Exploring How Media Portrays Women in Sports and How We Can Do Better

Post by guest contributor, Kate Harveston.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team won this summer’s World Cup in truly phenomenal fashion. The unbeatable crew started out the competition with a stunning performance against Thailand, winning the match with a final score of 13-0. 

But many people shied from lauding the team for their monumental defeat, one that secured their place in the next round of the tournament. Instead, they focused on calling their celebrations and goals boastful and braggadocios. It was rude, they said, to keep scoring when the win was all but guaranteed. 

Such damaging coverage followed the team throughout the tournament, especially co-captain Megan Rapinoe. Many people suggested she remain humble instead of showing pride in herself and her team. She played a huge role in winning the World Cup, but people still thought she should default to demure. 

Why did people conjure such opinions of some of our country’s first-class athletes and now-World Cup champions? Much of it has to do with the way the media portrays and covers women in sports and women in general. 

Barely-There Coverage

One of the biggest problems with the media coverage of female athletes is that there isn’t enough of it. Women make up 40 percent of sports participants — want to guess how much media coverage they receive for it? Stunningly, they only count for four percent of sports-related content, according to UNESCO. 

So, one of the big problems with media coverage of women in sports is that they barely do it at all. Such negligence has a huge effect, especially on young girls in sport. They don’t see themselves in the male athletes plastered on front pages and replayed on ESPN. 

That’s one of the reasons why female athletes ditch their chosen sports two times as frequently as their male counterparts. Don’t underestimate kids’ intuitiveness, either — they are connected to social media, and it can negatively impact their self-esteem to notice that women aren’t covered equally. 

On top of that, women’s sports often don’t get enough funding. Without media coverage, promotional funds don’t come in. This affects female athletes’ financial standings, too — they don’t get sponsorships or salaries like sportsmen. So, why would any woman want to pursue a career in sports when it likely won’t pay the bills? 

Making female sports leagues an integral part of media coverage would help boost its legitimacy and funding. It would send a strong message to impressionable young girls, telling them that their dedication to sport matters, too. 

Unfair Portrayal of Female Athletes

When women do get coverage, they’re often subjected to negative or sexist takes on their expertise. The USWNT is just one example. Tennis pro Serena Williams has also faced such portrayals in the media. At the U.S. Open in 2018, she received a penalty from referee Carlos Ramos for her choice of words on the court. Afterward, the media pounced, referring to Williams’s argument with Ramos as a “meltdown” and using other sexist descriptors. 

But fellow tennis pros and fans of the sport jumped in to highlight just how sexist and damaging such coverage was. For one thing, many male tennis players had argued with referees before. Tennis pro James Blake said that he hadn’t received such harsh penalties for the same type of talk. Tweets highlighted baseball players screaming at umpires, images that came without headlines accusing them of having “meltdowns.” In short, the coverage was unbalanced. 

There’s more, of course. For one thing, sportscasters will often attempt to “contextualize” female athletes. Rather than speaking about their stats or accomplishments on the field, they’ll highlight their roles as wives and mothers. As you can probably guess, they’re not as quick to identify men with such bullet points. 

This sexism can go hand-in-hand with the sexualization of female athletes. Over time, such innuendo has dropped off in commentating, but it still exists. And, as it has dissipated, with it has gone announcers’ enthusiasm for covering women’s sports. Analyses have noted that audible enthusiasm disappears in covering female-centric sporting events. 

Fixing the Problem

Unfortunately, many of these problems are ingrained in society — women face sexism and marginalization daily. So, to fix female athletes’ portrayal in the media, it will take more than just a shift in commentators’ mindset and excitement levels. 

Mutual respect will have to be the first step in legitimizing women’s sports the way that men’s competitions have been for years. UNESCO, for one, has opened the conversation with an awareness-raising campaign. Through it, broadcasters have pledged their commitment to diversity and shared stories on how they’ve overcome such stereotypes. 

Female athletes work just as hard as men — and, in some cases, they set an even bigger example for young athletes who want to follow in their footsteps. The media must fix their system, but we must demand fair coverage, too. And, as always, it’s important that we champion these women who work hard in sometimes thankless careers. When we start making it normal for them to get the praise they’ve more than earned, better media coverage should hopefully follow.

Kate Harveston is a young writer from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She enjoys topics related to culture, feminism, and women’s health, and how those elements intersect and act upon each other. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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