Sunday, December 25, 2011

Female sports reporters: pieces of meat

The history of sports goes way back. Way back to the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. Since then, sports have been widely popular and resemble wars waged on battlefields. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, etc. are 
Full contact, high energy sports [that] emphasize masculinity and therefore have made it difficult for female participation. It is often believed that these battles are no place for a woman.
Indeed, although (for legal purposes) the major sports leagues do not officially "ban" women from participating, there is a clear expectation and informal practice of keeping them male-only. Instead, they create separate, all-women leagues that are inferior and not nearly as popular as their male counterparts.

In doing research for this blog, I came across countless forums that discuss whether or not women should be allowed to play in the major sports leagues. The sexist comments were not surprising. The world of sports belongs to men, and that's just the way it is.

But every sports league and network needs its reporters and writers, and although there also are no official rules against women reporters and writers, they are certainly the minority. Of course, being the female minority in the male-dominated, testosterone-fueled world of sports doesn't come without sexism.

Jennifer Gish is a sports columnist for the Albany Times-Union in Albany, New York. In September, she wrote an article on the lack of talent on the Buffalo Bills this season and about how Bills fans were becoming a bit delusional. In response, she received hundreds of responses from Bills fans - sexist, insulting responses. Many of the responses had nothing to do with her capability as a sports columnist; they attacked her physical appearance:
Seen some photos of you and you are as ugly as your story about we bills fans. we may lose, we may win but you will still be ugly either way. in response to this story GO TO HELL and you may want to consider plastic surgery or something, you are one god awful ugly looking female.
Here's a picture of Jennifer Gish, by the way. She's not ugly - certainly not "god awful ugly looking." But why  is her physical appearance even an issue here? Oh, right - because that is how men place value on women. Writing skills, sports knowledge, and intelligence aren't what get the spotlight, but attractiveness is. If a male writer had written this exact same story, do you think he would have received the same hate mail? No. Even if he did receive hate mail, it wouldn't have discussed his physical appearance. 

Because the world of sports is a man's world, there is a widely held stereotype about women that they are essentially inept when it comes to sports. Even if a woman is as die-hard of a fan as a man is, she isn't taken seriously. It seems to be assumed that women don't like sports and don't know sports. I'm not surprised, then, that men react poorly to women whose job is to talk about, write about, and analyze sports. In fact, I bet that many men view it as a threat to their manhood, that a woman is "higher up" in the "sports hierarchy" than them. 

Although female reporters and writers have come a long way in the past few decades (meaning they are actually allowed to be sports reporters and writers), they still face an uphill battle. In addition to the issue of work-life balance with a career that requires one to work nights and weekends, most sports editors are male and rarely give the "good" positions or assignments to women. 

Indeed, female reporters are often delegated the work that male reporters consider themselves to be "above," such as sideline reporting. An article about the peephole nude video scandal involving ESPN reporter Erin Andrews referred to the controversial way women are used as sideline reporters:
Once upon a time, ex-jock lugs like O.J. Simpson worked the sidelines chasing down interviews with guys they once played with or against. But these days, those jobs are also filled by young, pretty women, while mostly male analysts narrate the game's action in a distant broadcast booth. It allows broadcasters to stock their shows with beautiful female faces who nevertheless remain outside the core of the show. 
This brings up another aspect of the female sports reporter: sexual objectification. Female reporters aren't hired for their ability to report sports, they are hired for their looks. The sports audience is primarily male, and what better way to raise ratings than with a nice piece of eye candy on the field. It's an issue in itself, but what makes it worse is when the woman becomes such an object of sexual attention that her privacy is taken advantage of. A man illegally filmed a nude video of Erin Andrews through the peephole in her hotel room while she unknowingly curled her hair and got dressed and mass-distributed it via the internet. The article linked to above sums the situation up accurately:
She has been reduced to a symbol of the tension between the still-limited opportunities for female sports journalists and the way the sports world has responded to them.
What is even more disturbing is how the mainstream media responded to the video. As Howard Kurtz pointed out, the media reported on the victimization of Andrews by the "peephole pervert," discussing her outrage and the egregiousness of the behavior. But along with that, multiple news outlets accompanied their stories with photos from the actual nude video - some barely censored, some not censored at all. Simultaneously, the news media reported on how the video victimized this woman and further victimized her by even more widely disseminating the private pictures. 

Sexual objectification of women is nothing new, but it is becoming increasingly common in the world of sports reporting and is clearly getting out of hand. What will the future be like for female sports reporters? Will they become more prevalent and gain more power and respect in the industry, or will they remain sexual objects put on the field to get good ratings and have their privacy and bodies exploited in the media? I'm not too optimistic.

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