Proving everyone wrong, UF alumna Joan Ryan became a female pioneer in sports journalism

<p>Joan Ryan</p>

Joan Ryan

Finding herself interviewing pro athletes in a 1980s football locker room, the extremely introverted Joan Ryan felt her stomach churn. How did this ultra-quiet girl who eschewed the spotlight end up as a sports reporter in one of the world’s most male-dominated industries?

“It was clear that these guys really didn’t want me there,” Ryan said about the environment at the Orlando Stadium that day, as she covered the Orlando Renegades versus the Birmingham Stallions game for the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to be a sportswriter. I joke that I built my career on bitterness and resentment. But the truth is, I fell in love with writing sports.”

Compelled to tune out catcalls, criticisms, and competition in a field unfrequented by women 40-plus years ago, Ryan – a University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications alumna – went on to become an award-winning sports journalist and one of the first female sports columnists in the country. She has covered nearly every major sporting event, from the Super Bowl to the World Series to the Olympics.

Her roster of accolades earned her one of three spots in the UF College of Journalism and Communications 2024 Ring of Honor on March 28. The annual ceremony recognizes UF alumni, faculty, and staff members who have made outstanding contributions to sports journalism, media, and communications. Ryan holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UF in 1981, and she was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

A soft-spoken woman in a sportsman’s world

Ryan never raised her hand in class as a schoolgirl in New Jersey. One of six children, she was a brainiac writer and editor who aspired to be the first in her family to attend college and remain “behind the scenes forever” as a journalist, she said.

But, while majoring in journalism at UF, Ryan’s ambition began to outpace her shyness, and she worked her way toward the professional newsroom post-graduation. Her first position was at the Orlando Sentinel, covering small-town beats, until she was assigned to the football story that would ultimately shift her career trajectory.

“This was 1983. There had never been a woman in the Sentinel’s sports department. And when I got to the stadium, inside the Birmingham Stallions locker room, I felt like I was the target of everyone’s bullying,” Ryan said. “After filing my story, a warm fury spread from my brain into every cell of my body. I realized that they really didn’t want me in this industry. And that’s when I knew I really wanted to be in this industry.”

It was the moment that shaped Ryan into the pen-wielding powerhouse she is today – a person who is motivated by the desire to prove naysayers wrong.

“My north star was always integrity, doing what was right in my own sense of morality and principles,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t about what my sports editor wanted or what anybody else wanted. When you build a career on integrity, you pretty much always make the right choice.”

Choosing integrity and changing the game

Ryan’s career choices led her to become a lauded reporter, an author of five books, and a sports media consultant. Her newspaper work, at publications like the Orlando Sentinel and the San Francisco Chronicle, spanned 25 years.

She is now a wife and mother who lives in Sausalito, California, and works as a senior media advisor to the San Francisco Giants. She is the owner of three World Series rings from the Giants’ championship seasons in 2010, 2012, and 2014.

Throughout the past four decades, Ryan’s sports columns and features earned her 13 Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, a National Headliner Award, and the Women’s Sports Foundation Journalism Award. She also won the prestigious Edgar A. Poe Memorial Award from the White House Correspondents Association for her four-part series about wounded soldiers entitled “War Without End.”

Ryan’s first book in 1995, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters,” was a groundbreaking expose that Sports Illustrated named one of the “Top 100 Sports Books of All Time.”

“That book really changed the sport of gymnastics,” Ryan said. “USA Gymnastics, responding to the media attention prompted by the book, developed a handbook for parents, informing them about the potential pitfalls of the sport on the elite level, such as eating disorders, serious injuries, and abusive coaches.”

Ryan co-wrote “Shooting from the Outside: How a Coach and Her Olympic Team Transformed Women’s Basketball” in 1997, and “Molina: The Story of a Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty’’ in 2016. She also penned a personal memoir in 2009, “The Water Giver,” about her 16-year-old son's recovery from a severe brain injury and her own transformation as a mother. Her most recent book in 2020, “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry,” takes readers into clubhouses and locker rooms to answer questions about how chemistry works in sports teams and why it is essential to elevating performance.

Composing the narrative and conducting the interviews for the latest book, to some extent, brought Ryan back to her own early days as an unlikely sports reporter in stadiums and locker rooms. Her performance as a writer and editor was undoubtedly shaped by the skepticism of onlookers who didn’t believe a woman could elevate the industry. But Ryan changed all that.

“You know, I often think about that Joan many years ago who was so introverted and pushed into that locker room in Orlando,” Ryan said. “Back then, I shivered at the thought of putting my name on a story for everyone to see. And I think, ‘How did all this ever happen since then? How did I end up here?’ It’s been such a journey to get to this point. It really has.”

Abby Weingarten March 28, 2024