The first thing that the New York Times wants you to know about Claudia Wilken is that she is a devoted parent. “For years, Claudia Wilken has been known in her neighborhood mostly as a familiar face at school meetings,” the Times’ John Branch begins. “When her two children were teenagers about a decade ago … Wilken spent several years on Berkeley High School’s Site Council” where “hers was a measured voice,” Branch writes. “Let’s figure out how we can work together, she would say. She encouraged compromise and dialogue.”
But—here comes the twist—Wilken is not just a former standout member of the Berkeley High PTA. She’s also the federal judge who recently presided over O’Bannon v. NCAA, the landmark case that has challenged the NCAA’s longstanding treatment of its college athletes. “And to think: It was only in recent weeks that Wilken, apparently not a huge sports fan, playfully admitted that the abbreviation S.E.C. brought to mind the Securities and Exchange Commission, not the Southeastern Conference,” Branch continues. Wilken, “a woman few sports fans would recognize by name or face,” will now “forever be remembered as the judge who helped reshape college athletics.” What an incredible turn of events for a person who has spent the past 30 years working her way up the judicial branch—not putting in the hard time of sitting on her ass and watching basketball. Who did sports fans expect to see on the bench, anyway? Allen Iverson?
Wilken isn’t the first female judge to get this bizarre sports-page treatment. Three years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson received similar coverage when she presided over the case that would end the 2011 NFL lockout. Nelson “probably never expected to land in the national football spotlight,” espnW’s Amanda Rykoff wrote in a piece titled “The Woman Who Stopped the NFL Lockout.” Rykoff continued: “But that is exactly what happened to the 59-year-old mother of two, as she has presided over one of the most significant and highest-profile cases in recent memory.” Thirteen paragraphs later, we learn that this was not Nelson’s first rodeo with the NFL; as a U.S. magistrate judge, she presided over motions in a 2010 class-action lawsuit against the league. Later, Rykoff continues to blow her readers’ minds as she notes that Nelson “brings a record of thoroughness and outstanding preparation to the bench.” So that’s her secret: She is a competent judge.
Branch, meanwhile, isn’t prepared to give up his tortured theory just yet: In his profile of Wilken, he writes that her “decision [in O’Bannon] may be interpreted much the way her advice at school meetings often was: Let’s work it out, through dialogue and compromise.” If decades of legal experience can’t explain what made Wilken capable of presiding over the O’Bannon case, perhaps her stint in the PTA will.
Last month, espnW’s Jane McManus offered an alternate take in the genre of “what’s the deal with judges who aren’t as obsessed with sports as sports journalists are?” In it, she describes Anita Brody, the judge who presided over an NFL concussion case this year, as “an admitted non-sports fan” who “went to Wellesley for her undergrad and then Columbia for law school … two schools without a football team.” McManus argues that “despite” Brody’s lack of interest in sports, she has “been able to cut to the chase on a number of issues because she doesn’t have the attachments of a college football fan.” The spin is positive this time, but the story is the same: These women don’t like sports, and that surely affects their decision-making one way or another. (“These examples happen to break along gender lines,” McManus hedges, “but that’s not to say it’s a gender thing.”)
It’s not actually shocking that experienced judges are capable of making decisions about the rights of workers they haven’t personally cheered from the sidelines. Do judges who decide cases about the labor rights of exotic dancers inspire breathless coverage about how they don’t even frequent strip clubs? The truly bizarre thing about the coverage of these cases, though, is that some sports journalists see the industry they cover as so exceptional that only they alone can possibly understand how the laws of the United States apply to them. It’s a little sexist to be shocked that moms decide big important sports cases. But the more troubling undercurrent of these stories is the suggestion that sports are, in a sense, above the law.