Women, Sports, and Media

As a historian, I have to briefly refer to our foundation: the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press; makes being an American journalist a powerful role! The media has an influential position in our daily lives, in how we perceive the world. Earlier this month, when Tammi Jo Shults was praised for her unflappable professionalism; which resulted in a skilled and safe landing, I was thrilled to see most stories talking about her as a trailblazer and hero. However, there were many journalists who chose to take the opportunity to remind us not to forget our HIStory

I am particularly interested in how women’s sports are covered by the media. In October, I covered the espnW summit, a media outlet championing women’s sports stories. On Friday, April 20th espnW hosted a first-of-its-kind event: Women, Sports, and Media: Careers, Coverage and Consequences. The event brought together more than 100 women for a day of inspirational conversations and insightful lectures at the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. The main theme of the event was highlighted in the opening remarks, made by espnW senior vice president Laura Gentile, “no matter how slow change feels, know that change has been made.”

Standout journalists and media executives spent the day talking about how their careers have evolved, how the industry and leagues have changed, with all participants sharing an optimism for the future; that must include diverse women in leadership roles.

There were gripping stories from Claire Smith, the first woman to win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing. Smith was once kicked out of a Padres club house because of her gender, she shared, “the light needs to be shown on progress that we’ve made in diversity, but also on the work that’s still needed.”

For the work ahead, this self-proclaimed nerd was fascinated by the research presented from Purdue University associate professor, Cheryl Cooky. Her research has covered women’s sports by local and national media since 1989. Unfortunately, her research shows that segments on women’s sports has declined: 5.0 percent of segments surveyed talked about women’s sports in 1989, compared to 3.2 percent in 2014. What was most fascinating was her insights regarding tone of voice. In 1989, Cooky observed the “humorous sexualization and trivialization of women’s sports.” However, in 2014, there was less sexualization or trivialization; but instead “gender bland sexism” that portrayed women’s sports as lackluster and boring. What I found most astounding is that this research, conducted over twenty-five years, discovered that instead of featuring in-action game footage, most media outlets frequently show women on the bench cheering or hugging one another while celebrating victory.

To close the conference, a panel including Beth Mowins, reflected on the road ahead for women, sports and media. Mowins became one of the first women to call an NFL game, she stated “I’m always reminded that progress in America is undefeated.” I whole-heartedly believe this to be true, and I hope you do too. As I write this story, Roc Nation’s Kim Miale represented the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft. That’s the highest a player represented by a female agent has ever been drafted.


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