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ESPN's Jen Lada Aims to Keep Sports in Perspective

Last summer, as the nation was grappling with allegations of sexual harassment in the presidential campaign, ESPN's Jen Lada went public with a story of harassment as she was trying to break into the journalism years before.  In a series of tweets, Lada outlined the inappropriate requests made by a would-be boss at a television station who was - ostensibly - interviewing her for a job.

It was a narrative that could have elicited controversy or invited skepticism or worse - scorn - from her online audience. But the Marquette University graduate says she believes it was vital to tell the story. "I just think it was important to be a voice for those people who have been on the receiving end," she says.  Best of all, Lada says the reaction was both generally supportive and empathetic, especially from other women who have endured similar circumstances.

Credit Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images
Jen Lada started her career at WITI in Milwaukee. She's now a contributor at ESPN.

Lada says it's also important to let women entering the field today know that issues like harassment could be among the challenges they face. "This is a reality of this business - probably a reality of other businesses," she contends. "But if it's happening to you, don't feel like you can't speak out about it, because look at where I am now - it didn't keep me from succeeding."

Today, though, Lada believes she and other women in TV sports journalism still face a looming challenge - aging.  "Which is, from everything I've learned, a natural part of the deal," she says with a laugh. "It's kind of what you sign up for, right?"

But, Lada says, for all the opportunities women are getting in her profession today, "you look around the sports landscape and you see a lot of men who have been around for a very long time, and don't seem to be held to the same aesthetic standard that women are held to."

But she believes it will just take a few television executives to come to the same, obvious conclusion that she's reached in order for things to change.  "I believe that the longer you've been around - the more tenured you are - the better you are.  Think of all the experiences I've had at this stage of my career."

Lada will talk about many of those experiences - from covering Milwaukee sports on WITI, to her time at Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and at ESPN - when she appears for the annual Axthelm Memorial Lectureat Marquette University's Diedrich College of Communication.

Credit Mitch Teich
Laugh is a personal mantra of Lada's.

At ESPN, Lada refers to herself as a utility player, appearing on a variety of shows, from Baseball Tonight to College GameDay. More recently, she's produced and reported segments for a video seriescalled SC Featured.

In her most recent contribution, she tells the story of Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who survived cancer in early adulthood and went on to play a key role in the Cubs' first world championship since 1908.

Lada says her goal is to portray sports - and athletes - in their proper perspective.  "We, as reporters, are responsible for being kind of the gatekeeper," she argues. "We meet these people, and based on our experiences, make judgment calls on their lives.  And that's when we're asking the viewers and the listeners to trust us."

And for Lada, sometimes that means figuring out an athlete is different than the person we're led to believe.  But while she says there are athletes out there that she wouldn't want her eight-year-old son to look up to, there are plenty of them who could - and should - be role models. "I'm not interested in fooling the audience. I'm not interested in taking people for an inauthentic ride.  But I do think it does a disservice to sports to assume that every guy out there is a dirtbag.  Because they're not."

For Lada, the Axthelm Memorial Lecture at Marquette brings some things full circle.  She'll be interviewed on stage by Marquette Women's Basketball coach Carolyn Kieger, herself an alumna of the communication program.  Several years ago, the tables were turned at another event at Marquette that saw Lada interviewing Kieger.