Bonnie: Women’s sports coverage has got some issues
Women’s sports have never been as popular as men’s. It’s a sad fact that will may always be true. From high school to the professional level, women’s sports are often considered inferior to their male counterpart. So, it’s no surprise that media coverage of women’s sports is lacking both in quantity and in quality.
According to a study which examined the coverage of women’s sports for the past 25 years, in 2014, ESPN’s Sports Center dedicated just 2 percent of its airtime to women’s sports. This is up from in 2009, when Sports Center dedicated only 1.4 percent of airtime on female athletes.
“This is a persisting trend. It’s just somewhat disappointing given the tremendous growth and participation in women’s sports over the last 25 years in particular. That excitement is not being captured by the media,” said the study’s co-author Cheryl Cooky in a ThinkProgress article from 2015.
This isn’t exactly news. Even the media coverage for the Olympics favors male athletes, though the gap is not as extreme. Since 1994, Andy Billings, the director of University of Alabama’s sports communication program, has examined the media coverage for the Olympics.
For the Sochi Olympics, he found that NBC dedicated “47.6 percent its time covering men and 37.6 percent of its time covering women, with the remainder going to pair sports, like ice dancing.”
The amount of coverage female athletes receive is increasing, especially on the Olympic level. This may be because American viewers want to watch Americans win gold medals, regardless of the gender of the athlete. Yet, the issue isn’t just how much coverage female athletes receive, it’s the type of coverage.
In an article from the Colombia Journalism Review, assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware James Angelini said, “In many cases, they’re still being compared to male athletes in the same sports.”
Angelini noticed during the snowboarding event during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, that the commentators would compare the female snowboarders to the males. The commentators would say that the women’s version of snowboarding was about five years behind what the men are able to accomplish. This is insulting to the athletes because their talent is being overlooked by this comparison.
The bigger issue with the way female athletes are portrayed in the media is the sexualization they often endure. During the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Gabby Douglas made history by being the first black woman to win the Olympic gold medal as an individual in gymnastics. Yet, viewers were more concerned about her hair.
In addition, London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in an editorial about the popularity of women’s beach volleyball and how it could be attributed to the “semi-naked women” who were “glistening like wet otters.” This statement is not only gross (wet otters? Really?), but it reduces the women athletes to only their looks. By saying this, the mayor is implying that these women only get the attention they deserve because they are good looking.
While these women should be allowed to wear bikinis and feel good about it, after all it’s their bodies and they should be proud of them, the Olympic coverage shouldn’t focus on the bikini and how the athlete looks in it, but rather, how the athlete is performing.
This sexist coverage can make athletes, especially at the college level, self-conscious about their bodies. Female college athletes are already more prone to eating disorders than non-athletes. In a study comparing female athletes from East Coast Division 1 universities and non-athletes, it was found that 16.5 percent of athletes were “at risk” for disordered eating habits compared to only 10 percent of non-athletes.
Part of this issue could be the societal pressure to be thin. The thin ideal means that thin women are the ideal women, which can make female athletes that are in sports that require bulkier physiques feel inadequate. The media coverage that focuses on the athlete’s body is giving the message to younger female athletes that their main asset is their body, not their athleticism.
The media doesn’t reduce men to sexual objects. They don’t make articles titled “20 of the Hottest College Volleyball Players” for male athletes. So why do they do it to women?
Would you like to increase opportunities for women and people of color in journalism? Now is your chance to support the Emerald’s program by helping us send reporter Ryan Nguyen and Emily Goodykoontz to the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference this June!