Does the Media Have It Out for Female Athletes?
October 24, 2016
On an overcast July 9th afternoon, Serena Williams purposefully plummeted to the ground, falling on her back, catapulting her legs straight up in the air. She lay sprawled on the tennis court for about five seconds, breathing hard, before getting up to deliver a long embrace to her fierce competitor, Angelique Kerber. It was a moment of pure relief following an exhausting match for the Wimbledon 2016 championship. Serena, subsequently, lifted her arms revealing two fingers up on each hand, not meant to denote the peace symbol, but rather to gesture the number twenty-two. A reference to the number of grand slam titles she’s accumulated over her 20-year professional tennis career. With this win, she’s officially tied Steffi Graf’s record for the most major titles in the open era. Williams is undeniably one of the best tennis players of all time, but by no means was defeating Kerber an easy feat. These ladies are both Goliaths of the tennis arena with record-breaking career accomplishments. After winning the 2016 U.S. Open, Kerber is ranked No.1 in the world for women’s singles tennis by the Women’s Tennis Association. A distinction Serena has held on six different occasions.
All in all, this momentous game should have garnered a citywide parade, a national holiday on their behalf or just honest press. Instead, they received astonishingly harsh media criticism about their physical appearance, an aspect completely unrelated to the game. There were, seemingly, just as many articles about Serena’s Nike halter dress as there were about the competition. Bloggers and journalist alike took to Twitter to pass judgment on her alleged exposed nipples. According to a WWD article, a commenter tweeted “Serena Williams nipples are literally in HD like can [you] put them away I’m trying to watch the match.” While reputable media outlets like The Mirror published pieces about her “revealing top” expressing that Serena “was leaving very little to the imagination in a tight white Nike top.”
Serena was not the only female athlete subject to unwarranted criticism at this particular grand slam; in fact, every single female player had articles written about their looks. The Dailymail was a prime culprit classifying Lucie Safarova’s outfit as a “‘nightie’ by which her “midriff was constantly on display.” Journalists used demeaning words like skimpy, flimsy, babydoll, and slutty to infantilize their athletic ensembles. With so many lewd articles circulating the Internet, it’s clear that when it comes to female athletes, the media focus is evidently not on their athleticism, but on their sex appeal. By contrast, there were virtually no stories on the male athlete’s game-day appearances, but rather many positive stories highlighting their after hour looks (usually their svelte suits), like the GQ story on the Most Stylish Men of Wimbledon 2016. “The media definitely focuses on women’s bodies and appearance way more than men’s instead of [focusing on] things like their skills or their medals or how good they are at their respective sport,” explained Kelly Cooke– Boston Pride professional female ice hockey player— to me about the representation of female athletes in the media.
When was the last time a male athlete was criticized for having too much or too little muscle definition or scrutinized for the limp appearance of his thighs or chest in tight spandex? The reality is, it just doesn’t happen. When it comes to their physical appearance, male athletes are virtually untouched, while women are constantly objectified. When the media sexualizes just the women, it divides genders creating an imbalance or inequality in their representation. It shifts the public’s focus away from women’s athletic successes and generates a barrier from seeing them as true athletes. Without an over-sexualized representation, the public can just focus on the male athlete’s athleticism.
The Bias: The Offensive Truth
It’s clear there’s a divisive bias in sports media impeding women from achieving the same level of national recognition as men. We’ve seen incredible female athletes like soccer player Mia Hamm lead her team to win the 1999 World Cup, we’ve seen race car driver – Danica Patrick- be the first woman to win the mixed gender Indy Japan 300 competition, and we’ve seen the American female athletes bring home far more gold titles than the men at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. With such impressive credentials, year after year, it’s reasonable to ask sports journalists – what’s with the double standard? Why are they associating women with gender stereotypes and representing men as the only legitimate athletes? “There are instances where people believe that women don’t deserve more, because they believe that women aren’t real athletes,” said legendary WNBA basketball player, Essence Carson, who now plays for New York Liberty to me. Carson speaks to a common media contrived and public consumed misconception that women are athletically impaired without any real consideration for their athletic accomplishments.
The media is doing more harm than good by not giving female athletes the credit they deserve. In fact, the effects of publicized female sexualization have infiltrated society and crept into our daily vernacular. Derogatory insults like “you play like a girl” or “you muscle moll,” can be heard across playgrounds, high school varsity teams or even your run of the mill community sport club. Even the deceptively harmless media descriptors: “graceful run” or “feminine throw” or “delicate turn” subliminally denotes a sense of weakness diminishing the value of a female athlete’s game. There are also terms like butch, mannish, or man-arms to shame a woman’s muscular physique (even targeting superstars like Madonna). There are consequences for these patronizing symbols of women in American society; when women are painted as inferior athletes in all aspects of culture and media, we (the public) simply don’t take them seriously in the professional sports arena. As a result, news outlets compensate for the lack of public interest in female sports with a focus on non-sports related topics like physical appearance, marital status, beauty regimens, and age to garner attention to their stories. It ‘s a distinct gender bias or rather an unjust vicious cycle (whereby women can’t be successful unless they conform to the media’s contrived beauty standards; but when they conform to these standards, they aren’t taken seriously as athletes) holding women back in sports.
Nowadays, female athletes have to face the fact that if they want recognition for their work, they have to play by the media’s rules. Truth be told, the more feminine women appear, the more likely their game will run on television or covered front and center in a major publication. Female athletes are most visible in the media when they are involved in perceivably feminine sports (meaning sports that do not require as much force or personal contact). These so-called feminine sports typically involve women in independent roles like gymnastics, tennis, figure skating, and track. That said, they’re sports where women wear fewer or shorter uniforms compared to that of contact team sports like basketball or soccer. This distinction is not meant to downplay the rigor required to master said feminine sports, but simply to point out that the media favors female athletes who play alone and wear cute outfits. “People want men playing the rough sports like football, hockey, and sports like that and women playing tennis, the sports where you show more skin…. They get a lot more media attention, which is obviously something a lot of people are afraid to say out loud,” said Boston Pride-hockey player Kelly Cooke. As archaic as it may seem, the media still operates under the same notion that “sex sells” Cooke told me, while intermittently laughing ‘”I hate to say it. I think it’s something we’d like to change about society. But at the time, it’s not really something that we can argue exists.” The term “Sex Sells” almost always implies that heterosexual women will be the target gender subject to the objectification; be it on a family sitcom, advertising, or in the media. So, when sex appeal is at the epicenter of female sports media coverage, what does it mean for women who do not fit this contrived archetype of beauty? In other words, what are the consequences for appearing “masculine?”
In the media, masculinity is practically synonymous with athleticism; especially when they selectively use words like “strength” and “power” to describe a male athlete’s every move. It’s now normal to see a shirtless soccer player, running across a freshly manicured green field to slap his playmate’s derrière, after scoring a winning goal. This macho façade involved with sports culture, is sometimes a prime reason to tune into the highly broadcasted games. Yet, when female soccer athletes behave in the same way or appear “masculine” (dressing more conservatively or embracing a more muscular build), the media denies them any press. Again, it’s a double standard showing that when women play sports that are seemingly masculine or aggressive (because they require more muscle, contact, and dominance in the field) they aren’t prioritized to the same degree as their male counterparts. Take the National Women’s Hockey League for example. Although they are relatively new (2015, being it’s inaugural year), they’ve already sent several players from it’s four teams (the Buffalo Beauts, Boston Pride, New York Riveters and Connecticut Whale) to the winter Olympics with some winning medals. Boston Pride, sister team to the Boston Bruins and reigning champions of the league, is their most successful team. Kelly Cooke, Boston Pride player, explained that despite their affiliation with the Boston Bruins, they still struggle to get ‘adequate press:
“I think nine or maybe fewer of our games are televised on NESN, which is obviously huge, but it’s televised at weird hours or when nothing else was on. I think a lot of the media coverage that we get is from niche media sources like bloggers who know a lot about women’s hockey. Instead of big outlets like Boston Globe, it’s only blogs and websites with people in niche circles who know about.”
If you think about the aggressive nature of ice hockey combined with the necessarily bulky protective uniforms, it’s clear why NESN wouldn’t broadcast these games at prime time or why more print outlets aren’t covering the sport when women are playing; it’s a perceivably masculine game. The aforementioned standard of feminine beauty is not being met here.
Visibility: Forfeiting Fair Representation
The lack of media visibility is, perhaps, the most significant impediment derailing the national growth of female sports in the U.S. Simply put, it you’re not seen, you can’t be heard.
This invisibility doesn’t afford the public a chance to personally connect to players or get involved with their sport. It’s important to develop a relationship with your favorite players and teams and participate in their rivalries. After all, we watch sports for the same reasons the Romans watched men battle ferocious wild animals at the coliseum thousands of years ago, to observe the eerie tension between the fiercest competitors and to watch them duke it out for a greater purpose. Be it a title, or honor, or in this case, their life; the sportsmanship and reputation of players ultimately drives the crowds to the courts. There’s a reason why tickets sell out in minutes when legendary players like Michael Jordan, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant played; one can identify with the players and participate in their athletic journey. When it comes to female athlete’s visibility, basketball player Essence Carson said to me it’s “the one place we can improve in the WNBA, by exploring individuality of players. Each player has a brand, and we need to build more of a connection between individuals and the public. We need to know their stories, their hardships and success. We need to put a face to a name. On the guys’ side, you know their stories and shortcomings. It makes their brands even bigger.” It’s true, very few female athletes are publicly known based on their personalities. Without the ESPN profiles, the seasonal appearances on Ellen, or radio segments, how can a female athlete gain any endorsements or attention for her sport? The issue, present at hand, is that women have to conform to gender normative beauty standards in order to garner any attention.
When the most dominant form of visibility for female athletes is their sex appeal, the game falls by the wayside. Meaning, when women play aggressive contact sports like basketball, soccer, or baseball they are not only neglected by the media but are instead body shamed for their muscular bodies or automatically perceived as masculine or lesbian. When asked about whether a masculine perception hinders a female athlete’s career, Carley Knox, Lynx Women’s Basketball Director of Business Operations said, “I think that’s been going on since the beginning of women’s sports. It’s what has held women’s sports back over the course of time.” In other words, if a fully made-up, Coca-Cola shaped, curvy Kardashian-esque player hit the courts, she would probably be more readily embraced than a tall, lean, and broad-shouldered female athlete. “The more feminine you look the more attention you get. The media caters to more feminine looking women. I believe that we are all great athletes and if you are great you deserve just as much attention,” said Essence Carson.
Gender shaming is evident across all female athletics, even at the pinnacle of sports: the Olympics. Take middle-distance runner, Caster Semenya for example. She’s 5 ft 10 in with a muscular build, lean chest, and narrow hips. Her muscular physique nearly caused an uproar between her home country, South Africa and the board of the Olympics during the 2008 summer games. After sweeping her matches and winning the coveted Gold medal, she was subjected to several humiliating and downright degrading sex verification tests, even though she’d already been tested before the competition. The board justified their dehumanizing decision to publicly test her again solely based on her said “masculine qualities.” When they called her gender into question, they basically broadcasted to world that she was a red-blooded man, born with an X and Y chromosome. This esteemed athlete, who’d trained a majority of her life for this one competition, will always have to justify her sexual orientation and deal with unjust public suspicions for the rest of her life. Even after being cleared to play in the 2011 Olympics, it’s evident that her ego suffered from the dehumanizing allegations, as she would not win her next gold medal until 2016.
Even though stereotypically feminine athletes have more press visibility and brand power, they are still subject to sexism. When the media sexualizing these female players in men’s magazines, they undervalue their skill set and athletic talent. Even in a “feminine sport” there are some athletes favored more by the media for their “feminine qualities.” In fact, the media celebrated tennis player, Maria Sharapova’s leaner, thinner, gender normative build, often describing her as graceful and bolstering her up on several magazine covers ranging from ESPN to Fitness to Esquire. Sharapova is not, by any means, the best tennis player who’s ever lived, with stats far inferior than say Serena or Venus and yet she’s had far more endorsements than many athletes ahead of her. When we look back at Serena’s representation in the media, she’s often criticized for her thick curves and strong build. Gender shamers see female muscular bodies as grotesque. The media’s sexualization of feminine athlete’s like Sharapova contributes to the bias that one needs to achieve a particular look to garner any public likability. Today, when we look at the Olympics coverage it is still objectively sexist; with the press only commenting on female athlete’s outfits or physique. “I think in Rio, there were tons of articles about female athletes not looking like what people thought or not doing something that society thought that they should be doing is completely ridiculous because these women are competing at the highest and yet they are still being criticized for something that society doesn’t agree with in terms of their body.” Kelly Cooke.
Truth be told, the media isn’t set in some dimly-lit basement, where men meet over cigars and hoppy beer to contrive a female take down plan. There are actually several notable female sportscasters in the press, like Doris Burke, Erin Andrews, and Hannah Storm, to name a few. Despite all of the female power present in sports media, they are still, somehow, subject to the same bias that athletes endure from the press. The media: Men’s Fitness and The Richest objectifies them when they publish stories like “The Hottest Female Reporters” instead of just “The Best Reporters.” This unnecessary focus on female sexuality begets the question, who is the media even targeting? Maybe they do just want male viewers consuming the sexualized content. When the media focus is not on the sportsmanship or the aforementioned tensions of the game, can men ever be fans of women, or are they just ogling at them from their plasma TV’s? The short answer is NO, they will never be truly engaged in the game if they are culturally brainwashed to focus on their sex appeal. Objectifying female athletes only places the ball in the men’s court, deeming them as the superior athletes worth watching.
The media pressure for teams to appear more feminine has significant pitfalls. Kelly explains a gender-biased occurrence, “as a league, we had a former debate about some of our sources because they did not want us to wear cages, they just wanted us to wear half shields because they wanted to see our faces. Which is obviously something that we are not willing to do because we want to keep our teeth. It’s one of those things where your game should still be popular even if you can’t see the women behind the mask.” An egregious example of the bias plaguing women’s sports; the media wanted to subject these women to possible harm in order to show that there are, in fact, feminine beings behind the suits.
Bar none, gender should not equate athletic ability, yet it does time and time again. Before the Wimbledon 2016 competition, a journalist asked Serena Williams about her thoughts on being the best female athlete of all time, she replied, “I prefer the word, one of the greatest ‘athletes’ of all time.” This interview question exposes an inherent issue in sports media coverage. Journalists perceive the success of a female athlete as a product of her gender rather than solely on her talents. This means that no matter how many titles Serena wins; her success is limited within the context of her gender. Identifying an athlete as female is not the problem; it’s when the press uses gender to define women in sports as subpar athletes. It’s essentially a backhanded insult, on par with telling a female athlete “you’re pretty good for being a woman.” We live in a social climate where perception and reputation of any individual drives her success. We once perceived Tiger Woods as being one of the greatest golfers of all time, that is, before his extramarital cheating scandal. A scandal that has nothing to do with his talent, but yet, has demolished his career extricating him from many lucrative endorsements. Like with Tiger Wood’s reputation, female athletes endure a stigma limiting their access to great success and financial resources.
When it comes to female athletes, public perception is a direct correlation to their earning potential. Lynx Women’s Basketball Director of Business Operations, Carley Knox told me that when it comes “to the more feminine appropriate sports whether it be tennis, golf or any individual sports, met with stereotypes about team sports like a strong muscular woman being too masculine … it all plays into people’s apprehension about getting behind women’s team professional athletics. There are stereotypes about our athletes, without even giving the product a chance.” Knox makes the important point that the stigmatized perception of female athletes as inferior derails the public from caring about their involvement in sports. If the general public does not attend their games, the team can’t make any money, consequently, limiting the amount a female athlete can make. The reputation of women in sports is crucial to the survival of their leagues.
Financial Foul Play and The Law
This idea generally applies to all businesses, if you don’t have the public investment and interest in your product, you won’t make any money. It’s a cycle, single handedly to blame for the expanding gender wage gap in sports. There are egregiously polarizing earning stats for women in sports; WNBA players making .67 percent of what the men make in NBA. Granted, the WNBA brings in a lot less revenue, but this issue is due in part to the tainted reputation of female athletes. The average salary for a WNBA player is $75,000, the starting salary is about $35,000, with an average salary cap of about $100,000 (depending on the league). The low pay often prompt athletes to play overseas, leaving behind their families and friends to go to places like China and Russia, where they can make upwards of $1.5 million. Comparably, the NBA pays on average $4.9 million per player with starting salaries around the 1 million mark for the 30the draft pick.
The outrageously low salaries are not just unique to female basketball players; in fact, CNN Money reported that after the women’s team won the 2014 World Cup, their team made about $2 million in prize money while the winning German team made $35 million. To break it down, it means that they made six cents for every dollar that the men’s team made. What’s even more insane is that the 16 losing men’s teams each received $8 million. You can pretty much see that as a direct slap to the face from FIFA, considering that they are both part of the same company. The disparities don’t end there, when Kelly Cooke played for the Canadian women’s hockey league she explains, “We didn’t have salaries and were given minimal equipment. So, we didn’t get like the skates or sticks. The most expensive equipment weren’t provided by the CWHL. The men have custom everything.” Cooke had to pay for the equipment with her own money, earned from her myriad side jobs to play a national professional sport, while the men received personalized gear and high salaries. As she explains, in order to play, she had to find ways to “supplement income…mostly everyone had a full time or at least a part time job to play in that league.”
With men predominantly organizing, playing, reporting, and developing sports culture, are they to blame for perpetuating the bias impeding women today? Are the bigwigs intentionally sabotaging female athletes? “Their job is to make money and make the most money that they can make. I think it takes somebody pretty high up in these organizations who has a daughter who plays hockey to kind of learn about and take a special interest in our organization,” said Cooke. Her opinion suggests that men aren’t necessarily going after women, but in the same token, they aren’t necessarily helping women either. Considering that professional sports are private businesses, with no government support or handouts, these higher ups don’t have a real reason to push female sports when they aren’t performing.
“There’s a misnomer that Title X is protecting the WNBA but obviously that’s not the case because it’s an educational amendment. I want people to put the money where their mouths are and buy season tickets or become a sponsor of their women’s professional teams. They can’t take it for granted. It’s not like it’s going to be here forever because the law is protecting it. This is a stand alone business that we need everyone to support. So in the future of our daughter have the opportunity to experience women’s professional athletes,” said the Lynx Director of Business Operations, Carley Knox, implying to me that if we do support female sports it may very well collapse.
Despite popular belief, the federal law: Title IX (outlawing gender discrimination in sports) only protects women in academic programs and not private businesses. Signed by President Nixon in 1972, it states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (20 U.S.C. §1681a).” This law pushed public schools and colleges to create sport programs for women, thereby, increasing their participation and opening doors to professional sports opportunities, like the Olympics. However, when they reach an expert-level, good enough to pursue professional opportunities, all the government mandated support comes to a screeching halt. Meaning, professional female athletes have fend for themselves to make ends meet because the law is not required to protect equal representation in businesses, media, or there to help them dismantle the vicious bias against them. In order to make it, you either have to conform to the expectations of the industry or get cut. This dog eat dog mentality often leads to many athletes staying quiet when it comes to fighting for more money. “I don’t think I know of many female athletes who are going around advocating for change. I think it’s something that’s discussed behind closed doors like in our locker rooms or on our teams or with other teams” Cooke to me. It’s perceived as counterproductive for women to demand more money when their leagues aren’t raking in the big bucks at games.
The Comeback Plan
It’s easy to blame the media for the sexualized representation of female athletes, after all, they’re plenty responsible for why we consider women inferior to men in sports. It’s harder to take action and challenge the inequalities plaguing women’s professional teams. It’s up to the public to outright support female teams by going to games and demanding to read more substantive stories about them in the media. It all boils down to supply and demand, we have to want to see them excel because of their athleticism and not buy into the sexualized stereotypes. We also have to acknowledge that change starts with younger generations and share positive messages about gender equality. “If we can educate this little boy right here..if he can walk into a gym and see strong, powerful women playing basketball, he’s going to grow up thinking differently than somebody who was not exposed” explained Minnesota Lynx head coach, Cheryl Reeve to the Star Tribune when subsequently saying “it’s not about trying to force women’s basketball on somebody. It’s about saying that what women do is just as important as what men do. It’s also about women in the workplace and how we’re treated differently than men when it comes to promotions and the proverbial glass ceiling.”
In order to combat female invisibility, players also have to get involved and vocalize their concerns and document their biased experiences. “Change starts with us. We can’t let our futures rest in the hands of anyone else. We have to say ‘Hey America, this is a problem?’ Women struggle with inequality in every field, whether it’s corporate America or in sports, we have to battle for equal pay in all fields. If we want change, it begins with us speaking up,” said Carson. Achieving real change may actually be simpler than we think. We need more women in all aspects of sports coverage and super star athletes continuing to excel at their respective sports. We, ultimately, need to change the way we think about women in sports to really appreciate them. When I asked about combating the inequalities of media representation of athletes, Carley Knox provided the solution “Winning always helps in overcoming stereotypes and getting people to try your product. We need more season ticket members and more sponsorship. We need society to support the teams.”