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Breaking the Glass Grandstand in Women's Sports

February 26, 2010

As the 2010 Winter Olympic games come to a close, we head into college basketball's March Madness – the end-all, be-all of NCAA championships. While U.S. Skier Lindsay Vonn’s medal wins in Vancouver and Serena Williams’ victory at the Australian Open have made international headlines, triumphs in women’s team sports are still virtually unheard of in the media. After the Canadian Women’s Hockey team dominated for the third Winter Games in a row, the only thing we’ve heard about their gold medal win is outrage over their indulgence in beer and cigars as they celebrated the victory. Maybe, then, we should be up in arms the next time we see a man celebrate his wedding, birth of a child, or job promotion. Not to mention how the International Olympic Committee responded to the win: IOC President Jacques Rogge made sexist comments about removing Women’s Hockey from the Olympics all together because the competition seems to be too lopsided. By all means, don’t focus on the accomplishment of reigning world champion athletes. The University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball team is making history as we speak. They are entering tournament play undefeated with a record-breaking 65-game winning streak. In a piece on NPR, sports commentator Frank Deford says the team: “may well be the most overwhelming power ever to dominate any major sport. But to most media, the Huskies are but a stealth bomber.” You may remember the last time Women’s Basketball really made headlines: when Don Imus made overtly racist comments about the Rutgers Women’s team in 2007. Deford says that most women’s teams, college, pro, and national, suffer from the “glass grandstand,” where the media and the public won’t embrace them the way we do men’s teams. Global Comment writer Sarah Jaffe credits the difference in attention to the way female athletes competing in individual sports fit into the male gaze: “Even as recently as last summer, Wimbledon officials blithely admitted that ‘physical attractiveness’ played a part in which women played at center court. Lindsay Vonn, target of so much admiration, is an ‘all-American blonde’ – who uses men’s larger, heavier skis because of her size and strength (but you’ll find many more references to her appearance even in articles that note this fact).” However, the UConn Women’s Basketball team is starting to break ground. “There are a lot of reasons why girls from all over the country decide to go play their college basketball in a chilly little backwater town called Storrs, Conn. – but a prime one is simply that UConn women's basketball is popular,” says Deford. “The home games bang out. The glass grandstand has been smashed there. The players are celebrities. They are treated, well, like men.” The UConn women haven’t been completely overlooked by the media. Today, ESPNU launched a four-part documentary series that follows the team’s 2009-2010 road to the NCAA Finals – a second perfect season in a row – and their attempt to break the all-time record-winning streak set four decades ago by the UCLA men’s team. As March Madness unfolds, will a UConn victory finally be enough for media to start looking at women’s sports - and teams - differently?
Tags: Media, Sports