Where are the female athletes?

At Sport in Society, we often discuss the coverage of female athletes in sports media. Or, rather, lack thereof. It’s a central topic in the discussion group Out of Bounds. After we wonder about inequalities in presence of men versus female athletes, the impact this may have on our society, and the expectation we unconsciously have of female athletes, we tend to conclude that popular media just do not cover female sports and athletes.

A recent study shows that on 4,9% of Sports Illustrated’s covers between 2000 and 2011, a female athlete appeared. Title IX, and an increasing number of women participating in sports since the 1990s suggest that this percentage has been lower in the past. However, Sports Illustrated featured almost three times as many female athletes between 1954 and 1965 (12,6%). Regardless these numbers, the manner in which these women are portrayed is worth a closer look. Often times, women share the spotlight with a male athlete while wearing clothes that clearly not fit for a work-out. In their conclusion, Weber and Carini suggest that Sports Illustrated promotes the objectification of female athletes to their 21 million readers.

In contrast, Frank Deford of NPR thinks fans of women’s sports can increase female athlete’s media coverage. To him, Title IX is something women should practice. It would be too easy to blame men for their dominance, while women continue to be men’s sports spectators: “if more women buy tickets to watch female athletes play, then more coverage will follow”. The real gap exists, according to Deford, between commercial and recreational youth sports. Newspapers do cover local middle- and high school women’s sports. In other words, coverage changes when money plays a role.

In my opinion, both media and sport fans can narrow the gap between coverage of male athletes versus female athletes. I, for example, can change myself and with that, my surroundings, but Justine Siegal is a perfect example for this, as she advocates an increase in participation for women in baseball. On the other hand, media have the power to influence many individuals at once… So instead of questioning the female athletes’ presence, let’s figure out where their platform is hidden.

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The First but Not the Last.

In 2010 Sports Illustrated published an interview with Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas titled The Only Openly Gay Male Athlete.  As of this past Monday, almost exactly three years later, Thomas is no longer alone; pro basketball player Jason Collins wrote an article for the same magazine that begins with the statement “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”.

Collins made history this week as the first current player in a major American sport to come out. Speculation has been developing in recent years, not about Collins specifically, but over who would be the first and when they would decide to come forward. In 2011 a Gallup poll proved that a majority of Americans (53%) were in favor of legalizing gay marriage; attitudes on the issue of sexual orientation have been changing rapidly in recent years, and support for the gay community has grown along with rising disapproval of homophobic attitudes.

Earlier this year San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made several anti-gay comments during a media session for the Super Bowl. His statement and discriminatory attitude were disappointing and hurtful; both the public and other professional athletes reacted by overwhelmingly condemning his remarks, and a day later Culliver issued an apology.

While preparing for the Sport in Society discussion course Out of Bounds, another intern and I contacted Aaron McQuade, the Director of News & Field Media at GLAAD, and had the opportunity to interview him about gay athletes and their portrayal in various sports media. We talked about the Culliver incident, and McQuade felt that it was actually a chance for a dialogue, especially when so many other athletes countered his homophobia. The support shown by various current and former athletes in pro American sports proves how attitudes about the LBGTQ community are shifting.

Ideally, Collins’ statement will only further this shift, and hence further the conversation about masculinity and homosexuality in sports. Except this time, the discussion won’t be ABOUT the gay professional athlete, and will instead be WITH one.  Three years ago, Gareth Thomas asked Sports Illustrated “All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?” Jason Collins can now answer that question as America’s first out pro athlete, but certainly not the last.