Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wimbledon coverage perpetuates sexism

This year's Wimbledon brought much excitement. Additionally to the close, grueling matches, the first few days built up surprises one after the other as the superstars such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams unexpectedly followed each other out of the tournament.

Wimbledon will most likely be remembered, once again, for these thrilling moments, and not the blatant sexism that appeared in media coverage upon the closure of the tournament.

The coverage of the men's and women's singles finals tells us two things about women: 1) they don't count, and 2) they are only allowed to succeed if they are attractive.

To Andy Murray's win in the men's singles finals over Novak Djokovic, the media in a number of countries, and multiple languages suggested that Murray ended Britain's 77 years of pain without a Wimbledon winner. Some of these headlines proclaimed "British champion ends 77 years of tennis hurt" (The Mirror), "Andy Murray credits home crowd after ending 77-year wait" (The Telegraph), and "Andy Murray wins Wimbledon, ends 77-year British drought" (USA Today).

These headlines make me wonder: What exactly are British women? Next door neighbors?

The articles fail to account for four British women who won singles titles in that 77-year period. An article on Buzzfeed credits Dorothy Round Little (1937), Angela Mortimer Barrett (1961), Ann Haydon-Jones (1969), and Virginia Wade (1977) for the wins. Thus, The Atlantic points out "Britain's last Wimbledon champ won 36 years ago, not 77."

One must give credit to outlets that at least specified in the article that Murray was the first "men's" champion after 77 years, but even in that case information about female players is missing.

Once again, we see a normalized pattern in sports media coverage that positions male athletes and men's sports as the only ones that really matter while failing to account for women's accomplishments. The women are, thus, rendered invisible.

But, considering the somewhat exceptional level of equality in men's and women's tennis, the women's Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli, also received some coverage. Except, according to some fans and even one media outlet, she was too ugly to win.

The Daily Mail reported that Bartoli received extensive criticism over her looks on Twitter.

Perhaps the most disturbing comment came from BBC radio commentator John Inverdale, who said:

"I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life...did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe 'listen you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you're never going to be 5-foot-11, you're never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that."

BBC apologized after hundreds of complaints. Of course, they should.

Still, we are left with blatant sexism perpetuated by some of the most respectable media outlets.

But beyond sexism, the above give examples also contain misleading and even inaccurate information. And that is simply poor journalism.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

New documentary looks at locker-room access for women covering sports

Although ESPN has made dozens of documentaries for its acclaimed "30 for 30" film series, the number of those films that focused on women could be counted on one hand.
But a new film series, "Nine for IX," will turn the network's lens to women over the next two months. The documentaries, all produced by women, will start tonight with "Venus VS," the story of Venus Williams' successful campaign for gender equity at Wimbledon.
All of the documentaries promise to be "must-see TV" for any sports fan. Last night, the Center for American Progress in Washington was host to a premiere screening of two of the films, "VenusVS" and "Let Them Wear Towels," which takes a look at the struggles of female journalists for locker-room access during the first few decades after Title IX became law in 1972.
The documentary features pioneers such as Melissa Ludtke, Claire Smith, Lesley Visser and Christine Brennan, telling the compelling story of the struggle by these women to break through the legal and then social barriers to cover sports.
After the screening, Brennan and Ludtke, part of a post-screening panel, talked about trying to get equal access to athletes at a time when women were sometimes shoved or carried (literally) out of locker rooms. Ludtke described herself as a "quiet negotiator" who wouldn't call her editor after getting kicked out of a locker room but would instead steel herself to get the story. "We were just determined that no one was going to stop us," she said, adding, "Each of us was working out there on our own."
Brennan said that as an undergraduate at Northwestern, she had been inspired by Ludtke's story. The famous Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973 also influenced her to see sports as place where women belonged.
Brennan added that although problems still arise with access, "this is resolved....There are tens of thousands of locker-room entries by women."
"We're there. It's done," she added.
Ludtke said there is still a "cultural lag" around television, where relatively few women have made it into to booth for play-by-play and commentating for men's marquee sports. "We're in a position today that we were in the 1970s," she observed.
Almost as if on cue -- to underscore her point -- a 9-year-old girl in the audience raised her hand and told the panelists about the "wide gender gap" in her elementary school.
"I'm the only girl playing with the boys at recess," she said.
Laura Gentile, espnW vice president, asked whether the girl felt she was "accepted" by the boys.
"Not really," the girl replied.
"I get upset at times at how much hasn't changed," Ludtke said. "Let's keep telling the stories."
Brennan agreed that women have barriers to address. But she said the progress already has been notable. "We're just at the beginning," she said. She added, "Where will we be in 40 years? That's a fun thought."
 --Marie Hardin

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Highest paid female athletes play individual sports

ESPNW reported that the highest paid female athletes out of 57 countries are predominantly tennis players, followed by golfers,  a few long-distance runners, two skiers and a squash athlete. The article focused on the WTA's business model and illustrated how the LPGA tries to promote women's sports.

Quoting Carol Oglesby, the vice president of WomenSport International and a past principal contributor with the United Nations Division of Advancement for Women, the article also points out that tennis and golf are two sports that demand serious financial investment in terms of coaching and equipment. Thus, these two sports may not be universally accessible for girls and women.

I was glad to see that the article highlighted the issue of access, as particularly in tennis, because participating in tournaments with lower prize money amount, such as $10,000, $25,000 or even some categories above that, do not even come close to covering the expenses a professional tennis player encounters. It may take years on the tour until a female athlete (and male athlete) turns a career into a profitable job.

However, a really important element of analysis is missing from the article. All these sports--tennis, golf, skiing, long-distance running, squash--are individual sports. Whatever happened to female athletes who play team sports? Why aren't any on this list? Of course, it is possible that the revenue is distributed more evenly among female team sport athletes: that rather than one female athlete, such as Victoria Azarenka, standing out with millions, a number of female athletes who play team sports "share" an amount of a similar total value.

But I doubt that's the case. In the U.S., it is common knowledge that women's professional leagues struggle. The women's professional soccer league is taking its fifth (?) attempt at surviving financially, women's basketball players often travel oversees to Europe or China for better opportunities rather than staying in the WNBA, and the league continues to try to find away to attract audiences (recently the Phoenix Mercury gave out free tickets to men to their games to increase attendance).

Perhaps these individual sports on the list generate revenue because of the deeply engrained ideas we hold about gender norms.

After all, there is no contact in tennis or golf or squash or skiing, let alone distance running. There is no over-powering the other, which would certainly trigger some resemblance of masculine values our society associates with men's team sports. Women in tennis and golf also tend to be able to conform to ideals of elite, white femininity--and if they don't, they receive criticism (see coverage of Serena Williams or Amelie Mauresmo for examples).

So perhaps what generates revenue for women's sports is when the sport is able to "absorb gender performance," as Marie Hardin, associate director of the Curley Center for Sports Journalism said. Women who play team sports, thus, continue to have low marketing potential.

For this to change, certain cultural norms we hold about gendered bodies and sport also need to change. And that has to be addressed before we celebrate that women are, at least, making money in tennis and golf.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Women fans not solely responsible for success/failure of women's sports leagues

The failure or success of female sports leagues in the United States rests primarily with female sports fans, Frank Deford said in a piece for National Public Radio titled “Ladies, Want Women's Sports To Get More Attention? Pony Up.”

Unfortunately, Deford missed the point entirely. Women’s sports should not appeal to uniquely to females because women are playing. Women’s sports should appeal to all sports fans because elite athletes are competing. Men do not feel mandated to watch LeBron James because he is a man. Men and women watch LeBron James because he is the best men’s basketball player in the world.

Note that I said James is the best men’s basketball player. This distinction is critical to understanding the problems facing women’s sports leagues. There is a tendency in mainstream media to deem male athletes or male sports as the unquestioned best or standard. For example, Deford mentions a new women’s soccer league is forming. Just saying women’s soccer league delegitimizes the athletes in that league because there is a qualifier to their prowess—their gender. Why can’t Major League Soccer be called Men’s Major League Soccer? By having their sports leagues gender marked, women athletes are already placed at a disadvantage because there is a latent implication that their leagues are inferior to men.

The second issue I have with Deford comes from the written summary of his piece. An excerpt states: “Still, I think the sisterhood has to look more into the mirror. In the post-Title IX era, as girls have flooded into athletics, there has been no comparable explosion by female spectators. It's all very comforting to blame media men for a lack of coverage, but if more women buy tickets to watch female athletes play, then more coverage will follow.

“This may be only anecdotal, but I have noticed that in small-town newspapers and on community websites, female high school and college sports seem to get a commensurate amount of attention with their male jocks. The imbalance of coverage is so much more at the top, where commerce matters.”

This argument is misguided. Women make up about 40 percent of fans in major North American sports leagues, according to 2009 research by Scarborough Sports Marketing published in Sports Business Daily. Male sports leagues need female fans to help fuel their billion-dollar industries. By extension, female sports leagues need male fans for their leagues to thrive.

And since the “sisterhood” of sports fans is markedly smaller than the “brotherhood”, it would be most appropriate to question why male fans are exempt from Deford’s critique of the struggles of women’s sports leagues.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Coverage of rape needs context

In light of the the cases that connect sports to rape culture, progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin proposed in his recent article that professional leagues such as the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA  should address the prevailing violence against women. Zirin proposed that the leagues should educate athletes in order to "reshape a jock culture that treats women like they are the spoils of athletic supremacy."

Considering the recent media coverage around the Steubenville case that focused on how the young men's careers would be ruined as a result of the ruling rather than pointing to the issue of how violence against women is normalized in our culture, Zirin is right to call for education.

Education, indeed, needs to happen in multiple spheres. Professional male sports is certainly one, an important one as Zirin contends, because "no other institution reaches more men and no other institution plays a greater role in teaching boys how to define their own manhood and masculinity."

In a culture that teaches women how not to be raped rather than teaching men not to rape, it is essential to turn the conversation around.

But cultural ideologies around rape need some context to be effectively disputed. 

A chart provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) indicates that less than 10% of rapes get prosecuted. RAINN also reported that on college campuses less then 5% of rapes or attempted rapes get reported.

Universities, especially larger universities, tend to have resource centers students can turn to for support. Institutions also implement policies and regulations that enable students to report crimes while remaining confidential. But the policies and resource centers can only do so much when women continue to be blamed for a) being sexually assaulted, b) reporting the crime, c) the implications on the rapists' lives. We have seen that from the media coverage of Steubenville and we have seen that from the media coverage of the UNC student who stated that her reporting of an alleged sexual assault was mishandled by the university.

I agree with Zirin that we need to be attentive to how sports and rape culture intersect. And I agree with Zirin when he writes that "it's time for sports to pick a side and take their share of accountability for the toxicity in our culture that normalizes rape." But, normalization of rape occurs outside of the athletic context as well and, thus, it should be addressed as a larger social issue.

So while Zirin's idea to educate professional athletes, and thereby also raise awareness about rape culture, would be beneficial, it cannot occur in isolation from other layers of society. Reversing the discourse through the education of boys is essential, but it takes time.

There are things that can be done now. And I believe the media can play an important role in making things better now by providing the "big picture" statistics, by recognizing the patterns we see over and over again when it comes to coverage of rape cases.

What the media can do is to situate these incidents within a larger context to explain that these cases are not about one boy's or two boys' lives--and their "promising careers" as CNN put it. These incidents are about a huge problem that affects thousands of people who become victims of sexual assault.

Sexual assault receives coverage when it becomes an issue tied to athletes, but sexual assault is not a sports issue. We need to work on reversing the blaming the victim rhetoric and on demystifying the male athlete, but we also need to recognize that the stories we hear about in the media are only a small small percentage of the sexual assaults that actually occur.

The media can help here: To report what continues to be unreported.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Criticism of Silberman's NFL combine efforts misplaced

Lauren Silberman’s pitiful effort during a recent NFL regional scouting combine tryout sparked strong criticism about how Silberman hurt women’s attempts to be taken seriously in football and reignited conversations about how women cannot compete with men in athletics. 

I will tackle each point separately.

Katie Hnida, the first woman to score a point in a Division I football game, told USA Today: “Her performance does not have to do with her gender, it has to do with her experience and her preparation. Unfortunately, what's going to happen now is she's going to be looked at (as inferior) because she was female.” 

Silberman did not know how to properly set a football on a kicking tee or how to approach an NFL-style kickoff. 

Why would Silberman be allowed to participate in such an event?

When she did kick, her two attempts traveled a combined 30 yards. Silberman did later withdraw from the combine citing injury. 

Kinkhabwala wrote Silberman “disrespected the 37 other kickers in New Jersey on Sunday who've spent lifetimes honing their craft.”

This is a strong criticism, but the fault does not lie with Silberman, but with the NFL. 

Mike Garafolo’s article in USA Today said, “Though the league reserves the right to deny a registration, it apparently made no attempt to determine whether Silberman had a chance to put forth a good effort. Now, other young women likely will have an even tougher path to gender equality on the football field.”

These sentences appeared about 14 paragraphs in to his article. This should have been placed much higher. The fault lies totally with the NFL, not Silberman.

From all accounts, Silberman showed no skills that would have justified her inclusion into the combine; therefore there is no mystery as to why her tryout was a debacle.

The league allowed an unqualified individual attempt a difficult task, and lo and behold, the unqualified person failed miserably. The only reason Silberman’s terrible showing made national news is because of her gender. Kinkhabwala wrote, “… to be wholly fair, Silberman isn't the only applicant to be outclassed at one of these combines.”

Why have we not heard about the other failures?

Moving to the second part of this post, recall the claim that women cannot compete with men athletically.

This is claim is almost always true if we look at the sports that are touted in the United States – basketball, baseball, hockey and football. Yes, we can extend this to myriad other sports. However, this critique is incomplete.

We have to examine the political factors surrounding sports in general. For brevity’s sake, I will examine the pathway of control.

First, some simple questions: Who created many of today’s visible sports? Men.

Second, if one group creates a system, is it logical to presume that this group would build a system that accentuates the things it does well? Yes.

Building on these premises, it is not fair to place women into men’s ideas of sports. How could they ever succeed when the games are essentially rigged against them?

Why doesn’t anybody ask could men outshine women in sports created by and designed for women? Perhaps this question needs to be asked the next time there are discussions about the athletic abilities of men and women.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Student-athletes and privacy laws

Most sports reporters likely will never be confused for seasoned lawyers, but a new research paper suggests journalists might have to become better acquainted with the law.

Sada Reed, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, examined legal cases and law review articles regarding the privacy of collegiate student-athletes. This past weekend Reed told a gathering of scholars at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Southeast Colloquium that a paucity of cases and articles exist on this issue.
Why is this a cause for concern? While state and federal governments are creating laws to protect the privacy of students, some schools might attempt to use the laws to deny information requests.

One of these tricky laws is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which restricts the information colleges can share about students. If a school is found to run afoul of the act, it can lose its federal funding.
Interpretations of the act have led to legal challenges. For example, a University of Maryland basketball player violated NCAA rules regarding the payment of parking tickets in the 1990s. The university’s student newspaper, The Diamondback, requested access to the parking tickets; the university denied the request citing FERPA. After a court battle, The Diamondback won the case because parking tickets were not considered part of students’ educational records.

Reed, who worked as a sports editor and reporter before beginning her doctoral studies, also discussed the rights of student-athletes, especially when it comes to surveillance of their activities. She told the audience that courts have ruled “student-athletes have a diminished expectation of privacy.” This is likely because of their quasi-celebrity nature of student-athletes.
The diminished expectation decision has big implications for things such as drug testing and potentially down the line allowing states to make compelling cases for “preventing specific online activities” for student-athletes.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Representation of women's sports in blogs needs improvement

Women's sports advocates might have hoped that the blogosphere would offer greater visibility and better coverage of women's sports than traditional media outlets do, but a recent study shatters this utopian ideal.

John Lisec, doctoral student at the University of Minnesota and Mary McDonald, professor of Sports Studies at Miami University (Ohio), published an article that compares the coverage of the WNBA in two blog networks: Deadspin and Women Talk Sports.

Considering the severe underrepresentation and sexualization of female athletes (see earlier posts on this topic), scholars have begun looking at the blogosphere to examine if content outside of the mainstream replicates ideas about gender and sports. Researchers from Penn State's Curley Center for Sports Journalism engaged in this scholarship as well. (See excerpts from a book chapter by Marie Hardin and Erin Whiteside, and excerpts from another chapter by Marie Hardin.)

Lisec and McDonald's article titled "Gender Inequality in the New Millenium: An Analysis of WNBA Representations in Sports Blogs," raises important issues about the ways in which women's sports are represented in the two blog networks. The authors found that Deadspin's coverage of the WNBA is limited and when existent, it disrespects female athletes' athletic abilities.

"Not only does the WNBA receive little coverage, but evidence of trivialization and mockery of the  blatantly suggests women athletes as inferior," the authors wrote (p. 161). Sexist comments and comments that reflect a fear of lesbian athletes were often unfiltered. As such, Deadspin's coverage is actually a backlash rather than progress.

Contributors from the other blog network, Women Talk Sports, were often much more critical both of the representation of female athletes and of the WNBA's marketing strategies that continue to position women in the context of their heterosexual relationships. Thus, these bloggers were found to challenge the ways in which female athletes appear in mainstream media, counter the idea that female athletes are inferior and contribute to the advocacy of women's sports.

Additionally to blog posts that further the women's sports agenda, Lisec and McDonald would like to see a closer interrogation on how issues of race and class intersect with gender and sexuality. The authors pointed out that athletes' race is often completely ignored. The authors are also worried that the proliferation of content results in an isolation of fans, who then go to the sites that they are familiar with rather than looking for alternative perspectives--such as Women Talk Sports--that disrupt gender norms.

It's not quite time yet to celebrate. Although critical views on power relations in sports are out there in the blogosphere, sexist and homophobic ideas that continue to undermine female athletes' accomplishments are also present.

Concerning also is the lack of analysis on racial relations, particularly when it comes to the coverage of the WNBA. As Lisec and McDonald write, "given that the WNBA’s playing force is primarily African American and silence about the articulation of racial, classed and gender politics within representations of the league serve to legitimate the power of whiteness" (p. 175).

Lisec and McDonald's insightful analysis reminds us that even though new media outlets offer opportunities to bring visibility to women's sports, that visibility might not manifest in ways that challenge dominant cultural ideas. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wake up, wake up: The reality of amateurism

The debate around amateurism in college athletics is not new, but a recently published article by Warren K. Zola, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at Boston College, offers some great insights that are worthy of attention.

Zola, just as others have done, points out the flaw in the NCAA's argument which maintains that college athletes are amateurs and should remain just that: unpaid.
"The argument is stale, the facts don't support reality, and the public is recognizing the absurdity of the NCAA's position," Zola asserted "They insatiably embrace commercialism in all facets of intercollegiate athletics except on a single issue -- athlete compensation."

The "NCAA empire," as Zola refers to the governing organization of intercollegiate athletics, has seen an "utter loss of perspective in implementing rules, policies and enforcement" in the last few decades.

The commercial endeavors deter institutions from focusing on the educational aspect and what should be the primary focus of student-athletes' experience: academic advancement.

Taylor Branch's article in the Atlantic, published in October of 2011, makes the case that college athletes, particularly football and basketball---and particularly minority---student-athletes, are exploited by the NCAA and their institutions. Branch called this a total moral and legal failure on the NCAA's part.

Zola takes upon Branch's critique and calls for a reform of intercollegiate athletics.

"The claim by the NCAA that they are protecting amateurism is but an illusion," Zola wrote. "It is time to wake up."

Perhaps the NCAA would set up a fund for student-athletes whose televised performances generate revenue for the schools or perhaps the NCAA could implement a compensation system. Or perhaps there is a different solution.

Either way, Zola's call for change should be noted. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Nine-year-old female football player becomes an inspiration

This year’s Super Bowl will probably not be remembered for the Sam Gordon’s appearance, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hopes that the 9-year-old girl will serve as an inspiration for many—including other young girls. 

Gordon became an internet sensation with a YouTube video her father posted that shows her outrunning the boys in a football game. Since November, when the video was posted, Gordon has been receiving a plethora of media attention, including a feature on Good Morning America’s “Play of the Day.” She also became the first female football player to appear Wheaties box.

Sam Gordon’s story is fascinating for a number of reasons.  For one, there is the Justin Bieber-ish resemblance: young talent, YouTube video leading to commercial success… Minus the perfume line, she’s got it all.

On a more serious note, the celebration of Sam Gordon is remarkable, but should be consumed with caution. Let’s go over the positives first. She is a girl playing in a sport that is notorious for excluding women. The coverage focuses on her athletic accomplishments. The media cite her stats (1,911 Rush yds, 35 TD, 65 tackles), highlight her pace and agility and even offer a commentary of her plays. In a perfect world, all female athletes would be covered the way Sam Gordon is. 

Her confidence also provides a positive example for young girls who strive to succeed on boys’ teams and/or in sports that do not provide equitable opportunities for girls. In fact, Abby Wambach from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, who invited Gordon to training and a game, considered meeting the young double-sport athlete an honor. 

Jane McManus, from espnW, quoted Wambach saying, "Sam is the bi-product of a powerful movement in women's sports. Her family provided her the opportunity to play whatever sport she loved and her story [is] one that I hope will influence many girls to follow their dreams in all sports. I was honored to treat her to a game as she inspires me to do more and be better. All I can say is, thank you Sam Gordon for your impact on all of us."

McManus also reported that Gordon preferred soccer over football and plans on playing football for only a couple more years. Her travels across the country will also presumably end with the Super Bowl attendance and, as McManus said, Gordon will return to her normal life.

Goodell invited Gordon to attend the Super Bowl as a spectator. Currently, that’s about the closest women can get to the field unless they are, of course, cheerleaders. Or unless the NFL has a referee lockout and a female ref just so happens to be available.  

Although Gordon receives kind questions about her future plans with football, I have yet to see an article that actually acknowledges the systemic exclusion of women from football by the leagues, schools and by courts. Title IX does not help much here either because of the contact sport provision—football does not “count.” Despite the occasional participation of girls and women on football teams on different levels, they remain in a token status.

Considering the alarming findings about injuries in football, particularly concussions—even in pee-wee—perhaps Gordon is also smart to plan on a soccer career. (On a concussion note, rising rates for girls in soccer has also received some attention.) But before we get carried away by Gordon’s potential to become a superstar athlete, let us remember that she is only 9 years old. 

Gordon's media exposure, however, is worthy of mention because provides an interesting glimpse into the U.S. sporting culture. On the one hand, the celebratory coverage communicates that girls and women in sport “can” do it. On the other hand, the she can do whatever she wants to rhetoric in a sport like football is close to an illusion. 

I am not sure if advocating for increased opportunities for women in football is be the best idea in light of the rising justified panic about head injuries. But when it comes to contact sports, girls and women are far from inclusion. So, if the strategy is to celebrate girls and women in football, the prevailing structural barriers need more attention. 

--- Dunja Antunovic