Disappearing women athletes

Mike Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California (USC) and is the author of numerous books including Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. He is the co-author, along with Professor Cheryl Cooky, of a new report titled "Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows, 1989-2009."

Here, he talks to Dave Zirin about the study's findings.

LET'S TALK about your study on gender and televised sports. What did you and Professor Cooky uncover in your research?

Columnist: Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin Dave Zirin is the coauthor, with John Carlos, of The John Carlos Story, and author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love and A People's History of Sports in the United States, as well as two collections of his sports writings, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. He is a columnist for TheNation.com; his writings are also featured at his Edge of Sports Web site.

WE LOOKED at the three local network affiliates here in Los Angeles and also the ESPN SportsCenter at 11 o'clock in the evening. The first time we did this study was 1989, and we have done it every five years since then.

The first couple times we did it, 1989 and 1993, coverage of women sports on the evening news shows was about 5 percent. I know a lot of people back then said that the number would continue to go up as time went by and the media caught up with this explosion of girls and women sports throughout the country. Indeed, in 1999 it nudged up to 8.7 percent of all sports coverage.

Then in 2004 it went back down to 6.3 percent, and the most recent data we collected was in 2009. The coverage on the evening news shows has almost evaporated to 1.6 percent, the lowest amount ever, and ESPN is right down there with 1.4 percent of their SportsCenter coverage. We were pretty stunned by the drop off.

TO GO from 5 percent in 1989 to 1.6 percent in 2009--how do we understand that coverage has actually gone down as women's leagues and play have become more prevalent?

WELL, THAT'S what the puzzle really is. There has been this continued explosion of participation and interest in women's sports and it just hasn't been reflected in TV news and highlight shows.

One of the more interesting findings we had was, in 1989 and 1999, the big chunk of women's sports coverage we did see on these shows was what we called insulting or trivialization or humorous sexualization of women athletes, like a nude bungee jumper or leering court reports on tennis players like Anna Kournikova or later Maria Sharapova.

In 2004 and 2009, those kinds of stories declined to the point where we saw almost none of that insulting stuff about women athletes. But I guess what we are wondering now is when they stop doing insulting or humorous sexualization stories on women athletes, it seems that they just don't know how to talk about women and women's sports at all.

WHEN YOU talk about the sexualization and trivialization of women athletes, were you calculating that amidst the 5 percent in 1989?

THAT'S RIGHT. That was part of the 5 percent in 1989 and part of the 8.7 percent in 1999, and it was a pretty big chunk of it.

When you see that kind of coverage disappear, what also disappears is coverage of women's sports at all.

I think part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of these sports reporters, on the evening news especially, are the same guys basically who we saw in 1989 and 1993: Fred Rogan at KNBC, Jim Hill at KCBS, it's the same reporters and they are doing the same stuff.

I think one of the keys to this when thinking about SportsCenter and the evening news is it's kind of a men's club, though SportsCenter does include a couple of women reporters but the news shows really don't.

It's been really interesting this week since our report came out: only women reporters have seen fit to cover this as a story. I think there is some reason to think if we could desegregate the sports desk on newspapers and in TV news and so forth you might get a little bit more respectful coverage of women's sports.

WHAT WOULD you say to the argument that says, "Look, ESPN is not a non-profit, and we are giving the people what they want and if that means less women's coverage then that's just the rules of the market"?

THAT'S WHAT they always say of course, and of course I think all of these shows, especially SportsCenter, are entertainment shows, and they're trying to hit the broadest market they can. But they miss a really big opportunity in ignoring women's sports.

I think looking at the coverage of college basketball is especially useful. ESPN has done a pretty good job over the last few years of actually covering women's games in the tournament. But it doesn't appear very much on SportsCenter, and it doesn't appear at all on the evening news.

So what they're missing is a growing market for really interested and excited fans, I put myself among these: one of my favorite sports is women's college basketball.

Just to give you a couple of examples, in 2009 and 2010, over 11 million people attended women's NCAA games. In 2010, the men's "sweet sixteen" games on CBS averaged 4.9 million viewers while women's games averaged 1.6 million viewers, and the championship game between UConn and Stanford drew 3.5 million viewers.

So I think there is a tremendous audience out there, but when we look at TV news and highlight shows, what we found was that the women's NCAA tournament got no coverage at all on the network affiliates, and it got a tiny bit of coverage on ESPN, and most of that coverage was on that scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen.

In contrast, there is just all kinds of coverage about the men's tournament, with speculation about bracketing and special feature stories of Shaquille O'Neal going one on one with a 90-year-old granny, on who's going to pick the best field, and a tremendous amount of promotion of the men's tournament--and almost complete silence on the women's tournament. For a sport with a tremendous growing popularity, you would think that ESPN would use SportsCenter to build audiences for the event that they are actually showing live on television.

WHY DO you think they don't do that then? Do you think it just can only be explained in terms of it being a boys' club, therefore their minds are closed to that perspective? Or do you think they have a stake in institutional sexism? Is it subconscious, or is it conscious?

WELL, I think they make conscious decisions about what they cover everyday, but I think there is a tremendous amount of inertia as well. And only a part of it has to do with the fact it's men making most of these decisions.

Men are capable of doing really good sports reporting on women's sports, and a lot of men really like women's sports. But I think there is a fear on a lot of their parts, if they don't stay with the big three sports. About three quarters of all the news coverage we saw was of men's football, men's basketball and men's baseball.

So it is important that we recognize that it's not just women's sports that are getting edged out of this, it's a whole lot of the other men's sports as well.

PROFESSOR MARY Jo Kane from the University of Minnesota Tucker Center studies how the sexualization of women's athletes--and the growth of popularity of some women athletes as sex symbols--actually hurts women's sports. I'm raising this because one change over the 20 years of your study is the way top women athletes integrate themselves into magazines like Maxim and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. It didn't happen in 1989 but now women athletes, for example, Danica Patrick, Lindsay Vonn and Jennie Finch, are regularly featured in these magazines. Your data seems to support Professor Kane's work. Do you agree with that?

ABSOLUTELY, I have been in long agreement with Mary Jo Kane on that issue. What high-level women's athletes have to do to get coverage in mainstream outlets often times is to take off their clothes. It's sad to say, but that's the way it works.

For those individual women, it helps raise their profile and possibly make them some money. But it certainly doesn't help promote women's sports.

I think it's a way to really corner off women into an image that is acceptable and familiar to male audiences and male broadcasters. It's not something that helps women's sports.

DO YOU think women's sports as a whole have ceased to be empowering or at least a vehicle for empowerment?

NO, BUT I think the main place that's happening right now is with little girls. There is a lot of research that shows that playing sports is an empowering experience for little girls and for young women and in so many different ways--in terms of health, self-esteem, sexual responsibility and so forth.

Whether sports will go to another level and go beyond that individual growth level and be part of a collective empowerment of women, as I think it has been in the past, is very important. I think the media plays an increasingly important part in that. Unfortunately, now, I don't think the media, at least according to our study, is doing a good job of that.

One of the things people are talking about now is if we want good coverage of women's sports, we can't rely on the mainstream media to do that. We've got to start creating some of our own venues on the Internet, on television--perhaps by organizations like the Women's Sports Foundation and maybe with some corporate sponsors to start just showing women's sports.

I would like to see that happen, but I'm not quite ready to concede that the mainstream media is a lost cause. It's really important, because what we see on the media, what we see on SportsCenter is not just entertainment but really tells us a story about who we are.

First published at TheNation.com.