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Women's Sports and Media - The Challenges Ahead

April 3, 2007

It’s the Super Bowl of women’s sports this week in Cleveland, Ohio: the NCAA Women’s Final Four is in town after years of planning. Even security guards at the sold-out Quicken Loans arena marvel at the way the venue and the city have been transformed into women’s sports central. The semifinal games Sunday night marked the 15th consecutive sell-out for the Women’s Final Four, with more than 20,000 people crowding the arena. The women’s championship has come a long way in the 25 years since it began. C. Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers coach, was on the sideline in that first game in 1982 as the coach of Cheyney State. Now she, aided by an all-women coaching staff, is the only coach, man or woman, to take three teams to this pinnacle.  ESPN has pulled out the stops for its 12th year of exclusive coverage, upping the stakes this year by making this the first women’s event to employ ESPN Full Circle: all of their assets—radio, TV, Internet—simultaneously cover different aspects of the games. As with all aspects of women’s progress, there are pushes forward and pull backs as women’s sports, and especially the media coverage, reflect a continuing struggle. The quantity of women in the press contingent here in Cleveland is a good sign. For the most part, however, women are under-represented in sports media, whether as reporters and commentators or as subjects of coverage. Christine Brennan, columnist for USA Today notes, “there is no doubt women’s basketball is not seen as anywhere near as important as men’s basketball in most of the mainstream media outlets.” The numbers confirm her opinion. Marie Hardin and her colleagues at Penn State’s Center for Sports Journalism, surveyed more than 200 media sports departments. Women account for 11% of department members, and this includes clerks and support staff as well as reporters and columnists. According to Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research of Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota, women and girls average 40% of sports participants but receive only 6 to 8% of media coverage. It’s a tough business, especially if you’re interesting in covering girls and women. In the male dominated sports world, women reporters learn very quickly that if they want to be taken seriously and move up the ranks, they should not even think of focusing on women. Says Marie Hardin, “Men’s sports are the standard, and women’s sports are positioned as less than the standard.” The athletes here have worked their whole lives to make it to the Final Four—the biggest event for women in the sport, even bigger than the women’s pro game. But even these elite few know they get the short end of the stick. Camille Little is a senior on the North Carolina squad, which received a number one seed in the tournament. Even though they lost the semifinal to Tennessee, her team ranked higher and made it further than the male Tar Heels. Yet the men’s squad received far more media attention all season. “It’s disappointing,” says Little, who is likely to be drafted to play in the WNBA this week. “There are great players here, and the game is getting so big. It sucks to be unnoticed.” Although most will never be lucky and/or good enough to make it to a national stage, women are playing sports and attending sporting events in record numbers. Fifty percent of the fan base for football is female, and women buy more team apparel than men, yet women don’t—or won’t—say they read the paper for the sports section. Joanne Gerstner, a sports reporter for the Detroit News and past president of the Association of Women in Sports Media, said, “I still think it’s vogue for women to say I don’t follow sports much. It’s fine for women to be athletes, but it’s not okay for a woman to say that she’s a huge sports fan.” Women’s reluctance to embrace sports as fans may reflect one of the most disturbing issues in women’s sports—the hypersexualization of the female athlete.  As a culture, we think it’s okay for a woman to be athletic as long as she is still feminine. Marie Harden finds it ironic: “The whole idea of athletic accomplishment is about respect for what the body can do, and the sexualization of the body undermines athletic power and accomplishment.”  Mary Jo Kane believes that turning women athletes into sex symbols has a powerful homophobic undercurrent. Covering women’s sports in a sexualized way, she says, may be thought to “reassure fans, corporate sponsors, officials, athletic administrators, parents and in many cases the women themselves that they are not too masculine.” For similar reasons, when women get a big payday in sports, it’s not for their athletic prowess but for posing for ads or in other avenues that promote their sexuality. Concern about homophobia in women’s sports runs underneath many conversations. Yet few are willing to address it head on. This year has been particularly difficult. Penn State coach Rene Portland resigned after many years of reports that she would not allow lesbians on her team and after a former player settled a lawsuit brought against her and the school. Pokey Chatman, the young, up-and-coming coach of the Final Four Louisiana State team resigned amid allegations of sexual impropriety with a former player.  Pat Griffin, author of Strong Women Deep Closets, Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport, commenting on the Chatman case, said the situation “shouldn’t be considered a lesbian issue. It’s a coaching issue. But you get thrown into that because of the homophobia in sports.” There’s no guarantee that women in positions of power would make better decisions about coverage, and we probably won’t find out if they will anytime soon. The dismal state of the media business in general makes it even harder for women to climb up the ladder. Joanne Gerstner and Marie Hardin report that they know of only five women sports editors and 12 full-time female sports columnists at major papers. One issue may be that the sports beat is not the most family friendly job. Counter to the norm, reporters work nights, weekends, and holidays.  So women in this business are forced to make the difficult decision about if and how to have a family and gain success at work. Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star and ESPN likens the progress of women sports’ in the media to the ebb and flow of a “river cutting through the rocks to make a canyon: It might take a while, but you see it’s a beautiful canyon.” One hurdle is persuading fans of local teams to become fans of the game. The stands at the Final Four semifinal were so much a sea of orange—the Lady Volunteers color—that it seemed like a Tennessee home game. The fans cheered on their team but seemed less appreciative of the game in general. Also, the male sports establishment needs to dial down their level of ridicule. Says Mary Jo Kane, “I find it just remarkable that ESPN is here covering and promoting the event, yet its radio hosts are dismissive of women’s March Madness.” The world is still a place where a reporter’s reference to the NCAA tournament can never be misunderstood as the women’s contest. In a recent column, Christine Brennan called ESPN on their website language, referring to “NCAA B,” which meant basketball, and “NCAA W,” referring to the women as an afterthought. Check out the site now and you will see “Men’s BB” and “Women’s BB.”  The issue got under Brennan’s skin: “This is 2007. To be correct—not politically correct—but correct, is our number one job description.” We are witnessing only the second generation of girls to benefit from Title IX since its passage 35 years ago in June. As we celebrate on Tuesday night with either Tennessee or Rutgers, we can be proud of women’s sports’ many accomplishments. But as with most women’s issues, there’s a long way to go.
Tags: Sports