Over the course of these past months, I have been doing loads of research about discrimination against women in sports at the professional, college, and even high school level. At first I was hesitant to pick this topic because I am not a sports fan; but when I do occasionally watch sports, I always watch men’s sports, causing me to realize that I am actually part of the problem. Having realized this, I set out to learn more about the topic to think more about how I personally view sports and how the gender imbalance in sports affects our society.
Around the time when this project was first announced, the Olympic Games in Rio were just wrapping up, and the media was blowing up over misogynistic headlines that were published covering the accomplishments of female Olympians: “Wife of Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics,” “The Female Michael Phelps: Triple-world record holder Katie Ledecky, 19, wins gold in 400m freestyle.” I could not believe these headlines: the first one does not use athlete’s name, and the other refers to Katie Ledecky as the “female Michael Phelps?” This is when I knew I wanted to choose this topic. I wanted to learn the origins of this problem, the reason it has become “acceptable,” and what we, as sport fans or just members of society, can do to help bring awareness to and ultimately fix this injustice. Therefore, I am calling for equal and appropriate representation of female athletes in the media.
In order to understand the source of this issue, an understanding of the history of women in sports and Title IX is necessary. In an article written by Richard C. Bell for The Sport Journal, he explains that prior to the late 1800s, women mostly participated in recreational sports where there was no competition or formal rules. It was believed that women could not endure the amount of physical capability sports required due to their menstruation cycles. Overtime, more women became interested in participating in sports, and the number of competitive female events increased in the early 1900s. However participation by females remained controversial, causing a lack of support at the events. In 1972, Title IX was passed by Congress, stating 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.” When the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) first became aware of Title IX, they became concerned that it would weaken its financial assets and political power, so they offered their own interpretation of the law. The NCAA, along with high school administrators, felt that men’s sports would suffer if women’s sports were forced to be equally funded. But years later in 1987, after many women’s rights groups fought back, Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act. The act made sex discrimination illegal in educational institutions, making Title IX a priority and renewing its commitment by producing a “Title IX Athletic Investigator’s Manual” which outlined enforcement for Title IX procedures. Title IX has created more opportunities for female athletes, however the problem still lies within the inherit mindset that males are dominant when it comes to athletics.
Discrimination against female athletes is particularly evident in the media. In today’s society, the content portrayed and covered tends to dictate what the general public is engaged in and follows. In an article from Think Progress, Kiley Kroh presents statistics that establish the lack of attention female athletes receive. In 2014, ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted just 2% of its airtime to female sports coverage, suggesting that women’s sports are simply not as desirable to consumers of media. Could it be that most sports viewers are currently men because of the content, or is most of the content mostly males because that’s who the viewers are? In March 2009, network affiliates published 60 stories on men’s NCAA basketball and zero about women, leading me to the same conclusion that there is a lack of interest by the general public in women’s sports. The way the media represents female athletes reinforces the stereotype that men’s sports are superior to women’s sports, as the game-quality and physical abilities are not comparable.
Like I mentioned earlier, The 2016 Olympics in Rio were ending right around the time when I started by research. This VOA news article points out multiple remarks made by news casters during the Games.
Referring to this image pictured above of the US women’s Olympic gymnastics team, an NBC announcer said “They might as well be standing in the middle of a mall,” rather than commenting on the fact that they had just found out they qualified for The Games in Rio. This announcer alludes to the traditional notion of the domesticity of women rather than recognizing these women’s athletic accomplishments which have nothing to do with gender. On another occasion, BBC announcer John Inverdale called a women’s judo match a “catfight,” engaging in the idea that women do not have the physical or mental capacity to engage in the highly technical sport of judo that men are able to compete in. These comments along with many more turned the 2016 Summer Games into a conversation about how female athletes are treated in the media, with social media playing a large role.
Social media outlets such as Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat provide an outlet for users to instantly share information along with their own opinions. In the context of the Olympics, social media is a platform where unfairness can be voiced by both bystanders and female athletes themselves. For example, in response to NBC announcer’s comment on the image of the five gymnasts, digital editor for USA today, Natalie DiBlasio tweeted:
Tweets like this along with many others help bring awareness to the sexism that might otherwise go unnoticed, therefore showing how powerful and influential social media can be.
Although social media can be beneficial in calling out injustices, it can also be a form of cyberbullying and hate comments, specifically body-shaming female athletes. For example, Serena Williams, a six time Wimbledon winner, is constantly criticized for her athletic figure. The media often credits her tremendous success to her “man-like” figure. Twitter user @diegtristan8 tweeted a picture of Serena Williams in a red form fitting dress and captioned it “the main reason for her success is that she is built like a man.” Critics comment on female athlete’s bodies all the time and how they do not fit society’s definition of “beauty.”
Although there has been significant progress in the initiative to create equality in the athletic world through implication of Title IX and using social media to call attention, there is still a lot more that must be done. Whether you’re an avid sports fan, a periodic viewer, feminist, or just a member of our society, there are actions we can participate in in order to bring awareness to this issue and make a change. In the by Kiley Kroh article about the lack of female sports coverage on ESPN’s Sportscenter, she suggests a solution to the issue: “the focus needs to not only be on bringing more women into sports journalism but also pushing the existing sports media to invest in covering women’s sports with the same regard as men’s.” This plays such a significant role in the problem because over 95 percent of news and highlights shows have male anchors and co-anchors, therefore leaning the coverage more towards male athletics. Another way to continue to address sexism in athletics is through the power of social media. As previously discussed, social media users have highlighted injustices, bringing them to the public’s attention. Female athletes work hard to be the amazing athletes they are, but in today’s society, they are either undercovered or picked apart at surface level rather than noted for their success. As a woman, I believe this is a problem that must be fixed not only in athletics, but in all the activities and fields women are part of.