyone else doing it.

I started in sports with a small group of wonderfully talented women. We were a tiny, tiny group! One of the reasons we all chose this was so women could turn on the TV and see that this was a career option they could aspire to. They are looking at you and seeing that they can do this for themselves. We wanted it to be extremely impactful and powerful at the time, for young women to turn on the television and see another woman broadcasting sports. We hoped they would see us having substantive roles and doing a good job, that their dad would say, “I really like her because she really knows her stuff.” There was real trepidation I encountered when I was trying to climb my way up. There was a real view out there that sports were for men; that only men can speak that language, or only men can understand sports. There was no established credibility, expertise or comfort level, for women in the field.

There was an enormous amount of resistance from people who watch television, along with athletes, coaches, and general managers. When I started out, resistance was on every imaginable level, including the programming directors. I was just visiting an old TV station that I’d interned at and the sportscaster was like, “You’ve got to hire her!”

And the programming director would say, “Hire a woman?! Over my dead body.” I was constantly told, “Our Sports Director doesn’t work for a woman,” or “The audience doesn’t want to see a woman.” Or, they would say, “I can’t hire you. You’re too big of a risk because you’re a woman.” So, talk about not being politically correct! Back in the day nobody worried about that.

CGO: (laughs) There’s nothing like being told you can’t, to prompt you to do! And clearly, you’ve succeeded.

Hannah and Shaq

HS: Exactly! With the comments that I got and the things that I had to endure, I’m proud to have the attitude that I do, as it’s made me more determined than ever before. Now, I don’t think anyone looks twice when they see a woman broadcasting sports on television. I don’t think they think anything other than, “Wow, that was a great interview.” There definitely has been a sea change over the past 35 years since I’ve been in the business, and there is a tremendous amount of opportunity out there. It’s a viable career option. My current career wasn’t on the table when I started. It didn’t exist.

A wonderful thing has also happened in the last couple of years: a secondary shift, and it’s a shift in new voices with opinions coming into the sports world. We’re not just reporting any longer. It’s been critical to have editorial voices of opinion come to the forefront. These are not just from women, but from diverse areas where the sociological issues have intersected with sports. These sociological issues have demanded perspective. I feel that the diversity of voices in sports has increased and has really taken the medium to the next level.

CGO: That’s both powerful and inspiring, and leads me into the next question. I once read a quote from you that said that you see sports as a microcosm of society. How do you see sports as a reflection of society as a whole?

HS: It’s a microcosm because athletes and sports, as a business, are subject to the same things that the rest of us are in society. When you take a section of athletes, it’s like a little section of the population. There are issues that we face as a society that have come to the forefront in sports. Sports used to be an escape from the so called “problems of the world.” It’s still entertainment, but at the same time the conversation in sports has expanded well beyond that place. With what happened a couple of years ago with Donald Sterling and the Clippers, we began entering into a more serious and impactful discussion about race and sports. It’s a conversation that needed to happen. Other issues that have come to the fore are domestic violence in the Ray Rice case, or sexuality with Michael Sam. Athletes felt they could really express themselves about the police brutality we experienced this past year and the widespread protests that accompanied it. You can look at child abuse and Penn State.

These are very difficult subjects to talk about which were previously not addressed in the sports arena. I’m talking about serious societal issues that are now being discussed. They have now become part of the sports world and the sports discussion, with a lot of the credit going to the athletes. Athletes are aware of what’s happening in the world and they want to make a difference and have their voices heard. Some of this was naturally inescapable. The issues go across the board and the athletes have pushed the discussion, and the broadcasting world has had no choice but to open up the dialogue. The media has changed with the internet and all the different sites that are out there that allow people access to content. We are really peeling back some of those things that used to be secretive and were shoved under the rug. All those taboo subjects are now front and center, and that’s a good thing because it has brought an array of voices to the forefront. It has provided a real platform for us to talk about things that are much too important to be ignored. Sports is so much more than what happens on the floor. Sports affects so many of us and it is real life.

CGO: It sounds like a similar metaphor that we use in yoga. When you leave the mat, yoga doesn’t end. Rather, you bring that with you out into the world. It sounds like you’re helping to usher in real cultural changes with the help of the athletes. I have to say, one of the most powerful videos I saw of you was the one when you spoke up about the Ray Rice domestic violence situation. Did it ever enter your mind to be concerned that you were taking a career risk by really standing up and speaking out for what’s right?

HS: I think it can be scary. I approach that by speaking from the heart, which is really critical. I pick and choose my spots for that. I anchor a lot of major events, shows and news platforms. The times that I’ve spoken from my heart were very impactful, meaningful and fair. What I don’t do is interject personal bias into anything ever. There’s a really fine line between, “Here’s my opinion” and “Here’s something we need to really think about.” If you watched my commentary, it came in the form of questions. This is what I was experiencing, and they were the questions that I had as a mother, broadcaster, woman, and fan. It wasn’t so much an indictment, but rather a call for information and opening a dialogue. If I’m going to write an essay, it’s usually written from personal experience. For example, I might write an essay about Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey and what their wins meant together last year. I’ll do an essay that’s very derivative of personal experience. When we deal with opinion there can be a lot of bias in how we deliver the story. When I do anything like that, it is really well prepared and my intent is always to open dialogue.

Reporting from the US Open with Serena Williams

CGO: Along a similar vein … How does it feel when it’s time to ask the difficult questions?

HS: I am so heavily researched before I go into any interview, with explicit intention to be fair. I prepare an insane amount. I read everything I can get my hands on about the person and work through my questions again and again. By the time I’m sitting down and interviewing someone, I don’t even need a piece of paper. All the information is in my mind, and what that enables me to do is just listen. And, that’s the key to a great interview! When I sit down, I may have the piece of paper there, but I will rarely, if ever, look at it. I listen. I lock into that person and I listen to every word they are saying, which naturally triggers the next question in the conversation.

When I know there’s a difficult or emotional subject to talk about, I’ve prepared in advance as to how I’m going to get to the heart of what the issue really is about. I find this far more effective than doggedly bullying someone into closing up and not giving me anything. I’ve heard it referred to as “the velvet hammer,” but I’m not trying to fool anybody by bringing the hammer down in a nice, sweet way. I approach every interview from a very thoughtful perspective. I’ve never gone into an interview where I didn’t feel that I could ask the tough questions or felt compromised in any way. From a journalistic standpoint, you have to ask those questions. That’s the way that I was raised in the business. I think the reason that so many people want to sit down and talk to me is they feel safe. They don’t ever feel ambushed or that they are treated unfairly because I know the interview is not about me.

My interviews are always about what I can elicit from the other person. I will always ask the tough question, but they don’t have to answer it. I don’t think there’s anyone that I have sat down with that felt it was a cheap shot, or that it was unfair. That’s just not how I operate. There’s no way that I could have the kind of reputation that I have if I acted that way. I’ve done some interviews where people were talking about losing their spouse or retiring after leaving a job. If you look at the Super Bowl and the interviews that I did in the past week, I talked to Gary Kubiak about having to leave his coaching job due to his health. I spoke to Chris Berman about his 30 years at ESPN. These are men who were getting tears in their eyes and talking about things that aren’t easy to talk about. I talked to Dak Prescott about losing his mother when he was young. It’s not always about loss. Sometimes we talk about a person’s past mistakes or something they feel embarrassed about. Those are the greatest interviews. And when you have a strong reputation, it’s really all about the trust that the person sitting across from you feels. They know that I would never betray that trust.

CGO: What I’m hearing from you is that it’s really important to be true to yourself and to create a safe space for the person that you’re interviewing. You seem to work very hard to stay neutral without any judgment so when those tough questions are asked, it really comes from the purest place in your heart.

HS: Actually, it comes from a pure place of journalistic integrity. I’m always extremely well researched. I always take myself out of it and understand that there is a real human being sitting in front of me. I’m not doing this for my own edification or a career goal. I do not think that way. I think of it as a relationship that needs to happen and we’re going to do it in the most effective way.

CGO: Hannah, you were born with a disfiguring birthmark, a facial port wine stain that really impacted your sense of self. You talked about being inspired to help others by launching the Hannah Storm Foundation, which provides much needed medical support for children and families suffering from vascular birthmarks and their related medical conditions. How did having this birthmark impact your self esteem and inspire you to begin the Hannah Storm Foundation?

HS: When you’re growing up with something unusual on your face, that’s out of the norm, it tends to be the first thing that people see. It was especially hard in my teen years as I was very self-conscious about my birthmark. I would receive comments like, “Did you get a black eye?” or “Did someone hit you?” It was constant and uncomfortable. When I was at CBS, we did a series with Dr. Milton Waner, the top doctor in the world specializing in vascular birthmarks, and showed what treatments were available. It has been a great blessing to work with Dr. Waner, who now operates on all my patients. Many of these children are far more disfigured than I was. It’s a way to give them a leg up and to not have them experience as much of the emotional pain. It’s important, at the very least, to have them understand that many people who love them are going overboard to support them, that the foundation is there for them and standing behind them. They understand that we are going to do everything we can to give them the very best start possible. Even if we can’t completely erase the birthmark, we can certainly mitigate a lot of the physical effects. We lift them with the knowledge in their hearts that we are standing in their corner. That’s pretty powerful! My parents were there for me, but the technology wasn’t there to really treat my birthmark. I endured a lot of crazy procedures and surgeries. My parents tried so hard to help, particularly my mom, who was always doing research to make sure that I didn’t grow up with this birthmark holding me back in any way. That effort and that caring seeped into my consciousness. The Hannah Storm Foundation is how I pass on that caring and effort.

HS: There’s one last question as we have a mutual connection in the iconic Chrissie Evert. I spoke with her brother, John, recently and I know the two of you have a wonderful relationship that goes way back.

HS: Chrissie is someone I always looked up to as family! She is someone who has been there for me at the really important times in my life. I spoke to Chrissie the day that I got married. I called her when I had my first child. We were working in a field dominated by men and she was my only female friend in the field. We would broadcast Wimbledon together. It was an amazing time. On a personal level, she has been there for me at critical points in my life. I saw Chrissie as a mentor and someone I deeply admired. She believed in me and allowed me to do my very first film about her and her relationship with Martina Navratilova. Chrissie was the impetus behind my production company and the first person who really trusted me in film. She had the attitude of “Let’s go!” She would say, “I’m going to tell the story and you’re going to produce it.” She has been an incredible support in my life as well as with The Hannah Storm Foundation. On every level of my life, she has been there for me. The foundation holds a semi-annual event to raise money. It’s a really fun celebrity night where I have all of my buddies from the sports and broadcasting world come to support the foundation. It’s a celebrity waiter night and it’s an absolute blast for a great cause. The funds raised from this and other donations has enabled the foundation to perform 30 surgeries to date. These are very intensive procedures that take a team of doctors and surgeons. I’m so grateful to Chrissie and all my friends in the sports and broadcasting world. They’re a great blessing in my life and the lives of these children.

CGO: Thank you, Hannah, for opening your heart and sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience. After spending some time with you, it’s easy to see how you’ve developed such a stellar reputation over the years. You are a guiding light for women of all ages and particularly for those of us at midlife and beyond. Through your powerful example, we now know what’s possible and that there truly are no limits.

Be sure to follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahStormESPN, on Instagram @espnhannahstorm, and on Facebook, Hannah Storm. The Hannah Storm Foundation, which offers support to children and families afflicted by vascular birthmarks, welcomes your support. Hannah also has her own media production company, Brainstormin’ Productions, and she has a new film in the works with a woman who is a fearless, confident role model for women. Stay tuned and be on the lookout for an upcoming announcement from Hannah.

You can find Catherine Grace O’Connell at CatherineGraceO.com. She is on Instagram and Facebook as well as Twitter. You can find out more about The Fierce 50 Campaign and how you can help us and join the Movement by sending an email to info@catherinegraceo.com.

Like what you read? Give Catherine Grace O’Connell a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.