The Cheryl Raye Stout Interview: A chat with one of Chicago's veteran sports reporters

I've enjoyed Cheryl Raye Stout's sports reporting ever since I started listening to WBEZ. She's a professional Chicago sports fan but one free of catchphrases, unnecessary purple prose or b.s. in general. As a veteran female sports reporter, she's had to prove her chops over the nearly 30 years she's been reporting in this city. I caught up with her on Thursday, after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs and the Blackhawks beat the Red Wings in game one of their series. We had a delightful phone conversation about breaking through the glass ceiling (which took the form of the Bears locker room door), her rapport with some of the city's sports legends and her thoughts on head injuries. Go here if you'd like to learn a little bit more about her history as a Chicagoan and reporter.

Were you at the United Center last night? How was it?
It was great. It was such a slow first period, and then, things start building and they had a great third period. It was a great game in the end. I got stuck in traffic for two hours so I listened to the first half of the Bulls game, and I got there right at faceoff.

Does the crowd seem different when it's a Bulls game versus a Blackhawks game?
It is different only when you're talking about the type of team and the caliber of the team. The Blackhawks right now are the best team in the NHL--so the crowd knows it, they feel it. They're a little more raunchier--always. But the Bulls crowd--during the heyday, they were equally, maybe even louder. It really depends on the caliber of the team.  I covered before Michael [Jordan], through Michael, and at the Stadium, my ears would be reverberating for a long time after the game.

I haven't gone to a Bulls game in the last couple years but it always takes me back--that excitement, somehow, gets bottled up. I went to a Sox World Series game--a playoffs game--but it wasn't the same.
When you got a roof and it's a smaller crowd of people and they're close to the action, you really can feel it. The only place outdoors where I felt that similarly was when the Cubs played the 2003 playoffs. We had to sit outside because there were so many media. And the crowd, the actual--you could feel it shake.

I'm a Sox fan but I used to live at Addison and Lake Shore Drive, and with those buildings around it just echoes, whereas the Cell is in the middle of nowhere so that sound just kind of goes up in the air.
I prefer the Cell any day, because of the amenities. Going to Wrigley Field, it's just dank. And people there go, "Oh, I love Wrigley Field!" Really? Do you understand what it's like behind the scenes?I can't imagine what they're going to find when they dig that place up. The rats alone!

You teach radio sportscasting at  Columbia College.  What do you have to teach your students now about reporting that wasn't relevant ten years ago?
I also taught ethics in broadcasting. I had to bring that into play because a lot of times they take blogs verbatim, they take Tweets verbatim, Facebook... I said, "Whoah--unless it's a legitimate source, you can't take it at face value." But, I also told them that you have to be on Twitter and you have to be on Facebook because that's where the athletes--if that's their account--they're putting things out there, that's where you're going to get information.

A couple years ago when Jay Cutler had the knee injury in the NFC championship against Green Bay, we saw players ripping him on Twitter immediately! I'd never seen anything like this--attacking the guy not knowing why he was sidelined, that he had a knee injury. The team at that time wasn't following Twitter, but now they all monitor it. After that we found Olin Kreutz in the locker room and said, "Boy, Jay Cutler's getting ripped by players for his injury," and he looks at us kinda dazed like, What are you talking about, how can they be doing that? The guy was in the huddle and his knee was shaking like Jello." They weren't warned that we had this information so they reacted to that--I've never seen that before. After that, then the team realized, "Hey, we have got to make sure we know what's going on on Twitter. When we're on the practice field, we are not allowed to use Twitter for anything about injuries or certain statuses, we are not allowed to put anything out there." That makes sense because everyone gets to know it. One of the things I tell my students too is if you're using Twitter or Facebook, you've got to be very careful. I think players, strangely, think that Twitter is almost personal and private. They don't realize the ramifications when they put things out there. That's the generation still not quite grasping it. I think there are more pros than cons but there are cons and the negativity--- Like what I've seen this year, about Derrick Rose, that really, really is bothersome.

I saw a post on Deadspin about how little anyone knows about the kind of injury he has yet everyone feels so qualified to talk about, you know, how he's slacking.
I find that just appalling. Because those of us around him--I know the kid, I've been around him--we know that he's not the person that they're painting him out to be. And it's hard because people will attack you for saying anything about him positively. Sports talk radio has really become a beast of negativity and of vile spewing things. And then it becomes a lightning rod because listeners think, "OK, how can we get back at him, because that's our money that he's wasting." And then they may go on Twitter and that's mostly where they do their attacking.

As a reporter, do you prefer that athletes' private lives are much more accessible, or was it better when their private lives were private?
I've been wrestling with this for a while. During that era covering Jordan, Walter Payton Carlton Fisk, those types of people--I always could separate personal and professional at any level. And now, knowing all this information--I don't want to know all that information. I like gossip just like anybody else, however I think that we've gone so far that anything anybody does raises all sorts of negative, mean-spirited actions, and that kind of bothers me. Yes, during Michael's era we knew a lot of things about him, his personal life, but we didn't think that was anybody's business. We knew things that were going on and I had reporters from other cities say, "Hey, I heard this about him, but I go, "I'm not saying anything."

You alluded to some unpleasant situations you encountered when you first started covering sports in Chicago. Can you give an example or two?
The NFL was very difficult about it and it's because you didn't have any females that were between you and the players. You had males that didn't want you there anyway. I've told the story about the Bears, when I was going up there for practices, the players would be really angry and say, insult me and be mean-spirited, and then they had to sit outside the locker room. But there's been times when--I was in a Boston Celtics locker room early in my career and they never had any women covering at that time. I was there in the visiting locker room at the stadium and a player saw me and he's coming out of the shower, dancing and everything, naked. I'd never make eye contact, I'd walk away. I thought, "What a jerk." So, he was dressed and I walked past him and said, "You know, there really isn't much to look at." I just felt that humor was my way of getting back without being mean, and to indicate that I'm not going to back down just because you don't want me in here.

How do you advise female sports reporters on how to comport oneself in terms of how not to be pushed around but at the same time to show that you are gonna stick around and you can roll with the punches?
One thing I've said to my female students is, you have to know more, you have to research more, you cannot rest. I also tell them, especially when you do a lot of phone calling or contacting, you make sure you know who is on the other end of the phone. If it's a wife or girlfriend, or whoever, you treat them well. I always tell everybody, men and women but women particularly, if you're going to interview a player, don't just gung-ho start the interview. Introduce yourself, talk to them a little bit, and then say, "Can I talk to you now on the record?" Just to break that ice because you then get comfortable. I would take young players, especially baseball players aside and say "I will never talk to a player without clothes on. I will make sure that if you are changing, I'm not watching, I will turn. You're not going to be uncomfortable." Men will stand there, and the players don't like it, but men will stand there watching them get dressed. They think it's not a big deal, but it does bother them.

That couple of seasons where you had to sit outside the Bears locker room before Jim Harbaugh invited you in, what did you do while you sat there?
I would sit there and ask the PR director to get me a player, the player would come out and I'd talk to them. The funniest thing was when I was sitting there one day and Walter Payton sat down next to me. This was before I was let in. He goes, "Go Cheryl, go in there!!  I said, "No--I know you, you'll open the door, I'll walk in and you'll walk the other way." He was a practical joker. I just knew that I had to bide my time. I didn't have any recourse. There was nobody that was going to help me--so it just happened it was Jim Harbaugh. He never realized how much of an impact that was. It wasn't always easy going in there. Once there was a young female reporter who walked in with sunglasses and a halter top. I was interviewing a player in the locker room and the things that were being said to her-- I said, "Just leave her alone." I took her aside and said "You can't just walk into a locker room with sunglasses on and the way you're dressed. It's not that there's anything that you've done wrong, it's just perception. They think that you're trying to look at them from behind glasses. There's things that you have to know." I've had players come up to me complaining about the way women were dressed but I'm not their mother! In that instance, I was uncomfortable with the way they were treating her. I would never make a big splash about it--that was a number of years ago--but it's happening again with women doing that and causing players to act like they're little boys.

I don't want to ask you what your favorite moments in Chicago sports are, because anyone who's lived here can probably just guess them off the top of their head. Instead, what are some of your proudest moments as a reporter?
I'm very proud of a couple big stories I broke with Michael Jordan about him playing baseball and about him returning to the NBA. One of the things I learned a long time ago is that everybody you meet--if it's a security guard, an usher, a handler, a PR person--no matter what, you introduce yourself, you get to know them. That's the way I was raised. Michael Jordan used to talk to us before games in the locker room. He was very, very accommodating--almost to a fault. It was great material--a lot of it was background information, and sometimes it was on the record when you were doing an interview for news. But he talked to me about baseball--he had worked with the White Sox--he had just an exhibition for fun. We talked about how much we love baseball and he said, "That's the sport I wanted to play." I said, "Oh Michael, you've got years." This was almost a year and a half before he retired. Michael retires and somebody I knew that was involved with both the White Sox and the Bulls came up to me at a Bulls game and said, "Michael's going to try out for the White Sox." Had I not had that conversation  with him 18 or 19 months before, I would have said, "Are you kidding me?" But I had that in the back of my mind, and so my wheels start turning and I call my boss, my news director, at AM-1000 and said "I think I'm onto something, let me pursue this, don't tell anybody about it. Give me a couple of weeks because I don't want to use this until I have my ducks in order." I called up a person I knew that was doing security with the White Sox. I figured, he's got to be working out with the White Sox. I said "Hey, what time does Michael get there to work out?" And the person says, "Oh, about 10 o'clock." And she goes, "You...didn't know that, did you?" I said, "Don't worry, I'll never use your name. I just need to make sure I'm on the right trail." I got a hold of [Sox trainer] Herm Schneider. As I progressed I was able to get the information and it was a firestorm when I did it. But not at first. I worked at AM-1000 and Jay Mariotti was our guy. I broke the story with him on the air and he says, "Oh that's not true. That's not happening." I go, "Really? You're just going to say that to me after all the information I got?" And then Tim Weigel on Channel 2 did a great story for me that night and gave it its due. Then one of the newspapers in town decided to use my quotes that I had and made it their own story, which made me really angry. My source called back and said, "You got screwed on that story, I'm going to tell you where he's working out." So I got more information and the story became pretty huge. Topps had a press conference because they were doing a special card with Michael Jordan, Reggie Jackson and Wayne Gretzky. And I'm putting my recorder by Michael and he goes, "How you doing?" And I go, "You've been keeping me busy! Are you OK with what I'm doing?" And he goes, "You're fine, you're absolutely fine." Phew!

I watched that 30 For 30 about him playing baseball:  I never before heard that conspiracy theory that he was being forced to take time off from basketball because of his gambling.
His dad had been murdered. That's what people forget. His dad was murdered. And in '93, James Jordan traveled with Michael. That was the first year he had ever traveled with him. I was working for the team's flagship station and I traveled with him. They were closer than father and son. When James was murdered, there were over 100 cameras on Michael's lawn. That's when his privacy was really unearthed. I think that that devastated him more than anything. So to say that it was from gambling... unless you know for a fact, I just don't like that conjecture. I feel that it's wrong.

You're one of nine kids. Do any of your other siblings have careers as interesting as yours?
I have two sisters that passed. One was a tattooist. She was great at it too. I didn't know how great she was. I never knew anyone with tattoos. She was a wonderful artist. She had a heroin addiction so she went into rehab, and when she went into rehab she fell into tattooing. She went to New Orleans and then Orlando and I didn't know that she was famous for that. I was on the air with somebody who was working at AM-1000 and I said "My sisters a tattooist, Laura Ossen." "Laura Ossen's your sister?" And I go, yeah? "Well, she's very well known!" I didn't know that. Because it wasn't my world. She wouldn't know my world either.

Has anything you've learned from your career influenced the way you raised your son?
It absolutely has. I made a clear decision that he will do sports for enjoyment, he will not do sports to make that a career. I suppose you could mold anybody into an athlete if you really really try, I just think that the way it's evolved now--where the parents are living through their children, and these kids are playing sports 24/7, I don't think they become well-rounded. My son, he did everything--he had to try everything and enjoy it, even golf, and he's done that. I just wanted him to enjoy it. If he wanted to play, play, if not, don't. My son was in first grade, playing soccer, and the coach was having a bitter rivalry with another coach, and that other coach goes, "Go after his son." This is six and seven year olds! At that point I go you know what, he's going to play for the fun of it. I never want him to do it any more than that. I just saw the negativity and it was awful. I saw the injuries. When I was covering  Bears camp up at Platteville, the old place, we used to be feet away from injuries. I saw the collisions that went on, I heard knees and shoulders pop, I saw these guys with their bell rung. My son wanted to play football when he was nine and I said no, I have to sign for it. I had talked to a couple of Bears coaches, Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron--they had daughters. I said "If you had a son, would you let them play football?" They both said no.

A lot more parents I know feel that way--based on the things they know now.
People didn't know. I was in a very bad car accident when I was 19 and I had a concussion that was really bad--I had the effects for over a year. I now have a brain ailment. We don't know if it's connected but I wonder if it is. Every parent should see the documentary Head Games. I think that's a must. Look, if you can find a safe way to do it, do it, but you know at the end of the line it could be a real problem for these kids. I don't mean to sound so negative. I think sports are great for sportsmanship, working as a team, physical fitness--I think that's all great. I did that. But as it becomes more intense, where they force kids to do a club sport and if you're not in a club sport, you're looked down upon. I also see that there's a sense of bullying that goes on too.

Can you tell me more about your brain ailment?
Five years ago I started having some symptoms with my eyes. I had trouble. I kept blinking a lot. My jaw was dropping. It took over a year to be diagnosed--I was going from different types of doctors until I finally went to a neurologist who said, "You have Meige's syndrome." I get Botox shots every three months to control it. It's my eyes, my throat, my neck, down the blade of my shoulders. I get 19 shots of Botox. It allows me to function. I deal with pain every day and sometimes it affects my voice and affects certain things. I don't want that to impede me from doing what I do what I want to do. I'm not going to sit here and feel sorry for myself. I just deal with those times when I'm working and I can feel the symptoms bother me--it just frustrates me more than anything.

Who are the nicest Chicago athletes that you've gotten to know over the years?
Boy, there's so many. Sid Luckman. I got to work with him a bit. I loved him. He was so kind, so generous. I love Ozzie Guillen--I don't care if he's a lightning rod. I knew him from the time he was a rookie. I'll never forget he was doing a live shot with us on WMAQ and he didn't speak good English--the only language he knew was profanity. Robin Ventura. Ron Santo. Billy Williams was one of the best storytellers. Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks and some of the younger players like Corey Crawford and Martin Nicoletti--just really great kids to be around. The Blackhawks are a pretty good group of guys. very kind. Duncan Keith had that issue recently--the one thing about hockey that's different than any other sport is that they open the locker room immediately after the game. In every other sport there's a 20-minute cool down, but that's a sport that goes three hours. I've always felt that that was a little too quick. Last year, I went to Duncan Keith--I had to ask him something, and there was a group around him so I said, "You maybe answered this already..." I asked the question, and he goes, "I already answered that question!" So I walked away and he comes running after me, taps me on the shoulder and goes, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it." I said "No, I understand, it's fine." I'm not offended by something like that. It's in the heat of the moment, and he apologized--what more could I ask for?

This is my favorite Bulls team, this last few years. The core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng. My son was given jerseys by other people, but the only one I ever bought for him was Luol Deng's, because of him as a person. He is the most well-rounded, grounded, intelligent, caring athlete I've ever been around. Michael Jordan and I had a great rapport--I really loved him. I could go on and on. Richard Dent was always a hoot. I liked dealing with him. I was very fortunate that I got to spend time with Martina Navratilova, who is very bright and interesting. I got to do a 45-minute interview with Arthur Ashe. He just blew my mind with how introspective he was. I've been fortunate. Everywhere I turn I can find someone I enjoyed talking with. Gavin Floyd with the White Sox--people don't realize what a really sweet and kind person he was. All they know of him is that he's had trouble getting out of the 5th inning. Tyler Flowers, I got to spend some time with him the last couple years. His wife was pregnant last year and we'd always talk about it. You get to know some of these players this way. You hate when they fail, for themselves. They're not my best friends, but I like to get to know them a bit so that I can understand them.

How does it feel to be the 349th person interviewed for
I feel honored!

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