Gone are the days when female athletes were openly demeaned or ridiculed in sports coverage. The change is welcome, but it hasnt exactly liberated women from stereotypes that acknowledge their gender first and their success second.
Cheryl Cooky knows this firsthand. For the past two decades, she has watched countless hours of sports news in the name of gender equality. She's seen women become the butt of a crude joke or the subject of a sexual fantasy. Such blatant sexism is rare now, but progress is surprisingly slow.
Cooky, an associate professor of American Studies at Purdue University, and her colleagues have been tracking television sportscasts since 1989. Their latest study, published last year in Communication & Sport, found that coverage of women's sports remains low and lacks the same superfan intensity that defines commentary of men's sporting events.
When it comes to the Olympics, Cooky likes to invoke Charles Dickens. For coverage of female athletes, she says, the global sporting event is the best and worst of times.
It is perhaps the only occasion where women garner similar levels of media attention and praise as male athletes. Yet it also inevitably becomes a stage for coverage that perpetuates or plays into offensive gender stereotypes. Chief among them, it seems, is that no matter how accomplished the athlete, her success is too often framed in comparison to a man's, or it is eclipsed by her role as a wife or mother.
The Rio Olympics have been no exception. Media coverage of the opening days of competition included crediting a Gold medalist swimmer's husband-coach for her victory, calling renowned swimmer Katie Ledecky a "female Michael Phelps," and identifying bronze medal winner Corey Cogdell-Unrein as "the wife of a Bears' lineman" without actually using her name. (The Chicago Tribune has since apologized for the headline and tweet, attributing the mistake to trying too hard to make a global story local.)
"It fits into a broader pattern wherein sports journalists dont really know how to talk about female athletes," says Cooky of these controversies. "We somehow dont know what to make of them, so we need to connect them back to a stereotypical gender role like wife or mom ... or liken them to the next Michael Jordan to make them interesting."
Defining women by their relationships and proximity to men rather than their accomplishments is not unique to sports, says Suzanne Leonard, who studies the representation of women in literature, film and media as an associate professor of English at Simmons College.
"No matter how successful women are in their career ... the framing of their personal lives always tends to be the primary focus," says Leonard. "We assume these things are more important to women than they are to men."
The Olympics, she adds, just makes that dynamic highly transparent.
Take, for example, the roundup published on Aug. 4 by the United States Olympic Committee that highlighted moms competing on behalf of Team USA.
"Being a mother is said to be a full-time job; so is being an Olympian," reads the text. "The thought of trying to be both would sound like a daunting task to most people. These 10 Olympic athletes have proven that they can excel in both roles."
In the last week, the committee had not published a similar blog post featuring new fathers like Michael Phelps who are competing for a medal.
"Being a mother is said to be a full-time job; so is being an Olympian."
The preoccupation with traditional storylines even if they come with a dose of female empowerment may be seen by some broadcasters as a winning business strategy.
John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBC Olympics, defended the tape delay of Rio's opening ceremony by explaining that the audience skews female and craves a different kind of coverage.
"The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans," he said. "More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one."
Cooky and her colleagues have long disputed such assumptions, arguing that broadcasters like NBC may have tapped into a subset of viewers interested in that treatment, but do so under "masculinist assumptions" about what makes a sports fan.
Research, she says, shows that survey criteria often define what it means to be a sports fan based on things like knowing stats, players and team history. That can make women, who may otherwise love watching and following sports, feel uncomfortable self-identifying as a fan: "It becomes this kind of competition, a legitimacy exercise." Ultimately, Cooky says, broadcasters end up "constructing" an audience that they use to explain or defend their coverage choices.
It should be no surprise, then, that women's sports and their stars are viewed through the lens of their relationships. While depictions of competitive mothers and wives may be an improvement over jokes and fantasies, Cooky believes they still constrain women to a traditional stereotype. Her research also shows that such coverage pales in comparison to the unbridled enthusiasm sportscasters frequently show for male athletes.
During 2014, Cooky and her colleagues recorded sports news and highlights segments that aired on three local Los Angeles network affiliates during three two-week blocks. They also recorded the one-hour ESPN program SportsCenter during three weeks that corresponded with the affiliate segments.
They say things like: "punished the opponent," "going full throttle," a heavy-weight clash," "electric," and "a master of the position."
The footage shows male sports anchors delivering their commentary in an "excited, modulated, rapid-clipped, amplified voice often literally yelling." They say things like: "punished the opponent," "going full throttle," a heavy-weight clash," "electric," and "a master of the position."
By contrast, when anchors discussed women's sports, they offered "matter-of-fact" commentary. In one example, an affiliate anchor briefly promoted the championship match in a pro beach volleyball tournament by saying, "...if you've got nothing else to do, cool off tomorrow down at the beach in Long Beach." The star of that match in the world series of beach volleyball? Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings.
In Cooky's study, the few instances where television segments combined high technical production with genuine enthusiasm for a women's sports story, the narrative eventually turned to the athlete's role as wife and mother.
Sometimes female athletes embrace that storyline and even promote it themselves. In 2014, WNBA legends Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie answered questions about motherhood in segments recorded by Cooky and her colleagues.
"Being a wife and a mom is just my favorite title," Leslie said to a KNBC interviewer. "People always ask me if I miss playing basketball and I'm like, absolutely not, because I love being a wife, cooking and being home."
Dana Vollmer, who has several Olympic medals and is the mother of a toddler, has billed herself as a "momma on a mission" for the Rio games.
There's no doubt something inspiring and marketable about the woman who comes back from pregnancy and childbirth as a world-class athlete. Cooky says that her research isn't meant to deprive women of the choice to highlight their roles as girlfriends, wives and mothers.
The problem, she says, is that the resulting coverage creates an ambivalence about female athletes. In other words, their victories are overshadowed by the specter of trying to have it all. There is no equivalent effect, however, for male athletes.
Jennifer Holmes, deputy editor of espnW, says the publication is designed to focus on covering female athletes as athletes first and as holistically as possible. Many outlets, she says, don't practice that approach on a daily basis and in turn make embarrassing comments during an event like the Olympics.
"There should be room for people to learn," Holmes says. "But are people doing course corrections? If theyre not, then thats the problem."
Those adjustments might include a more diverse staff and a culture that makes it possible to openly identify subtle biases, offensive assumptions and ill-conceived story ideas.
Leonard believes that sports broadcasters should consider taking more risks with their narratives to make them less saccharine and more representative of the human experience. Imagine, she says, what it might look like for NBC to run a positive segment on a female athlete who has chosen not to have children.
The rewards of riskier but successful storytelling are substantial; Leonard cites Netflix's fictional television show Orange is the New Black as an example of how diverse stories can win acclaim and a loyal audience.
The status quo, she adds, is not very compelling: "In essence, what [broadcasters] are saying is that everyone has to have the same story."
Changing this approach and eliminating gender stereotypes from sports reporting is no easy task, but Cooky and her colleagues make three recommendations: present a roughly equitable quantity of coverage of women's sports; present that coverage similarly as men's events, complete with technical elements like game footage, graphics, music and interviews; and hire and retain on-camera anchors willing to do the first two steps. And if family and relationships are important to the story, reporters should ask men and women the same questions.
"It's really not rocket science," says Cooky. "Just cover the athlete."
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