Why do mainstream media love “outing” female athletes whether they are single or married, gay or straight, but won’t do the same with their male counterparts? “I think it is a fair question,” said the University of Minnesota Tucker Center’s Austin Stair Calhoun, who has researched such double standards in some depth.
In a recent extended story on Minnesota Lynx star Seimone Augustus in the Minneapolis daily newspaper, which named her their sportsperson of the year December 30, the female reporter made reference to Augustus’ engagement to a female. Calhoun posted in her blog that Augustus’ female fiancée was “casually mentioned” in the article.
“I felt that Seimone wanted that to happen. I thought that was her way of saying, ‘Yeah, this is no big deal. I’m gay and I’m getting married. This is my partner.”
Still, I ask what that had to do with her performance as a basketball player.
“Her sexual preference had nothing to do with the story,” said Kermit Wallace of Minneapolis after he read the Augustus article. “They would have never done that to a male athlete.”
A female athlete’s marital plans and sexual orientation are apparently contributing factors in her athletic performance, but that’s not so for male athletes? Gender inequity strikes again!
“That just shows how homophobic and sexist sport is.”
“I do think that the mainstream [media] in general are heterosexist because that is what they want to promote,” continues Calhoun. “One of the things that happens to female athletes in general is that when they are portrayed, they tend to be portrayed as something additional to [being a] female athlete. They have to be a mother, a wife, a very good cook. There’s always this other side, a lot of different portrayals,” she notes.
A Tucker Center researcher, Calhoun studied 1,800 online collegiate coaching biographies and found only two coaches with same-sex partners among them. But, she adds, “In almost all cases, the opposite sex’s partner is noted.” She calls this “institutionalized heterosexism and homophobia.”
Last fall I talked to University of Southern California Sociologist Michael Messner (at right), who was a panelist at a Tucker Center event. He is among many sport media scholars who point out that emphasis on femininity and heterosexuality over athletic competence continues in mainstream media today.
“I think the quality of coverage of women’s sports is much gendered,” notes Messner. “[Male] news reporters still apply a certain kind of frame in looking at women athletes that they think maybe are recognizable to the readers or the viewers.”
Calhoun adds that most male mainstream reporters also “overcompensate” when covering female athletes; for example, she points to oft-used “sexy babe” images for tennis star Serena Williams. She says Black female athletes are either portrayed in this sexualized way or in non-feminine ways that subtly question their sexuality.
I’ve covered Augustus ever since her arrival in Minnesota seven years ago. Plenty of times I asked her about her jump shot or passes or her defense, but not once about her marital status. Nor do male athletes get any bedroom inquiries from me.
I prefer the Jack Webb approach — just the athletic facts, please. That other stuff is like a Friends of Distinction song title: It don’t matter to me.
So why did the Minneapolis daily paper want us to know that Augustus has a girlfriend? “That just shows how homophobic and sexist sport is,” surmises Calhoun.
Women’s sports coverage: one step forward, two steps back
USC Sociologist Michael Messner was the co-investigator on the 2010 “Gender in Televised Sports” report, which analyzed 20 years’ worth of news and highlights shows (1989-2009). The study reinforced what many of us who regularly follow women’s sports already fully know about their media coverage: “It’s gotten worse,” he simply says.
This includes ESPN’s ever-present Bottom Line, where over 96 percent of the information annoyingly scrolling along the bottom of the television screen is about men’s sports and barely three percent about women’s sports. Also, the four-letter network’s signature show, SportsCenter, only devotes 1.4 percent to women’s sports.
“If you just watch SportsCenter, you wouldn’t know that there was women’s basketball,” the professor noted.
Furthermore, whether in season or not, men’s basketball, football and baseball get prime coverage (72 percent of all airtime or ticker time). And the study pointed out that whenever women were featured in sports news reports or highlights, “They were usually presented in stereotypical ways: as wives or girlfriends of famous male athletes or as mothers.”
It should be emphasized that this report covered two decades of studying nightly sportscasts.
“I think there are some improvements,” concludes Messner, “but it’s been one step forward, two steps back. When people start asking for more quality coverage and complaining when they see bad coverage, that’s when you will see more changes.”
MSR photographer Onika Nicole Craven contributed to this week’s column.