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‘Hard-Nosed’ Sports Reporter, Still Hit On in the Locker Room, Gets CNN Back in the Game

nicholsWomen in sports journalism have come a long way, says CNN’s Rachel Nichols, but they have a long way to go.

“The very fact I’m allowed to go into the locker room after the game, with no one questioning it, shows significant progress,” says Nichols, 40, whose new weekly program, “Unguarded,” debuts Friday at 10:30 p.m. on CNN and CNN International.

On the other hand, athletes’ “attitudes and prejudices still need some work,” Nichols says. “When I meet players for the first time, they can be a bit guarded. Right off the bat, they assume you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s harder to get the story sometimes.”

“Unguarded” will feature a long-form interview with an athlete as well as a panel discussion that will include entertainment stars in addition to jocks. For the opener, Nichols accompanied NBA star Lebron James in August on his annual promotional trip to China.

Sports have been a long time coming to CNN. The network has not had a dedicated sports show since “Sports Tonight,” a traditional daily roundup that began with CNN’s launch in 1980. Pre-empted by 9/11 coverage, it never returned.

Under CNN Worldwide chief Jeff Zucker, “there’s a broadening of what CNN can be,” says Nichols, a veteran of ESPN and The Washington Post. “We’re moving to focus on more than just politics. When you pick up a newspaper, you want to be able to leaf through other sections. My show is part of that.”

Nichols joined CNN in January after a nine-year run at ESPN. Also a reporter for Turner Sports, she covers a wide variety of assignments, from major league baseball to the NBA to the Super Bowl. Also, she will be part of Turner’s Olympics team.

When it comes to football, Nichols acknowledges that women generally report from the sidelines while men occupy the more glamorous booth. (At ESPN, she did the former for “Monday Night Football.”) It’s an underrated gig, she insists.

“What sometimes gets lost in the discussion is that it’s not a fluffy, easy job. It can add quality to a broadcast. That said, it would be great to see more of a mix of women doing play-by-play, like with minorities and coaching. We need more women to come up through the ranks. The feeder system needs to be better.”

Bottom line, there is still a lot of the Old Boys Club in the sports world, Nichols says. The difference now is that “you’re given the chance to prove yourself – a benefit that some of my predecessors did not have. It can lead to new opportunities.”

Those opportunities are not always welcomed. From time to time, Nichols gets hit on by players. It is a non-issue. “It happens in life, too,” she says. “Reputations precede us. People are aware of my reputation as a hard-nosed reporter.”

She is cautious about discussing her personal life. No surprise there, given that she is married to music executive Max Nichols, son of famed film director Mike Nichols and stepson of ABC’s Diane Sawyer.

Rachel and Max met-cute, at a summer camp in Maine. They went together as teenagers, then lost touch for a decade. He sparked the reconnection. They have 2 ½-year old twin daughters.

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