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Vol. 58, No. 2 • February 2021 • .pdf version
O'Neil: From the beer leagues to the big leagues
By SETH DAVIS
Like most good stories, this one starts with beer. Or at least, beer league softball, which is where grade schooler Dana Pennett first earned her sportswriting chops keeping score and crunching numbers for her dad's team in Stockton, N.J.
"I showed up every game dressed in team colors," Dana says. "I loved it. My dad taught me to compute an ERA. I'd have all the stats updated, and the guys got into it."
Dana later became an all-state field hockey player at South Hunterdon High School, and then she went to Penn State in the fall of 1986 aspiring to be a venture capitalist. That dream lasted all of one economics class. On a lark, she applied for a spot at the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, and asked to cover sports. She got the gig. When she went home for Thanksgiving break, she announced to her parents that she wanted to become a sportswriter.
That decision launched a stellar career that has now taken Dana O'Neil (she married George O'Neil in 2000) into the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2021. Over three decades in this business, O'Neil, who currently works as a national college basketball writer for The Athletic, has developed her skills and paid her dues, and can still crunch numbers with the best of them. But it is her ability to compose richly reported, deftly told longform stories and profiles that truly distinguishes her from her peers.
O'Neil learned how to be a first-rate journalist the old-fashioned way, story by story, gig by gig. Following her graduation from Penn State in 1990, she covered college sports for The Trentonian. She later wrote for the Florida Times Union, Rider College's alumni magazine and the Bucks County Courier Times before spending nine years with the Daily News in Philadelphia. O'Neil moved to the Villanova beat in 2001, Jay Wright's first season as coach, and in 2007 she was hired by ESPN.com to be a national college basketball writer. She moved to The Athletic in the fall of 2017.
O'Neil stands out on press row not just for her ability, of course, but also her gender. Being in a distinct minority has produced a few uncomfortable moments, but for the most part O'Neil's colleagues have accepted her as one of the guys.
"Every place I've been, the men I worked with have had my back," she says. "I always wanted to be a sportswriter who happened to be a woman, not a woman sportswriter. Don't give me a job or the Hall of Fame because I'm a woman, give it to me because I earned it. But don't not give it to me because I'm a woman."
Though she does not consider herself a trailblazer – she defers to women who mentored her like Robyn Norwood, Tara Sullivan and Lesley Visser – O'Neil understands how she is viewed by upand-coming female sportswriters, and she readily offers advice and assistance wherever she can.
"I really think hard about setting the proper professional tone," she says. "I am hopefully trying to support young women who want to go into this business. I recognize my role because people helped me."
O'Neil first joined the USBWA because her mentor at the Daily News, Dick Jerardi, was serving as president and invited her to participate. She became president herself in 2014-15 (greatest accomplishment: turning the Final Four Monday awards breakfast into an awards lunch). O'Neil says she was "stunned" to learn she had been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but it really should have come as no surprise. Throughout her career, O'Neil has been a consummate professional.
She has moved from the beer leagues to the big leagues, and she has a lot more stories to tell.
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