Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The media and UConn's winning streak: Another take

I've been reading -- with great interest -- the commentary around the UConn women's basketball team, which will very likely tonight break the longest winning streak in D-I basketball (set by the UCLA men's team under John Wooden).
Much of the commentary isn't on UConn's winning record, but is instead on what to make of coverage of UConn's phenomenal streak. If you've been paying attention to the story, you know that UConn coach Geno Auriemma himself weighed in on the coverage in a news conference after the team's game on Sunday.
He, along with others including sports columnist Christine Brennan and others who study women's sports coverage blame sports media for not giving the story more attention.
I certainly understand this argument. We have scores and scores of research that tells us two things: that institutions covering sports are dominated by men; and that women's sports don't get nearly the attention that men's sports get.
But behind the blame on sports journalists, editors and producers is this assumption: That somehow, those who cover sports are different from those who follow sports. They're "out of touch" with what we (sports fans, Americans, whatever) really want.
In short, it's the (cliched) "build it and they will come" assumption, mixed with imagery of an (evil) wizard behind the curtain pulling the strings contrary to the wishes of the hordes of consumers who would have it otherwise. It reminds me of the title of a book: Why TV Is Not Our Fault, which essentially argues that viewers have little influence over what they watch. It's someone else's fault.
No doubt, there are serious issues of political economy and masculine hegemony/power in the sports/media complex, to borrow the academic concepts that underpin these "media=bad" arguments.
But I'm convinced that at the end of the day, blaming the media for lack of coverage or for the wrong kind of coverage is failing to see the bigger problem.
It really is us. (Gulp.) It is our fault.
What I mean is this: The problem is embedded in the way we see women, men, and gender roles. It's in the way we define sports. It's in the small things we take for granted as "normal" in our everyday lives about the performance of gender. (Women wear skirts, men don't. Etc.) And in what all of these small things say about bodies and power.
These norms aren't without consequence.
They result in a culture that is less interested in women's sports as spectator activities because of the ways these performances challenge our everyday gendered lives.
Those who go to work for media are products of that culture. They aren't so different from the rest of us.
Not that things can't or won't change. But they happen slowly. Forty years out from Title IX is like 40 days in the big scheme of things. We're talking about a generation --maybe two, I think. Beyond our lifetimes to see real change.
In the meantime: I like what Megan Hueter,in her blog "Because I Played Sports," said about the UConn streak. She talked about the power of community and about the way progressive sports fans have found ways to connect, to create media, and to celebrate women's sports.
The real changes in our connection and celebration of women's sports won't start with big media -- they'll start with us.

-- Marie Hardin

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The sports beat: How much has it really changed?

The latest issue of Nieman Reports looks at the beat structure in news reporting and includes a special focus on sports departments. In a piece about the influence of new media on sports reporting, Curley Center Director Malcolm Moran writes that "competitive pressures are rewriting the rules" by challenging traditional practice in regard to verifying sources and ensuring accuracy. Lindsay Jones, a beat writer for The Denver Post, talks about how she aims to adhere to high journalistic standards even as she races to be the first on the story -- with her thumbs on her phone keypad -- via Twitter.
Not all has changed, however. In a story I wrote about the beat structure in sports departments, I argue that the infinite news hole created by new media hasn't really expanded coverage of women's sports, mostly because beat structures in sports departments haven't changed to allow it. In other words, the technologies may be new, and the challenges to reporters to get the story fast may be more intense, but the types of sports covered and the types of stories consumers get from media sources haven't really changed that much.
The bottom line: It'll take a lot more than technology to see substantive changes in sports media content.
--Marie Hardin

Friday, November 19, 2010

Emmert on student athletes and commercialization

New NCAA President Mark Emmert reasserted the top priorities of his predecessor, Myles Brand, in an interview Friday where he emphasized the need to focus on the welfare of student athletes while addressing thorny issues involving commercialization of college athletics.
Emmert was interviewed by Penn State President Graham Spanier for the Big Ten program "Expert Opinion" today at the Newseum. Emmert came to the job from the University of Washington and has been dealing with a number of high-profile issues since moving to Indianapolis in October, including an investigation into rumors of "pay-to-play" involving Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.
Spanier's interview with Emmert generally avoided specific controversies but instead focused on providing an overview of the NCAA. Emmert said student athlete welfare has been --and will be-- a key focus.
"We have to make sure we protect the collegiate model of athletics," Emmert said. "It's frankly the only way we can protect the brand." Related to that is the issue of paying student athletes--an idea that has been the subject of debate. Emmert didn't leave room for speculation.
"Student athletes will never be paid as long as I'm president of the NCAA," he said. Fewer than 20 schools break even on collegiate sports, he added. "It is grossly inappropriate for universities to even talk about paying student athletes."
It's the perception of wealth in big-time programs that is likely driving the discussions about paying athletes. So is the commercialism, which Emmert said presents the most pressing ethical issues he's facing. More revenue is a "good thing," Emmert said, but the model can't compromise the collegiate model. Protecting that balance will be a Herculean effort.
Emmert promised he would also be "very focused" on enforcing NCAA rules. "We have to do enforcement in a way that is fair and honest and transparent," he said. The NCAA has no subpoena power -- and the process is slow and cumbersome. Emmert said he wants to expedite the process--but can't risk getting it right. He also promised to look at organization's rules to make sure focus is on the "bigger issues."
Other issues:
On agents: "I'm very pleased with the level of conversation we're having," Emmert said. "I think we're going to have some good progress there." Emmert said he won't address it just as an enforcement issue but will look at modifying the NCAA's rules, hinting that they could be changed.
On the hiring of African-American football coaches: Football is behind basketball and other sports in mentoring and bringing up minority coaches through the ranks. Emmert said the NCAA needs to use the "bully pulpit" with university presidents and ADs; last year saw some improvement.
On NCAA focus on Div. 2 and Div. 3 schools: These smaller divisions are important --they involve large numbers of student athletes. But Emmert justified the NCAA focus on Division 1. "We have to recognize that Division 1 sports are the revenue drivers...Their (smaller divisions) future is tied to Division 1."
On universities cutting non-revenue sports: "We're probably not done with that."

The program will air Monday on the Big Ten network.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Redirecting the gaze

After the epic Baylor-UConn game appeared on national television, the game story also earned a spot on cnn.com’s mobile page. Given that the mobile front page includes about eight headlines on average, cnn’s choice to include the recap represented some nice exposure for women’s collegiate basketball.
The story largely focused on the exciting game, top-level early-season competition and the superstar battle between Maya Moore and Brittney Griner.
However, in discussing Griner, the author included a parenthetical quote from a UConn player expressing amazement at her size near the end of the story.
There is no question that at six-foot-eight, Griner’s stature is unusual. After all, the average height for women in the United States is five-foot-four and 95 percent of 20-year-old women in this country are under five-foot-10.
Given that Griner has received national coverage since she was in high school – and plenty more during her first year of college during the 2009-2010 season, her stature is well-documented and thus remarking on her unusual height is something of old news.
Further, the quote lacked any reference to Griner’s play in this major early-season game and instead brought a focus to Griner’s unusual body. In including the comment, the piece became part of an ongoing narrative that focuses on women’s bodies over their athleticism.
Researchers have long written on the ways in which popular media coverage often emphasizes women’s aesthetic appeal, a practice achieved through featuring female athletes in passive poses rather than action shots, for example, or focusing on their off-the-court activities instead of their on-court athletic endeavors. Both strategies ultimately present female athletes as female first and athlete second.
Remarking on Griner’s body is a new twist on this old theme. When we view female athletes depicted in revealing dresses or with their kids away from athletic competition, we are invited to focus on their femininity – and ultimately their feminine bodies -- as opposed to their athleticism. Focusing on Griner’s unusual body redirects our attention in the same way, taking the focus away from her exploits on the court and returning our gaze to her body.
--Erin Whiteside

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fantasy sports: Tipping point for the NFL?

The Curley Center was host today to a live chat about fantasy sports attended by editors and writers who write for a fantasy sports audience and by a league official (NHL) who coordinates outreach efforts to those fans.
One of the most interesting assertions about fantasy sports is that they were the catalyst for the NFL's rise during the past decade. Alex Simon, senior director of digital media for the NHL, said that fantasy "may be the single biggest explanation behind the NFL's success over the past 15 years" because of its power to turn casual fans of a given team into passionate fans of the game without specific team allegiances. Nate Ravitz, who writes and edits about fantasy sports for ESPN, said that overall, though, fantasy players aren't a large segment of NFL fans.
Even so, the chat reminded us of the power of fantasy sports to dictate how sports are covered. They may also be pulling fans out of the stadium and keeping them in their living rooms during games -- an unintended consequence of fantasy sports. Ravitz said a risk is "creating an environment where fans would rather sit at home and watch the Red Zone channel with their computer in front of them than sit in a football stadium."
There are likely other factors contributing to the decline of fan attendance at some pro events. Fantasy sports participation certainly does impact the way fans consume sports, though, as the panelists pointed out.
Fantasy participation may also encourage more cultural acceptance of gambling on sports. The line can be pretty thin. With professional athletes and journalists both participating in fantasy even as they play or cover the "real thing," the ethical quandaries (and missteps) could be significant.
For more on our online chat, see the transcript.
--M. Hardin

Monday, November 08, 2010

PSUers at NASSS: Research Review

Presentations at the 31st annual NASSS conference wrapped up this weekend, highlighted by a handful of Penn State College of Communications alumni and current students. Alumna Erin Whiteside and graduate student Jason Genovese began the final day of presentations before students Laura Caldwell and Melanie Formentin also presented their current research.

Genovese, currently teaching at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, kicked off an early morning session with his presentation The Complexity of Sports Television Reporting in the Modern Sports-Media Complex. He highlighted the factors that complicate the reporter-source relationship in sports television media production. Using ethnographic techniques, Genovese outlined how reporters are adapting to the changing nature of contemporary reporter-source relationships. Reporters are feeling a push to adapt to new technologies, becoming more versatile and multi-skilled to work with changing technologies. Reporters also face conflicts of ownership; one group often owns the media outlet and the team being covered, meaning reporters must consider the wants of the ownership group when reporting on an issue.

Whiteside, currently teaching at the University of Tennessee, presented her work “I Repeat: I am Not a Lesbian!” Sexuality and Heteronormativity in the Sports Media Workplace. Using discourses of sexuality she analyzed underrepresentation and marginalization of females in sports media. Through interviews with female SIDs, Whiteside found that sexuality is an overwhelming part of the sports media workplace environment. Female sports media practitioners are consciously and constantly fighting the notion of being a lesbian simply because of their choice of profession. Experience playing sports, marital status, and working with women’s sports enhanced these feelings, making these professionals feel as though they needed to defend their sexuality in the work place, whether they were heterosexual or not.

Caldwell’s research, ESPN’s “Body Issue” and the Limits of Liberating Gendered Bodies, used textual analysis to assess that the images presented are both positive and negative. Caldwell analyzed both ESPN “Body” issues to determine if they explored and celebrated athletic form or simply sexualized the athletes photographed. Although the 2010 issue was more sexualized than the original issue, stereotypes of athletic beauty were challenged through the presentation of females engaged in sport and the inclusion of disabled athletes. Male figure skater Evan Lysachek also challenged athletic stereotypes by being shown in a graceful pose. She suggested that, ultimately, interpretations of the images are likely to be dictated by audience perceptions.

Finally, Formentin presented her work Moving Beyond the 2004-05 NHL Lockout: A Fan Survey. In this study, she looked at the 2004-05 lockout as an organizational crisis and attempted to gauge perceptions of the NHL’s reputation five years after the event. Using Situational Crisis Communication Theory, she surveyed 140 fans to assess whether variables of the theory can predict or be attributed to reputation following a crisis. A survey of 140 fans suggests that the league’s reputation has marginally improved. Additionally, Formentin found that it may be possible to deconstruct the notion of reputation to assess both organizational and industry reputation when developing crisis management strategies.

- Melanie Formentin

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Images of the female sports fan

A small but growing body of research is growing around the female sports fan --especially relevant in light of ESPN's plans for its "W" brand. Sports media scholar Lawrence Wenner talked about the the commodified female sports fan this morning at the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in San Diego. Men more clearly fit the fan archetype; women are generally cast as babes or cheerleaders as fans. Female fans are posed as fans, naturally, of male sports. Wenner used his "dirt" theory applied to the female sports fan. He looked at adcritic.com and found about 50 ads featuring female sports fans. They were cast as tokens, shoppers or as "authentic," according to Wenner. Token ads rely on old stereotypes; so do ads that feature the female-as-shopper. The " authentic" fan images, according to Wenner, extend the role of the female fan. Spots connect other areas of the culture to sport; male "dirt" is embedded in the spots. Some spots challenge stereotypes, using cultural dirt typically ascribed to men. One example is a Reebok ad that uses traditional understandings of domestic work and gender and turns such notions around in the ad. Wenner points out that such ads are still problematic--but they do allow the possibility of expanding the role and image of female sports fans. There is still a lingering climate of male hegemony in these narratives, though, he said. Female storytellers need to have more power in crafting sports narratives, Wenner added.
--Marie Hardin

Curley Center at NASSS Convention

Representatives of Penn State’s John Curley Center are currently enjoying the sunny weather in San Diego, California while taking part in the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport’s 31st annual conference. The four-day conference includes presentations from a variety of national and international scholars as well as current and former Penn State students and faculty.

Current Ph.D. student T.C. Corrigan organized and participated in the first Penn State-represented panel of the weekend, Producing Meaning in Sports Media: Practices, Structures, and Discourses. The panel was moderated by Penn State graduate, Dr. Erin Whiteside, and featured research related to linguistic organization of sports broadcasts, analysis of announcer discourse related to race in the NBA Finals, and Canadian NBA broadcasts in Punjabi.

Corrigan presented Studying Sports Blog Production: Methodological Challenges. In the discussion, Corrigan outlined the challenges faced when determining appropriate methodologies for researching the production of sports blogs. Currently in the process of identifying best ways for approaching this type of research, he argued that traditional observation practices related to journalism and broadcasting are unsuitable for blog-related research. His central question asks that if we restrict our observational methodologies and narrow ourselves to traditional research strategies, then how will that restrict our findings related to the way blogs are produced?

Blogs tend to be produced privately, and often by non-journalists or people with a keen interest in a specific topic – in this case, sports. The nature of sports blogging routines suggests that we should not approach the study of bloggers from a journalistically-based perspective, but from a new perspective dedicated solely to blogging. Space and time limitations exist in which a researcher cannot simply observe the production process, making traditional observation both methodologically and practically insufficient for studying blog production. By drawing upon traditional field work techniques such as document collection, long interviews and phone calls, Corrigan hopes to identify typicalities in blogging practices while creating a methodological bridge with traditional observation strategies.

Tomorrow, Dean Marie Hardin, Corrigan, and students Laura Caldwell and Melanie Formentin will present their own work in separate panels and roundtable discussions. They will be joined by PSU College of Comm graduates Whiteside and Jason Genovese. Check back for more updates from the conference.

- Melanie Formentin

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Second Online Chat: Fantasy Sports and Journalism

Sports Journalism Chat
Addresses Fantasy Sports, Journalism

Fantasy sports rank as a multi-million dollar business that often attracts specific and separate coverage from that of game action or traditional storytelling, and that can prompt challenges for sports journalists and media organizations.

The continued emergence of fantasy sports—with some 30 million participants in the United States and Canada each year, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association—influences content and prompts decisions about coverage. Fantasy sports can also pull media organizations to decide between the possibility of emerging audiences and the reality of existing consumers or production costs.

Those competing agendas, changing outlooks and the implications of fantasy sports on sports journalism will be discussed at 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15, during an online chat conducted by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

“The Intersection Between Fantasy Sports and Sports Coverage: Implications for Journalists and Predictions for Media Organizations” is free and may be accessed at http://comm.psu.edu/sports/live-chats online.

Participants include:
-- Joe Dolan of fantasyguru.com and Sirius Satellite Radio;
-- Nate Ravitz, deputy editor for ESPN.com Fantasy Sports;
-- Alexandre Simon, senior director of digital business development for the National
Hockey League; and
-- Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Spoors Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center.

Marie Hardin, an associate professor of communications at Penn State and associate director of the Curley Center, will serve as moderator for the hour-long session. The Curley Center explores issues and trends in sports journalism through instruction, outreach, programming and research. The Center's undergraduate curricular emphasis includes courses in sports writing, sports broadcasting, sports information, sports, media and society, and sports and public policy, which is cross-listed with the Penn State Dickinson School of Law.

- PSU College of Communications

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Curley Center Hosting First Online Chat

Sports Journalism Chat
Addresses Bloggers, Credentialing

Although many major news organizations have found homes on the Internet, some reporters who cover sports online still struggle to get access to the events they write about.

At the same time, traditional media outlets continue to fight for access for their reporters while sports leagues and teams, often with their own media outlets and stakeholders, control access to events.

Those competing responsibilities, differing outlooks and resulting decisions about who can and cannot officially cover events will be addressed at 1 p.m. Monday, Oct. 18, during the first online chat conducted by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

“Who Should be in the Press Box and Why? Issues in Credentialing Bloggers and Journalists” is free and may be accessed at http://comm.psu.edu/sports/live-chats online.

Participants include:
-- Michael Signora, vice president of football communications for the NFL;
-- Jerry Micco, sports editor of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette;
-- Cheryl Coward of Hoopfeed.com; and
-- Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center.

Marie Hardin, an associate professor of communications at Penn State and associate director of the Curley Center, will serve as moderator for the hour-long session.

The Curley Center explores issues and trends in sports journalism through instruction, outreach, programming and research. The Center's undergraduate curricular emphasis includes courses in sports writing, sports broadcasting, sports information, sports, media and society, and sports and public policy, which is cross-listed with the Penn State Dickinson School of Law.

- The Curley Center for Sports Journalism

Friday, October 01, 2010

Oriard: Bringing Academics Back to College Athletes

The business of college football has changed dramatically in recent decades, and one scholar believes new changes are needed to re-establish the integrity of the relationship between sport and education. Michael Oriard, former University of Notre Dame standout and a Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University, visited Penn State on Friday, Sept. 24 to discuss “A Conversation About College Football, Past and Present.”

In his pointed discussion, Oriard spoke of the need to understand how student athletes are affected academically by the business of college sport. Two changes he would like to see are freshmen ineligible to play and universities conducting “cost-benefit” analyses of the benefits and success of their programs.

Believing that a “fundamental contradiction” exists in college sports, Oriard discussed the struggle universities face when balancing academics, sponsorship and entertainment. Major programs place a premium upon on-field success, which may affect student athletes education. Training like professionals, students place less emphasis on the classroom and more emphasis on the field. By making freshmen ineligible to play, student athletes would regain a transition year. They would have time to settle into the college environment both academically and personally, and can experience college life without the rigors of full-time participation in a high-profile athletic program.

Additionally, Oriard suggested the need for cost-benefit analyses of football programs. Many universities strive to build and maintain elite football programs, but at what cost? If a program is marginally successful, maybe universities should consider pouring money into academics instead of athletics. Fundraising, student recruitment and student life often centers on athletics, but this may not be ideal for all universities. If a program achieves some success, is the university truly benefitting from the investments? It may be time to identify a way to assess whether college football programs truly serve to improve the academic institutions that house them.

- Melanie Formentin

Monday, September 20, 2010

Leaked Credentialing Guidelines Focus on Bloggers

In recent weeks, attention was briefly drawn to the NHL’s policy regarding bloggers in the press box. A leaked draft of guidelines for credentialing bloggers surfaced in the hockey blogosphere. The leak grabbed the attention of various members of the hockey community, ranging from established bloggers to the owner of the Washington Capitals, Ted Leonsis.

Reports are that this is old news and the league office is quick to point out that there has been a policy regarding bloggers for two years. What leaked was a draft, and to this point clubs have been allowed to take their own positions regarding the issues. Teams such as the New York Rangers have policies that are regarded to be stringent, while Leonsis’ blog post makes it apparent that he embraces blogging as a positive direction for the multimedia landscape. (He actually prides himself on being a daily blogger.) According to Frank Brown, NHL vice president of communications, the NHL’s current position remains the same as it has for the previous two years.

“We’re aware of the emerging voice of the blogger,” Brown said, “and want to be respectful of that while still being respectful of the significant number of other elements that have to be considered.”

The notion that each team has been able to make a blogging policy that works for itself may be why the NHL hasn’t felt a need to outline specific blogging terms to this point. Blogging isn’t a new practice, and it certainly isn’t new to the NHL, as evidenced by the New York Islanders’ Blog Box program. In its fourth year, the Blog Box invites bloggers to “try out” for a chance to cover the team. The participants receive single-game credentials and access to players and coaches. Obviously, this works for their organization.

Of course, the questions then remain as to whether or not bloggers are journalists in their own right, and if they should be treated like journalists. The blog has emerged as a forum for news, insight and discussion about any topic imaginable. For sports, it’s a place to discuss rumors and the murkier side of how a team performs on a given night. It’s a place where people like Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski can leak drafted guidelines for credentialing bloggers. Sports bloggers can be anywhere from amateur commentators to engaged, well-read critical thinkers about a league or team.

This topic may not have emerged for its novelty, but it’s still one worth discussing. The changing multimedia landscape forces us to at least think about the role of bloggers in sports media. Whether bloggers should be granted all-access is a hard question to answer. The fact that a draft proposal surfaced shows that a professional league such as the NHL is considering – and has been considering – this question. That their current policy is to let individual clubs make their own call seems fair, as this is a medium we’re still working to understand. It will be interesting to see if a new league-wide policy is released and, if so, how it positions bloggers.

- Melanie Formentin

**If you’re interested in the topic of bloggers as journalists, join the Curley Center for Sports Journalism as we host the first of an online series of chats being launched this year. The first discussion will focus on the topic of credentialing and is set for Monday, October 18, from 1-2 p.m. Stay tuned to this blog for more details about speakers and connecting to the chat.**

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Female television sports reporters: Be attractive, but not too attractive

As pundits and opinion-makers have continued to weigh in on the Clinton Portis saga, discussion has turned to what reporter Ines Sainz was wearing, and whether or not her attire was to blame for the humiliating sexual harassment she was forced to endure from members of the New York Jets. Focusing on Sainz’s clothing and appearance places the blame on Sainz instead of a problematic locker room culture, and is reflective of tired “she asked for it” patriarchal discourse.

Blaming Sainz’s attire is a curious argument, given that there is an obvious unspoken rule that in order to appear on camera and cultivate a career in televised sports, women must exude a kind of heterosexual attractiveness through their physical appearance and dress. Women are thus left in a double-bind: In order to join “the boys” they must be appealing to boys, but should they be too appealing in a certain context (see locker room, Jets) their attractiveness becomes their own fault. Until we begin to see female reporters as qualified sports reporters and not, as Hannah Storm had to remind her two male colleagues on a recent ESPN debate “there to check guys out,” women will continue to be reduced to their bodies in ways that are never on their own terms.

--Erin Whiteside

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

NFL wise to condemn Portis' locker-room comments

The NFL quickly distanced itself from comments by NFL player (Washington) Clinton Portis that female reporters in the locker room are "going to want somebody."
Portis' statement is so offensive and ridiculous as not to warrant much comment. The problem with these kind of statements, though, is that they perpetuate the "locker-room looker" mythology about female sports reporters, which undermines their ability to be taken seriously as journalists in the sports setting.
Portis' comment, related to the harassment of reporter Ines Sainz by New York Jets players over the weekend, is also a timely reminder that perhaps we haven't come as far as we would like to think when it comes to fair treatment of women who cover sports.
It was 20 years ago -- almost to the day -- when sports reporter Lisa Olson was accosted by New England football players in a case that would put national attention on the blatant harassment faced by female reporters simply trying to do their jobs.
How far have we really come since that case? Incidents like those of Olson -- and, two decades later, Sainz -- and the misunderstandings around them point to the importance of organizations such as AWSM and continuing advocacy for women in the sports workplace. --M. Hardin

Monday, September 06, 2010

Will the AVP's end hurt an emerging sport for the NCAA?

If media coverage is any indicator, football is the only college sport under way for the 2010-2011 academic year. But the volleyball -- indoor volleyball, that is -- season has also started. College volleyball fans and aspiring players may have more opportunity to take in the sport in future years if schools take up the NCAA's newest "emerging" sport, sand volleyball.
Sand volleyball -- better known as beach volleyball, has gained in popularity thanks to players like Misty May and Kerry Walsh. Coverage and marketing of the sport has been criticized, however, for using players' sexual attractiveness to attract spectators (and rightly so: one study found that almost 40% of televised shots of players were of chests and buttocks).
NCAA member schools have the opportunity, now that the NCAA has approved the sport, to offer it for intercollegiate competition. But it's difficult to know whether they will. The AVP -- the professional tour for beach volleyball in the U.S. and the pipeline for Olympic players -- announced in mid-August that it was closing shop.
What will this mean for U.S. prospects at the London Olympics in 2012? It's hard to say, but the most talented, experienced players will likely still make a good showing for the U.S. as they stay active in international play.
The bigger question -- depending on how long it takes for the AVP to revive itself financially -- is in the implications for the development of young talent and interest in the sport. The NCAA's approval of sand volleyball as an emerging sport will likely keep the pipeline open, depending on the number of schools that choose to pursue it.
In light of past marketing strategies for beach volleyball, it will also be interesting to watch how the sport will be covered and promoted at the college level. --Marie Hardin

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Glitter, Bronzer and Power

The New York Times Magazine recently posted a stunning visual piece on women’s tennis that features a video gallery of the world’s top players hitting a ball in slow motion. In some ways, the piece takes us a step forward in depictions of female athletes. Rather than simply showing them smiling while holding a racket, we see these women hitting the ball with incredible force --muscles rippling and all, an image only enhanced by the extreme slow motion video.

However, with the exception of seeing these athletes in actual “action,” the piece is more a re-tread on the old theme of emphasizing beauty over athleticism when depicting female athletes. Taken in its full context, the piece unfortunately minimizes the displays of exertion and maximizes sexuality and beauty.

For instance, Serena Williams, arguably the most powerful woman in tennis today, is seen smacking an unseen ball with ferocious intensity. However, that ball explodes in an avalanche of glitter in front of Williams, who is wearing a sequined dress, body glitter and flowing hair. Like Williams, many of the players are wearing body glitter or bronzer while wearing nightclub-style dresses, several not-so-subtle markers of femininity.

Perhaps most troubling is the way several of the athletes’ bodies are literally chopped up, with the camera focusing only on their legs, abs or breasts. For example, viewers see Samantha Stosur’s face for only a split second as the camera zooms into her breasts as she hits the ball, her head literally cut out of the frame. The video of Victoria Azarenka starts at her shoes and slowly pans up her legs, bare stomach and breasts, mimicking the way a film director might shoot a scene to indicate a man “checking out” a woman. The image of her hitting the ball happens only at the very end, and even then her long, loose and untied hair flows around her face in an image closer to what we might see in Sports Illustrated swimsuit than at Wimbledon. In fact, nearly all the women have loose, untied and flowing hair, another common feminine marker.

Even the title of the piece – “The Beauty of Power” – hints at the discomfort we have at a cultural level of associating women with raw physical power. By labeling these images as not just “power” images, but “beautiful images of power,” viewers are reminded that the players are beautiful [read: feminine] and thus “normal women” despite the displays of muscles and exertion.

In these ways, the players are offered as objects of sexual desire, and presented to the viewer from the perspective of the heterosexual male gaze. By doing so, the focus is put on the women’s sexuality rather than on the displays of strength that the camera also captures. Ultimately, despite the video of female athletes in action, the piece is an overall disappointment, especially given the potential it had to present the physical power and athleticism of the women’s tennis elite.

--Erin Whiteside

Mariotti Criticized Following Arrest

Jay Mariotti’s August 21 arrest inspired a wave of joy in the sports world and blogosphere. A week after the incident, in which Mariotti was charged with domestic assault and released on a $50,000 bail, there is still discussion about Mariotti’s journalistic approach and how it makes this incident so compelling.

It is hard to pinpoint a time in recent years that a journalist has received so much negative feedback following a controversial incident. From athletes and sports figures to bloggers and journalists, people seemed to line up to take their turns stabbing at Mariotti’s various perceived faults. Following news of the arrest, renowned movie critic – and former colleague of Mariotti – Roger Ebert tweeted a link to a column he wrote when Mariotti left the Chicago Sun-Times, saying “Jay Mariotti's arrest makes me fondly remember my farewell column after the rat left the Sun-Times.” That farewell column was titled “Jay the Rat.” For The New York Times, Richard Sandomir reported that columnists and bloggers across the country were not only collating instances of Mariotti’s strong opinions about domestic violence, but they were openly showing their dislike of Mariotti as a person and reporter. More than a week after the incident, Chicago White Sox and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was asked about his “longtime nemesis” and responded that Mariotti was a “pissant.” In the meanwhile, the silence of Mariotti’s colleagues seems almost as loud as the concert of voices taking this opportunity to express their happiness about the situation.

Such strong reaction has to come from somewhere, and some would point to Mariotti’s journalistic approach as the catalyst for all the schadenfreude. In the past, Mariotti has been known for his commentaries about domestic abuse. Perhaps his most infamous comments regarded Jason Kidd, who was taunted with chants of “Wife Beater!” during an NBA game. Of Kidd, Mariotti said he felt bad for his family but didn’t feel bad for Kidd. Only a week before his arrest, Mariotti produced the AOL FanHouse article “For Acts of Violence, MLB Much Too Soft.” In the article, he described a couple of recent instances of “violence” in the MLB and bemoaned the lack of punishment brought upon the players. Francisco Rodriguez’s suspension by the Mets for a post-game incident involving a family member was considered insufficient because it amounted to “1/81st of a 162-game season, which, coupled with a fine of a bit more than $125,000, constitutes a blip.”

Now, Mariotti is on the other side of the fence he helped build.

It’s not that Mariotti is wrong for taking a stance against domestic abuse and violence. Athletes and sports figures are people who are admired and emulated, and domestic violence is an issue that should not be taken lightly. Where Mariotti seemingly goes wrong is in his approach. He has been described as making issues “black and white.” His more emotional commentaries have been known to leave people offended, and he has garnered a reputation for not facing those he criticizes. However, Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald took a neutral position on the issue, suggesting that in terms of fan response what has happened to Mariotti is frightening. LeBatard suggests that “Mariotti can’t beg and plead for fairness and due process and compassion, and expect to get it, when he is so often reluctant to extend it himself.” What Mariotti and other journalists lack is empathy, and maybe sports media should be more evenhanded and careful when reporting about others’ shortcomings.

That reluctancy and lack of empathy may ultimately be why Mariotti is coming under so much scrutiny. The Bleacher Report offered an article outlining ten ways Mariotti could reclaim his job at ESPN. Of the ten suggestions, many suggest he make a public relations push to improve his image. This issue, however, shouldn’t be about a one-man public relations effort. It should be about assessing how sports pundits and journalists’ approach their trade. Mariotti’s arrest sends the message that he does not practice what he preaches. As a journalist, he should expect to be held to the same standards to which he holds others. For Mariotti, his historical lack of empathy and unwillingness to work with the same people he writes about seemingly makes him even less likely to garner support from his colleagues and audiences. There’s something to be said for standing for issues, but there’s even more to be said for the way in which opinions and stories are presented and critiqued. Based on the overwhelmingly happy response to Mariotti’s current personal issues, one might suggest he’s seeing that the hard way.

– Melanie Formentin

Friday, August 27, 2010

Study finds troubling coverage of Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius

A new study by researchers associated with Penn State's John Curley Center for Sports Journalism examines print coverage of Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius' quest to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The study, recently published in the International Journal of Sport Communication, provides a textual analysis of New York Times and Time magazine coverage of the sprinter’s case. In January 2007, the IAAF (track’s governing body) barred Pistorius from competition, arguing that his “Cheetah” prosthetics provided a “clear mechanical advantage.” Four months later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the IAAF decision, citing a lack of conclusive evidence as well as new findings that refuted the governing body’s ruling; however, Pistorius ultimately failed to qualify for the Beijing games.

Drawing on Foucault's ideas about the body, this study finds that media discourses surrounding Pistorius reinforced “an unjust but seemingly natural body hierarchy” (p. 303), perpetuating a view of the able body as the cultural sporting ideal. Deviant bodies, like Pistorius’ and those of other athletes with disabilities, are constrained through discursive mechanisms and institutional structures of biopower that function through the knowledge and regulation of sporting bodies.

While some media coverage offered progressive perspectives on disability and sport, this study finds that media discourses concerning Pistorius generally revolved around issues of fairness in competition. The New York Times, for instance, suggested that Pistorius’ performance begs the question of whether he’s “too abled.” As the authors of this study argue, though, “[T]he too abled label reinforces body hierarchies rather than challenging them. It is not that Pistorius was too fast or too talented. It is that he, like other athletes with disabilities, is too different” (p. 303).

According to the study, the discourses of fairness in competition (a powerful normative value of sport) positioned Pistorius as deviant—a threat to the values, integrity, even very nature of sport. Other themes identified by the researchers reflect this apparent threat: a privileging of a medical view of disability (rather than the more progressive social view); descriptions of prosthetics that reflect cultural assumptions about “normal” bodies; and particularly troubling use of dangerous “cyborg” imagery.

This analysis provides a lens on the role of discursive mechanisms in the classification and categorization of bodies that don’t conform to a seemingly natural, but ultimately unjust body hierarchy. Media discourses concerning Oscar Pistorius, as “contested sites for meanings inscribed on the body,” reflect this tension (p. 288).

--T.C. Corrigan

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New study focuses on ethics, sports coverage

A new survey of more than 100 sports media professionals, conducted by Marc Rosenweig at Montclair State University, has found that sports communication professionals have a variety of ethical concerns about the industry and news gathering practices. For instance, 43 percent said ethics are weaker than 5 years ago. More than half said they thought social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook were important for journalists. For instance, one respondent wrote, "Contacts can be found and stories broke just by keeping up with college athletes who use the site religiously.” Pressure to be first with breaking stories was a top concern for respondents. For more about sports coverage and social media, join our "hot topics" chat this Thursday. Visit here for more details.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

ESPN dishes out big assist to LeBron James

In devoting one hour of prime-time coverage to LeBron James Thursday night in its “The Decision” special, ESPN further blurred the lines between entertainment and sports journalism. The network effectively ran a 60-minute ad for the LeBron James brand that was less journalism and more production – despite that at its core, this was about a huge story in the sports media world.

ESPN reporter Jim Gray appeared to read off a script of questions, failing to follow up on key points, which protected James from addressing difficult issues. At one point James said “I never wanted to leave Cleveland,” but Gray never pressed James to reconcile that statement with his decision to leave. Later, during Michael Wilbon’s Q&A with the basketball star, James said his decision was not about money, something Wilbon accepted at face value. Yet arguably, moving to a bigger media market where he will have better opportunity to bring visibility to his personal brand will earn him much more money in the long run, issues that were not discussed either. Further, the “special” was sponsored by Vitamin Water, one of James’ major personal sponsors. Each commercial break featured ads starring James resulting in one straight hour of devotion to the player.

Still, by leaving his hometown and disappointing several other major cities (notably Chicago and New York), LeBron James finished the “special” not necessarily in the best graces outside of Miami. ESPN helped out once again, dishing out another assist by allowing James to promote a large donation to the Boys & Girls Club. Certainly this donation is a wonderful gift, but in the context of the announcement, and at a time where James will feel some immediate “heat” from Cleveland fans, the additional airtime arguably helped him do some initial “damage control” in this emotional moment, capping off one of the longest sports advertorials we’ve ever seen.

--Erin Whiteside

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sports blogging: Don't look for big payoff

Ad Age yesterday published an article looking at the ways free labor is supplying major blog-driven sites such as BleacherReport.com. Bleacher Report, which reportedly will turn a profit this year, uses content provided for free in deals with major media outlets.
Meanwhile, guys like Andrew Brining, featured in the article as a writer who has contributed about 500 articles (gratis) to the site over the past two years, may see blogging as a ticket to a paid career in sportswriting. Brining said, 'If I am good at this, the compensation will come.'
Call it the Bill Simmons syndrome. In our survey of sports bloggers last summer, about 70 percent said they'd take a paid sportswriting job if they could get one.
As the Ad Age article makes clear, though, there are plenty of Brinings out there, willing to write about sports and a host of other topics -- for free. The result may be a business model that discourages organizations from paying for quality reporting and writing. In other words,the free-content trend drags down the entire sports-reporting enterprise.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Chicago Tribune, Sexist Sporting Imagery and the Case for Increased Gender Diversity in Sports Newsrooms

The old “you play like a girl” insult made a comeback today, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune. As part of its regular poster series, the newspaper depicted the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup Finals opponent Chris Pronger as wearing a figure skating dress with the accompanying text “Chrissy Pronger: Looks like Tarzan, skates like Jane.”

It’s hard to believe such a blatantly sexist image would be given the green light in today’s post-Title IX era, but as research has shown, such discourse is part of the accepted culture in sports newsrooms, where sexist and mysoginist jokes are often considered “normal” and “routine.”

The poster itself uses ideology about the inferiority of women’s sports to suggest that Pronger and the Flyers are also inferior. The trivialization of women’s athletics in mainstream sports media is a common trope in research, but studies have shown that increased gender diversity in sports staffs may affect content. As one recent study found, when sports staffs include more women in gatekeeping positions, coverage of women’s sports tends to more often reject stereotypical frames of female athletes. Although that study focused on the representation of women’s sports, the bigger idea is that more diverse staffs may lead to more thoughtful coverage.

Considering women still are vastly underrepresented in sports newsrooms, and that clearly sexist imagery and discourse continues to advance past myriad gatekeepers, this latest mistake by the Trib offers another compelling reason for the increased gender diversification of sports media staffs.

--Erin Whiteside

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Why the apathy about women's sports coverage?

In a column published this morning, longtime journalist Eric Deggens addresses the lack of attention paid to a new study that empirically verifies what women's sports fans have suspected: Despite Title IX and the soaring numbers of girls and women participating in sports, mainstream coverage of women's sports continues to diminish.
Deggens rightly points out that the study has generally been greeted with apathy. He also rightly points out that media organizations have an obligation, based on their responsibility to address what he calls "an essential journalism failure," to provide fair, plentiful coverage of women's sports.
Of course, he's right.
I suggest, however, that blame the lack of women's sports coverage cannot be placed solely on journalistic organizations. Deggens seems to dismiss what he called "insulting rationalizations" for the lack of coverage, including "this is what the sports audience wants."
Unfortunately, because of the role (entertainment) and the values (masculinity) that we've placed on spectator sports as a culture, sports coverage -- even though considered "news" in many respects(on newscasts, in newspapers)-- tends to be much more audience driven. The powerful, unquestioned association of sports with masculine values has a negative impact on the potential of women's sports fandom to flourish on a mass scale.
In other words, lack of women's sports coverage a cultural problem -- not one that can be blamed solely on media organizations.
The solution is not as easy as "build it, and they will come." Fans won't come in the numbers media organizations see as sustainable until we, as a culture, move away from adhering to gender norms that make the sidelining of women in sports seem "common-sense" -- drawing nothing more than a yawn when it is pointed out to us.
-- M. Hardin

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Preps sports reporters beat differ in values

A recently published survey by the Curley Center has found that sports reporters differ on the way they see the role of sports coverage and on their views of ethical norms on the job -- based on beat. Although reporters who cover high school sports are more likely to report friendships with sources and a preference for "homerism" on the sports pages, they are also more likely than their counterparts on the pro beat to say they believe coverage should be in the public interest and involve an investigative element.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Kagan once played softball, which means she's gay?

Ever since President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, questions about her sexuality have figured into the overall news narrative. Recently, news sources have begun showing a picture of Kagan playing softball, and suggesting that her affiliation with the sport shows that she is indeed lesbian. (Pat Buchanan, the MSNBC pundit, provided particularly insightful commentary, stating that playing softball is a lesbian “signal,” just like “two guys sunbathing together” brings the “immediate implication that they’re gay.”) Aside from the problematic ideology that an out lesbian is somehow a mark in the negative column in evaluating this potential justice, the implication draws from an age-old stereotype about female athletes. News media own the responsibility of ethically informing the public so that we may become better citizens equipped to make educated decisions. What Kagan’s short-lived amateur softball career has to do with her potential as a Supreme Court justice is unclear. What is clear, however, is the persistent stigmatization of women who do not conform to traditional notions of femininity, including those who have the gall to use their muscles and swing for the fences on a softball field.

--Erin Whiteside

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reporter honored for youth sports coverage

Bob Holher, former Red Sox beat reporter at The Boston Globe who now works as an investigative reporter in the paper's sports department, tonight will receive the Curley Center's inaugural award for outstanding coverage of youth sports. Holher's series, which focused on the abysmal conditions for student athletes in Boston city schools, has made a difference -- sparking intervention from the public and private sectors to improve sports programs and academic success rates for athletes.
The Curley Center has launched the award in recognition of the growing spotlight on prep sports -- and in recognition of the important journalistic work on a beat that is often overlooked (although highly visible in every sports section in the country).
We hope youth sports coverage doesn't fall into the trap of putting a glaring spotlight on young phenoms (the Lebron effect) while failing to examine the serious issues involved in the use of public funds and resources and the health issues involved in high-level competition by young athletes. Hohler's series is an example of reporting on prep sports at its finest.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Television: Medium of choice for sports fans

Glenn Enoch, vice president of integrated marketing research at ESPN, presented interesting data from ESPN’s research operation during a special sports symposium Thursday at the Broadcast Education Association’s annual meeting. The research confirms that the rise of new media platforms haven’t dethroned television. Among the most interesting ideas he presented:

  • Sports fans are heavier users of all media than are non-sports fans.
  • TV is still king for sports fans.
  • The higher the household income, the more time spent with sports television. For instance, in households with more than $125K in annual income, about 15% of time with television is with sports programming.
  • The older the sports fan, the more time spent with sports television.
  • Men are far more likely to watch sports programming alone than are women.

The last point on this list was one of the few comments Enoch made during the presentation about gender differences related to sports consumption. Gender and race are two identity factors that influence consumption patterns. – M. Hardin

Ethical issues in sports reporting: A primer

Penn State honors student Ryan Wood has launched a blog about ethical issues in sports journalism. Available at the Web site is a radio documentary he produced that includes interviews with sports journalists and academics. It's a great overview of the topic.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Another national basketball championship

Although it would be impossible to tell based on media coverage, competitive college basketball didn't finish with the highly publicized games last week for Duke and Butler (men's), and UConn and Stanford (women's).
The National Wheelchair Basketball Association national championships -- including women's college championship games -- wrapped up yesterday in Colorado. The Alabama Crimson Tide handily beat the University of Illinois, coached by former Tide player (and Paralympian) Stephanie Wheeler.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Search begins for the newest Nike Field Reporter

Nike launched the 2010 Nike Field Reporter contest this week and is seeking 18-24 year olds with "crazy charisma and sports savvy." Contestants are asked to write an essay explaining what makes them perfect for the job. The winner and next NFR will travel the world interviewing top athletes, artists, musicians, and designers, documenting all of her experiences through videos, photos, and blog postings. Her 8-month Nike contract will provide her with opportunities that will bolster her resume and give her a head start in a competitive job market. Entry rules and information about the contest can be found on the Nike Women Web site. The deadline for entry is April 30, 2010.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

UConn women vs. a top high school boys team: Who would win?

My former colleagues in Pittsburgh are at it again. The “question of the week” on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Varsity Blog is this: If the top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut women’s basketball team played the Mt. Lebanon High School boys’ team, which has been ranked in the top 10 nationally this season, who would win?

They had a similar debate in the mid-1990s. When the Penn State women’s team was ranked No. 1, the sports staffers debated whether the Lady Lions could beat the boys’ team at Shaler High School. Among the Shaler players was eventual NBA first-round draft pick Danny Fortson.

I always made the case for the women—superior teamwork, pinpoint passing, less ego involved, etc. Did I think they would win? Honestly, I didn’t know and I didn’t care.

But the question bothers me; it always has. I know such debates are part of sports, and it’s fun to compare teams from different eras, argue over which players are best. This debate, however, seems silly at best, sexist at worst. Check out the poster who noted that "men have no time of the month" and added, "that can lead to a real 'off' day."

Does anyone expect that a top-ranked welterweight boxer could beat a top-ranked heavyweight boxer? Even if that welterweight is Oscar de la Hoya? No. But fight fans don’t think that way. They rank the all-time greats “pound for pound,” virtually leveling the playing field.

Perhaps that explains the poll results as of Wednesday evening. Sports writer Mike White writes, “There are over 500 people who already have voted on this subject. It's shocking to me that 75 percent say the Connecticut women would win. Wow. Hard to believe. Maybe it's just me but when the other team is a lot bigger, stronger, quicker, faster and shoots just as well as the other team, who do you think will win?”

On the court? If the Mt. Lebanon boys are bigger, faster and well-coached, they'll probably win. But does that matter? Is that the way to determine who’s best? “Pound for pound,” I’ll take the UConn women any day.

-- Lori Shontz

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sports Information Divided Along Gender Lines

As the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments start this week, CBS and ESPN, respectively, will air a steady stream of segments on various coaches and teams. A sports information director (SID) for each team will help the media coordinate interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and those ubiquitous promo segments we will come to know through the course of these tournaments. On the men’s side, few of these SIDs will be women, part of a bigger trend in the sports information industry, according to a recent study by researchers at the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism appearing in the current issue of the Journal of Sports Media.

Sports information directors handle media relations for college athletic departments and are often assigned to work with specific teams. Using a survey of 775 sports information directors across the nation, the study showed that work assignments were sharply divided along gender lines. In particular, men composed 86 percent of all the SIDs in charge of working with football and 79 percent of all those assigned to men’s basketball. Conversely, the top seven sports most often assigned to women are women’s sports: women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, softball, women’s soccer, women’s tennis, women’s cross country and women’s outdoor track.

We applied Joan Acker’s theory of gendered organizations to sports information as an industry to suggest that the practices and norms of the organization reproduce socially constructed gender differences as a natural component of sports. Biologically, women are just as capable of working with football or men’s basketball, but the implicit idea that men are better able to handle these “tough” and high-profile sports, regulates the division of labor in this industry.

Furthermore, in the current sports media climate, sports like softball, women’s soccer and the like simply do not receive the exposure and visibility of a men’s basketball or football. If women are relegated to spaces where they work with “lower profile” sports, we naturalize the idea that women belong on the fringe of sports.

The survey showed that women are generally leaving the profession between six and 10 years of service, preserving sports information as a male-dominated industry. Those in hiring and decision-making capacities (mostly white men, according to the study) should interrogate sport assignments. A more equitable distribution of responsibility may foster a more optimistic career outlook for women, leading to longer job tenures and a more diverse profession in general.
--Erin Whiteside

Friday, March 12, 2010

Loved the action in Vancouver? Tune in again

This time, though, you'll have to do it completely online because it's likely that the 2010 Paralympics -- which will run for the next two weeks using Olympic venues -- will receive little-to-no coverage in the U.S.
I've posted before about the reasons we turn away, as a culture, from adapted sport.
That's too bad, because the stories are incredible and the competition is outstanding and entertaining. (If you've seen Murderball, you've gotten an idea of the intensity with which these athletes train and compete.)
To catch the action: See ParalympicSportTV. Another site for updated coverage is the BBC.
--Marie Hardin

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

UConn's record: Reason to worry about women's sports?

As any women's sports fan knows, the past 24 hours have been unusual for the amount of attention that has been paid to a group of female athletes outside the Olympics. The big news: UConn's 71st consecutive victory -- an NCAA record.
The news, unlike most events in women's sports, made at least a mention on many sports pages, Web sites and blogs.
It's also spurred a lot of hand-wringing about: a.) the state of women's basketball; and b.) the state of coverage of women's basketball.
The first concern -- that somehow, UConn's dominance is a sign that women's basketball is plagued by untalented, inferior players -- isn't surprising. But the fact that this storyline was prominent on a site (Deadspin) with little regard (putting it mildly) for women's sports ought to tell us that it should be scrutinized. As a women's sports advocate, I grimace when I see mainstream journalists contextualize the story in the same way.
I saw Christine Brennan raise the concern on News Hour (and follow up with a column). "I'm a little worried about women's basketball, when you have got this kind of dominance," she said.
Brennan, who's covered women's sports for decades, did add important context to her concern: This is a “time of the most balance in women's sports…. to think that you have got this kind of dominating team at this time in women's sports history, it's extraordinary,” she said.
Others in the mainstream press in well-read blogs, though, were less nuanced in their assessment -- and I had to wonder whether their concern was really with the welfare of women's sports. For instance, one wrote, “Auriemma's top-ranked juggernaut is making a mockery of the alleged depth of women's hoops.”
UConn isn't the first team (or the last) to experience a period of tremendous dominance in its sport. These periods are finite. There are great players sprinkled among many D1 teams in the field.
And: Sometimes this kind of record-making draws attention from people who otherwise might not have paid attention. In other words, it can attract fans.
The hand-wringing about coverage of women's sports is justified by the fact that paltry and demeaning coverage has always been the norm. UConn's short burst of fame -- although not accompanied by much "buzz" in coverage, as one writer pointed out -- has been unusual. But even this phenomenal accomplishment has been buried underneath stories dissecting every move by men's "bubble teams."
Judy Woodruff asked Brennan about the "ongoing struggle" of female athletes to gain media attention.
Brennan responded: "It just hasn't equated to great television ratings day in and day out for women's sports. Maybe it never will."
Brennan, Bob Costas and others have suggested that perhaps participation – not spectatorship -- will have to be the gauge by which the success of women’s sports is measured. I understand their assessment -- every step has been a struggle.
I’d like to think, though, we’ve cleared that bar -- or that we're very close. I would also argue that spectatorship drives participation – thus, we’ve got to keep advocating for better coverage of women’s sports, even when records aren’t being broken.
-- Marie Hardin
(Note: I edited this blog post after it was (rightly) pointed out to me that I had failed to contextualize Brennan’s comments on NewsHour. The focus of this post was on storylines around UConn that trouble me, not about Brennan's comments in particular. I've edited this post in an attempt to better reflect that intent.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

NBC: World's best girls give it their all in the women's downhill

As Julia Mancuso whipped around the gates during the women’s downhill at the Vancouver Olympics, the NBC announcers noted the icy and difficult conditions. “She likes a course that is rough and bumpy,” said analyst Christin Cooper. “She says that it eliminates some of the advantage of the larger girls that have more mass that can kind of go like freight trains down a smooth course.”
Later, Cooper said during Elisabeth Goergl’s bronze-medal run, “These girls have got to really nail it aggressively all the way down the course.”
In fact, Cooper repeatedly referred to the women’s skiers as girls, something that also appeared on NBC’s liveblog of the event, which noted that “it's scary to see these girls go down at such speeds.”
Calling the women’s skiers girls trivializes and delegitimizes women’s sports participation in two ways.
First, each instance in which the skiers were labeled as “girls” came at a time when the related description violated gender norms in some way. For example, femininity is at odds with the notion of a “big” female moving like a “freight train.” In the same way, aggression is culturally marked as masculine, and attacking a mountain at break-neck speed is hardly a traditional feminine quality. Calling the skiers girls in a context where they are being described in terms that often reference masculinity neutralizes that apparent oxymoron – and ultimately preserves a more traditional representation of gender.
Second, “girls” playing sports don’t violate gender norms in the way that “women” playing sports do. When you are a “girl,” it’s okay to engage in trivial and fun pursuits like sports; women, on the other hand, are expected to perform traditional forms of femininity, which is at odds with the masculine notions of competition and sports.
This logic also adds another level of explanation to Deford's question about the lack of attention given to the UConn women's basketball team. The undefeated Huskies do not enjoy the fan adoration Lindsay Vonn receives, which Marie Hardin notes is largely because Vonn participates in a sport that doesn't challenge gender norms in the way that contact sports like basketball do (see below).
Still, the Huskies have a much stronger following than any WNBA team -- after all, they're still college "girls," which makes their violation of gender norms in a contact sport less egregious than the professional women.
--Erin Whiteside

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Answer to DeFord: Why we're likely not to notice a women's basketball team excel

NPR commentator Frank DeFord today asked why women in individual sports more often get widespread public attention (and favorable media coverage) than do women in team sports.
Deford contrasted the recent hype around Olympian Lindsay Vonn, tennis star Serena Williams, and racing driver Danica Patrick against that surrounding the UConn women's basketball team to support his thesis that we're generally not willing to support women in team sports.
Deford is right -- women who play in team sports in the U.S. generally don't reach the same kind of "star" status as those who play in individual sports such as tennis. But the issue is more than whether women compete as a team or as individuals.
Team sports are usually contact sports, and that's the bigger issue, I think. Women in sports that involve varying degrees of contact -- from the individual sports of boxing and wrestling, to team sports such as basketball -- challenge traditional ideas about femininity. And that's why they don't get the media attention or public attention they might otherwise deserve. (Danica Patrick, who participates in a highly masculine, contact (car-to-car) sport, gets attention primarily because of her foray into a men's arena. Would we expect that an all-female auto racing circuit would get much media coverage?)
Sports like figure skating, gymnastics, tennis, skiing and snowboarding don't challenge gender norms for women nearly as much. To varying degrees they support them, from an emphasis on aesthetics in performance to the allowance for athletes to dress in feminine attire when they participate in these sports.
And that makes many people far more comfortable watching -- and cheering for -- these athletes.
-- mh

Friday, February 05, 2010

Commentary on SI's Vonn cover: Why the outrage?

A blog post earlier today by Nicole LaVoi, a researcher at the Tucker Center for Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, has drawn a great deal of attention from national and international media.
It has also drawn a great deal of rage aimed directly at LaVoi. To summarize the LaVoi's post: She suggests -- based on research and a well-documented pattern by SI -- that the magazine's cover photo of skier Lindsay Vonn continues a pattern of general objectification and sexualization of female athletes.
LaVoi's observation isn't a stretch at all for women's sports advocates well versed in the ways female athletes have been depicted for decades.
The vitriol aimed at her in response to the post has been swift and ugly, however. I won't belabor it here (You can read it yourself.)
Although some of the comments clearly reflect -- in a civil tone -- disagreement with LaVoi about whether this particular shot of Vonn is meant to objectify or sexualize her, many comments aim to completely discredit LaVoi with a range of ridiculous accusations.
The fact is that women who attempt to speak with authority about sports have often been the target of sexist attacks. That's because sports have been primarily defined as a male domain -- a place where traditional "tough guy" masculinity is reinforced. The rights provided to girls and women via Title IX have certainly started to challenge that assumption, but scores of studies show that we're far from equitable on many fronts.
Women's sports advocates who speak out, then, run the risk of drawing a great deal of criticism because they are asserting their voices -- against the grain -- in an environment where women generally sidelined from having any real power.
But it is the voices of LaVoi and many others -- including those on the Women Talk Sports network -- that continue to challenge the norms and chip away at constricting gender roles for men and women in sports and the larger culture.
They may make many people uncomfortable -- even outraged. But they are essential.
--Marie Hardin

When Sports Stars Become Authority Figures, Women Lose

By now anyone interested in sports knows about the upcoming Tim Tebow ad set to appear during the Superbowl. Feminists and other activist groups have critiqued the ad for providing unsafe and misleading information to women about their reproductive health (see here, here and here for more on that). But this is more than just an anti-choice ad: it’s the manifestation of a hegemonic system that creates male sports stars who in turn seem perfectly natural choices to sell any product or in this case, speak on any issue from the biggest mediated platform in American sports.

Tebow is a known social conservative, but just as importantly for this message, a star football player. There’s a reason Focus on the Family isn’t simply airing an ad with James Dobson discussing abortion. Rather, it’s because he is a football star that Tebow is the star of the ad. And it is because of his exploits on the football field, combined with a media system that privileges “power” men’s sports, that Tebow is a recognizable star in the first place.

And herein lies the problem for women: As long as sports – and especially football – are culturally understood as a space only appropriate for men, female athletes will simply never earn a comparable type of hero status, and therefore cannot enter the discourse to speak on political issues with the same kind of impact– even those central to women’s lives.
--Erin Whiteside

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Women breaking barriers: A milestone

From the Association for Women in Sports Media: Today marks the 35th anniversary of Robin Herman and Marcel St. Cyr becoming the first female sports reporters to enter a locker room for post-game interviews.

Herman was a reporter at The New York Times and St. Cyr was working for CKLM Radio in Montreal when the two women broke the locker room barrier after the National Hockey League's All-Star game.

"This is a significant day in the history of women in sports media," AWSM president Jenni Carlson said. "All of us celebrate the courage that Robin and Marcel showed 35 years ago. Without them and other pioneers like them, we would not be where we are today."

Los Angeles Times columnist Jerome Crowe mentioned the anniversary in today's paper.

Herman also shared her memories in her blog.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A new low in coverage of Tiger Woods...in Vanity Fair?

The cover on the latest Vanity Fair, which includes a story by Buzz Bissinger with sordid details about Tiger Woods' extramarital affairs, plays so baldly to racist stereotypes about black, male athletes that the infamous 2008 Vogue cover pales in comparison. A shirtless, sweaty Woods (in skull cap, staring blankly at the camera) is typical of images of African-American athletes, playing to the stereotype of dark-skinned men as hypersexual, deviant and -- to use the magazine's coverline about Woods -- "raw."
Woods -- for all his flaws -- seemed to understand the (negative) power of these kinds of images, as evidenced in his advice to Charles Barkley years ago to avoid a controversial shirtless cover in Sports Illustrated.
It's surprising, then, that Woods posed for these pictures -- but the fact that they were for famous photographer-of-the-stars Annie Leibovitz a number of years ago likely had something to do with the decision. It's regrettable that VF decided to strategically dredge up these photos now, in a context that makes them even more stereotypically potent.
-- Marie Hardin

Friday, January 08, 2010

Sports Journalism, Athletes in for a Big Challenge

TMZ.com, a leading gossip and celebrity news web site, has entered the sports media market, launching TMZ Sports at the start of the year. And if its recent coverage of the Gilbert Arenas story is any indication, established sports media outlets are facing a legitimate contender in this saturated industry. Already the web site scooped everyone from ESPN to the Washington Post by first reporting that Arenas does not have a license to carry the firearm he is accused of brandishing in the Wizards’ locker room, and that according to “law enforcement sources,” the locker room is monitored by surveillance video, making it a real possibility that footage of the incident exists.

As a gossip web site, TMZ Sports will have to prove its reporting accuracy in order to solidify a reputation as a reputable source for sports media news. But TMZ Sports isn’t just covering sports in the traditional sense; rather, it is building off what TMZ.com does well: gossip. In doing so, the web site is challenging unspoken agreements between athletes and media that private lives generally stay private. The site has held no punches in its Tiger Woods coverage, even posting grainy cell phone photos of Woods in various nightclubs, which directly contradict the pristine image Woods has worked so hard to create. In just a few short weeks, the site has posted everything from documents in Shaquille O’Neal’s divorce proceedings to pictures of baseball player Matt Kemp grabbing the backside of his girlfriend, Rihanna.

If TMZ Sports stays on this course, major athletes will have a major problem. Without a free pass from the media, the private, sometimes unsavory and always un-manufactured side of our “All-American” athletes will be on full display for the world to see. Considering that a carefully guarded image is critical for marketing (and financial) success, athletes have a real reason to be nervous: After all, if TMZ Sports been around 20 years ago, everyone’s favorite Nike pitchman might not have enjoyed such public admiration had stories and pictures of his now-infamous gambling habit been so readily available.

--Erin Whiteside