Female Athletes in the Media: The Best and Worst of Times

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” This memorable line from Charles Dickens also describes the current landscape of female athletes in the media – both the frequency and manner in which they are portrayed. Before examining how (and how often) the mainstream media is covering women in sports, it’s important to recognize when and where research on this subject began.

Where We Started: The Tucker Center

I have been at the University of Minnesota since 1989. My research has always focused on sport and gender, specifically female athletes and media coverage. 1992 marked the 20th anniversary of the passage of landmark federal legislation known as Title IX, and women’s participation in sports was exploding. This progress was encouraging, but it lacked a research center housed in a top tier research university, like the University of Minnesota, that would take seriously the study of women’s participation in sports and physical activity from the social to the physical sciences. Dr. Dorothy Tucker, a 1945 graduate of the U of M, expressed interest in pioneering this area of scholarly inquiry, and her generous donation became the foundation for the Tucker Center. More than 20 years later, we continue to be a national leader spearheading research efforts regarding how sport and physical activity impact the lives of girls and women, their families and their communities.

Where We Are: The Best and Worst of Times

If women are participating in sports in extraordinary and unprecedented numbers, in a country where sports are worshipped and media coverage is ubiquitous, they should be represented based on this reality. To put it another way, the media have an obligation to cover and accurately represent what is actually happening in our vast sports landscape. Women are clearly involved in sports, and recent data indicate that people are very interested in watching them. But is this reality reflected in the current landscape of female athletes in sports media?

It’s the best of times. Over the past decade, there has been a significant shift in the way female athletes are being covered. They are finally being portrayed as athletes. The focus during events like the Women’s Final Four is no longer how “pretty in pink” sportswomen are, but rather how physically gifted they are; how they exude mental toughness; and how their on-court competence, grace under pressure and game strategy impacts their coaches and teammates. The media are finally covering the traditions, rivalries, pioneering coaches and legendary players that make sports so exciting. As much as I have been a critic over the years, and while there is certainly much more progress to be made, it’s important to acknowledge this fundamental shift.

It’s the worst of times. Women’s sports are skyrocketing in terms of participation and interest, but amazingly, media coverage has actually gone down. Even though females represent 40% of all participants nationwide, and even though 43% of all scholarship athletes are female, women only receive roughly 2-4% of all media coverage. Simply put, the reality of women’s interest and participation in sports is being significantly underreported. There is no better example of this disconnect than when the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team made its historical run, winning 62 games in a row and back-to-back national championships with no broadcast coverage of the title games.

Another example of this disconnect is when concussions in sports, specifically football, started receiving much-needed media coverage a few years ago. Yet there was a virtual media blackout when it came to the impact of concussions on female athletes. This led to our partnership with Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) to produce the first and only documentary to look at this issue, “Concussions in Female Athletes: The Untold Story.” In honor of the Tucker Center’s 20th anniversary, we developed another video with TPT called, “Media Coverage and Female Athletes.” This documentary aired last month and is available to download online. It is also available on DVD to academics, teachers, parents and policy makers.

Where We’re Going: Support for Sochi

The media are often and appropriately criticized for their lack of coverage surrounding women’s sports. What’s more, when female athletes do get coverage, the focus has been radically different from the way male athletes are covered. Men’s sports are covered as sports. Male athletes are covered as athletes. Women’s sports and women athletes have, until very recently, been covered as anything but sports and but athletes. Again, this trend is changing, but it takes a united effort to continue the momentum.

What better time to unite behind this effort than during the world’s biggest international sporting event? If you appreciate how NBC and local media outlets cover the Winter Olympics next month, it’s important to let them know. Acknowledge the good things and request more coverage for events you find interesting. This can be done through blog posts, letters to the editor, social media, etc. Another way to get involved is the Tucker Center’s #HERESPROOF hashtag project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This is a great way to participate whether you’re in Sochi or watching the Winter Games at home with friends and family.

Mary Jo Kane

Professor of Sport Sociology, School of Kinesiology
Director, Tucker Center
College of Education and Human Development

Read Mary Jo's Bio

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