Women, sports and the media

It's been an interesting, but not altogether positive, week for women in sports media issues. A study by USC researchers showed that the amount of coverage womens' sports is getting on TV highlight shows has dropped to ridiculous lows. Also, the other day, the Chicago Tribune proved itself to be the clubhouse leader in  dumb-assery by unveiling a poster of Philadelphia's Chris Pronger "wearing a dress" and calling him "Chrissy Pronger. First, some links: Marie Hardin writes that the lack TV sports coverage can't totally be blamed on news organizations. Erin Whiteside believes that the sexist attitudes in sports newsrooms would be helped in part by hiring more diverse staffs. Sally Jenkins, as she always does, brings it.

And now, my  thoughts:

- First off, I am not a fan of womens' sports. That doesn't mean for a second that I think that girls can't play sports, or that they are not as good as men, or that they're undeserving of attention. If the upcoming baby turns out to be a sports media dudette, I'm thankful she'll be blessed to grown up in a post-Title IX world (although if this baby inherits any of my physical grace, he or she won't be anywhere near any playing field). No, I'm not a womens' sports fan the way I am not a fan of soccer. Or most major league baseball or the NBA. Just not my brand of vodka. My sports consumption is pretty much limited to watching the Bills find new and creative ways to throw up all over themselves 16 times a year, the NCAA Tournament and the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I'm also, as a researcher, not particularly interested in issues of diversity. Again, not saying they aren't worthy of study, just not my thing. I guess this is a long way of saying I have no real emotional horse in this derby.

- One of the tricky aspects in this arena is the notion of coverage vs. interest. The long-standing argument against more womens' sports coverage is that nobody cares - or, put more politely, that attendance is far lower than mens' sports. It's a chicken v. egg case - is attendance low because there's not as much coverage, or is there not much coverage because attendance is low? I don't know if there's an answer to that. I think it's a never-ending circle of debate where nothing gets solved.

- The study showed many interesting things about the amount of coverage women get. But I wonder something - I don't watch that  much Sportscenter these days, but my anecdotal sense is that there is far more focus on the so-called elite teams. LeBron. Yanks and Red Sox. The BCS. And so on. I'd like to see (or do, if I ever get the chance, the time and my thesis done) a comparative content analysis of Sportscenter today vs. five or 10 years ago. My sense is that across the board, there is less diversity of coverage. I get the sense that, say, the Brewers and Pirates don't get much coverage easier. This isn't a defense of ESPN's lack of women's coverage - but I think it might add some context. Remember, there are more than 100 "major" pro sports teams in the US, plus 100+ college football teams plus 350+ major college hoops teams. There are a lot of sports out there to fit into an hour of highlights.

- Here's a difficult question, one I don't ask lightly and am prepared for backlash but one that I think needs to be addressed. Should womens' sports be covered? The gut answer is, of course, yes. It's fair to do so, and it's sexist not to. But let me throw this at you, and then duck for cover: ESPN (and all media outlets) are for-profit industries. They are not here for the public good. They are not services. They're businesses. They're here to make money. If mens highlights draw better ratings and allow them to bring in more money via ads, why should ESPN stop? Is Title IX the answer to this? Because Title IX guarantees the right to participate, which we can all agree is one of the most awesome things ever. But that doesn't guarantee coverage on the news.

Again, I'm not necessarily saying womens' sports shouldn't be covered. But I think it's a topic worth discussing. Not doing so, I think, ignores the reality of the media business.

- The authors of the USC study wisely didn't address why women don't get coverage, or why they are portrayed the way they are. One thing you learn in your first research methods class is that you don't assume what the data means. You report what it says. But to me, the why is the amazingly interesting question going forward. Why is womens' sports viewed as lesser in quality than mens'? Why is the sports world one of the last accepted bastions of sexist talk, thought and behavior? It's clearly this culture that led to the Chicago Tribune's dumb-assery (sorry to repeat that non-word, but there's no better description of it).  Why is OK for Bill Simmons to rag on the WNBA constantly and have his readers accept and encourage it?

I tend to have a pragmatist, rather than feminist, point of view in my research. But I think this is the question we have going forward. Why does this attitude continue to pervade the sports world ... and what can be done to eradicate it?

What's everyone else think?