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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Gender Bias in American Sports: Lack of Opportunity, Lack of Administrative Positions and Lack of Coverage in Women's Sports

“In the early days, female volleyball players were cautioned not to expose too much . A hundred years later, they were encouraged to expose more”. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Women’s Sports. pg. 281.

“If people want to come check us out because they’re scoping our bodies, I don’t have a problem with that, because I guarantee they’ll go home talking about our athleticism”. pg. 283.

“These women are as deft at handling the ball as they are lipstick”. pg. 262.

“Let’s face facts here. Lesbians in the sport hurt women’s golf……..Laura Davies is built like a tank”. pg. 66

“The reason for this [media frenzy dubbed Annamania] is simple: She’s blond, she’s flirtatious and she’s pretty. Never, ever, underestimate the power of a male sports editor smitten.” pg. 52.

“The Olympic Games should be a solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, arts for its setting, and female applause as reward.” Pierre de Coubertin. Idiot’s Guide. pg. 31.

“If there are two people the same, would I prefer to see women coaching women? As role models, I think it’s important. But not to sacrifice a program.” Pat Babcock. N.Y. Times. 2002


Women in America have made tremendous strides in the last 100 years of American history. Politically, women gained the right to vote in 1920, through the 19th amendment. In the workforce, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 allowed women the right to equal pay for the same job as their male counterparts. In the sports world, women gained the right to play in 1972 by way of Title IX of the Educational Amendments. In spite of these strides however, gender bias continues to exist. It is difficult to think of a greater injustice which effects the majority of people in the United States. According to the 2006 U.S. Census Bureau, just over half of the U.S. Population is female, (50.7%), yet bias against women, the majority, persists.

Due to the strong traditions of our patriarchal society, women continue to face an uphill climb. Gender is the neutral term for the two sexes, male and female. Bias is defined as unreasoned judgment, a bent or tendency, prejudicial. (Merriman’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1993). Gender bias then, is to show favor or partiality, toward one of the sexes exclusively because of gender. Or said in the negative, to not show impartiality based upon gender. In spite of these gender neutral definitions, it is clear in American culture, that gender bias has been and continues to be highly slanted against women. From the academic setting of classrooms (Bailey 1992) and college admissions, to the workplace with lower salaries, (AAWU report, 2008) lack of job opportunities and bleak forecasts for advancement, women continue to be discriminated against. The hegemonic male culture, consciously or not, creates an antagonistic environment for females. Nowhere is this more true than the environment of sports.

Opportunity Bias

One of the three prongs of the Title IX law has to do with equal participation opportunity in proportion to student enrollment as it pertains to federally funded centers of education. While millions of girls have benefited from the implementation of Title IX, there are still playing fields where females are still unwelcome. Traditional wisdom, that girls are only suited for activities which emulate the aesthetic side of sports such as gymnastics, ice skating, cheer leading, etc., persists, along with the notion that females should not engage in high physical contact activities such as wrestling, football or rugby. While TitleIX mandates equal opportunity, it does not mandate equal opportunity in specific sports. American football for example does not have an exact feminine equivalent, so girls are given other options besides football. (Volleyball, field Hockey). Options do not always mean equal.

Gender bias occurs not only because there is no football team for women to play on, but rather that is only the outcome of the larger problem. The real gender bias has to do with the male, and sometimes female, attitudes of what defines masculinity and what defines femininity. Due to the pervading male influence, gender typing occurs early during a girl’s development. Gender typing is attributing qualities, characteristics, attributes, temperaments, demeanor and behavior due to a gender. That is, making generalizations about a person, and how they act or should act, based upon preconceived notions and definitions of their gender.

Through the power of suggestion, gender socialization begins at a very early age. Subtly, or not so subtly, a girl hears messages throughout her life that females aren’t good at math and science, and proficiency in math and science are needed to become, for example, a space traveler, so the logical conclusion for her is that she can not go into space. The argument that, “if girls had the ability to become astronauts we would see more of them”, is self defeating when we have not given them the opportunity to do so in the first place. More plausibly, is that a self fulfilling prophecy has occurred. Expectations have shaped a behavior, which in turn shapes future expectations. This cycle usually conforms to the dominant cultural theme, and in our example, the dominant theme is male supremacy.

Interestingly however, not all female athletes share the feminist view. McClung and Blind, (2002) found in the vast majority of their interviews with female college athletes, a desensitized attitude toward women’s sport issues. In their study, women said things such as “we feel privileged to play college sports”, as opposed to a right, and “gender equity issues are not important to me”. The main reason sighted for the lack of passion was due to lack of time, and other obligations.

The sports world is biased against women in terms of opportunity in the professional ranks as well. Title IX has helped women with participation opportunity but only in educational settings, and speaks nothing of post college athletics. With the relative success of the WNBA more women basketball players have the opportunity to make a living playing a professional sport. Relative to the men’s opportunities however, economically it pales in comparison, $55,000 versus $4,000,000 (the average salary). Without the potential prospect of playing professionally, girls devote less time to the sport, focusing rather on other pursuits such as relationships, and academics, further establishing the gender logic in American culture that women are not interested in sports for the long term, or that they do not have the commitment needed to pursue athletics as a vocation. Again, this is a self defeating argument, as the WNBA has shown. Several franchises have been able to maintain healthy fan bases in the short 12 years history of the league. Part of the issue with lack of professional opportunity for women is linked to sponsorship bias.

Companies looking to use sports to market their product do not look to women’s sport first. Companies are concerned with getting a return on their advertising dollar. The perception is that their return will not be as great if they invest in women sport teams. Whether it be through product endorsement contracts with specific athletes, facility or venue sponsorship, or capital investment in a specific team, corporations view the WNBA as a second rate, at best, investment. Justified as a reasonable business decision, the purse holders have a profound negative affect upon a team, the league in general, and women’s sports as a whole. Understandably, companies have a responsibility to be prudent investors for their constituents. However, at the same time, they may be missing an opportunity to pair their product with a market they have yet to completely associate it with, say 51% of the population. This liquidity issue in women’s sports is closely tied with the bias of the media.

Even with the advancements of the LPGA and the USWTA, Greendorfer suggests that women “are still confined within ideological structures of patriarchy”.

Media Bias

Arguably, the media creates fans. Several men’s professional and collegiate teams have national audiences. Notre Dame football, New York Yankees, Penn State football, Dallas Cowboys, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, to name a few. The reasons for each of these teams captivating a large and diverse audience are many and as varied as their fan base. The media, along with many other variables (such as the location of the team, franchise or team history and legacy, colorful characters, and team success), play a role as to how that team is perceived by the public. Within the greater public are potential fans. Television coverage, magazine articles, radio broadcasts etc., all influence whether a team will garner a national fan base. Men’s sports have known that “exposure pays” for a long time, and with the increasing technological ability to feed fans the sport information they want, it would seem to be a relatively easy task for the networks to maneuver women’s sports coverage more toward the front web and paper pages.

The very important 1996 work of Messner et al. details the shortcomings of media coverage of women’s sports, and the bias they exude. Messner and his colleagues analyzed and compared the 1993 NCAA basketball championship coverage for both men and women. Their conclusion, in part, was that “the television industry actively builds audiences for men’s games while failing to do so for women’s games”. (Yiannakis. p.330). This is no small point. Potential sponsors look at viewer ratings to determine potential investments. If ratings are lower than they deem necessary, the event will not be a target. However, without the media covering the event adequately, that is to say, billing it with the same hype, energy, enthusiasm and professionalism as the men’s games, fewer viewers are most certainly likely. Without the national exposure, women’s sports will continue to be a second rate investment because that is what the networks have created. Messner says that the network’s position is “we’re just giving the fans what they want”. The counter to that is, “they want that because you have made it more inviting to want that. The circus is more fun when there’s three rings instead of two.

The media also appears to be bias against women’s sports by the way the events are covered. The shear quantity of coverage is a fraction of the men’s coverage. Messner found during the 1993 basketball tournaments, for example, that 41 stories ran for the men, and only 10 for the women, the men’s stories ran longer than the women’s, were more in depth, and had more video footage. In short, the media was telling the viewing audiences which of the two events they wanted you to watch, which was of better quality, and in the long run, building an audience of viewers so they can charge future sponsors top dollar. Television networks have the ability to build audiences, and they choose to with men’s sports.

Another way media is bias against women and proliferates gender typing is by the way women athletes are spoken of. Messner points out, that even collegiate mascot names for women’s teams, con notate a feminine, softer version of the male equivalent. The Lions as compared to the Lionesses. Or the Lady Bear Cats, emphasizing the female version of the game as opposed to just the game. Messner makes the jump that this is a type of gender marking, reminding the audience that they are watching something other than a basketball game. In fact the very name of the the two basketball tournaments is very telling, from “The Final Four” to “The Women’s Final Four”. Making this distinction, Messner argues, gives the women’s tournament a patronizing tone. Messner makes many other salient points regarding coverage differences between the men’s and the women’s tournaments, all indicating that women’s sports are a niche, and men’s is mainstream.

One of those differences is how women are portrayed in the media. Tradition holds that women are weak, or at best, not as strong as men, that they are the softer sex, the more emotional, the more aesthetically pleasing, beautiful. In other words, if society was going to accept the new members on their playing fields it was going to be done on their terms. Their terms included the sexualization of women’s sports. From the quotes on the first page of this paper we can see the varied opinions within the women’s sports movement. Those varying opinions have caused controversy and confusion.

On the one hand, women want nothing more than to be given equal opportunity to play and equal coverage from the media. Further they wish to be respected for their physical abilities and skills. They wish to be rewarded for their sporting achievements. On the other hand, some women athletes believe they they can not get the exposure needed to win over large numbers of fans unless they give the fans another reason for coming to their events besides observing athletic ability. In the modern women sports media market this “neanderthal mentality” (as Mariah Burt Nelson once quipped) has translated into women being regarded, identified and valued more for how they look than how they perform. Recent stories of tennis stars Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters attests to this fact. While added “exposure” has given women’s sports more exposure in the media, perhaps it is not the exposure they had hoped for, and further it does send mixed messages to younger women athletes who are the future of the movement. In effect the male hegemony has won again, trivializing women’s sports. Unable to stop the cultural freight train they saw coming with Billie Jean King, a man’s world has set the switches and the tracks so as to control the train’s next stop reducing women’s sports to a public peep show, the impact of the social order is preserved.

Ironically, this media bias is also rampant among female reporters who don’t know which cause to fight for, their career or the social injustice that is gender inequality. Female football sideline reporters of the major television networks, are asked to be both sexy and competent. When ABC was asked why they hired a female the response was, “we know that 40% of our viewing audience for these games are females. They need someone on the screen they can relate to”. I’m sure the other 60% of the viewing audience didn’t object. Monday Night Football hired a new sideline reporter to replace Melissa Stark. As Randy Sandomir reported in the N.Y. Times on the story of the new hire,

Lisa Guerrero, who will patrol the sideline of ABC’s ”Monday Night Football” for the next three seasons. She is an actress, a former Rams cheerleader and a model who posed in a lacy black nightie for Maxim last year. She has also been a local TV sports reporter in Los Angeles and, most recently, the sports-update anchor for Fox Sports Net’s testosterone talkfest, ”The Best Damn Sports Show Period.” Guerrero is shrewd enough to know that her looks have enhanced her TV career, yet seemingly naïve in believing that posing in scanties or low-cut halters won’t damage the journalistic credentials she proudly describes. ”A generation ago, women weren’t supposed to look sexy”, she says, “but here I am getting offers from FHM and Maxim. ”I’m 39”, Guerrero said by telephone yesterday, a day after she was hired. ”If some 18-year-old thinks I’m hot, then I embrace that. It’s awesome.’

Clearly there are conflicting agendas within the movement to curb gender bias. Purists of the movement may be getting a queasy feeling in their stomach, while the new generation of women liberals subscribe to the old entertainment adage that “even bad press is good press”.

Administration Bias

Briefly I will conclude with the third area of gender bias in women’s sports. Prior to the implementation of Title IX in 1978, 90% of women collegiate sports were being coached by women. According to the 2007 Knight Commission on Sports, the NCAA watchdog, 42% of women collegiate teams are being coached by women, an all time low. Further only 18 % of all college athletic directors, 12% of all college sport information directors, and 27% of head athletic trainers, are women. (2% of men’s collegiate programs were being coached by women in 2004.) Coakley considers part of the reason for this change to be the more lucrative contracts for women’s coaching positions. Geno Auriemma, the head coach of the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball team will earn over 2 million dollars this year in salary and endorsements. Once the big money started coming in to Women’s basketball in the early 1990’s, men started vying for the positions with more determination. Whereas before the success of basketball powerhouses such as Connecticut, Tennessee, LSU and Stanford, women’s jobs were generally not considered as serious positions. Money changed all that.

Women’s sports is caught between a rock and a hard place. If they advocate for stronger pay, men come in and take over the coaching positions. If they ask the public to look at their athletic skills, there will be no fan base. If they ask us to look at other parts of their bodies, they are thought to be prostituting themselves to the highest bidder, all in the name of recognition. When women accept this role it reinforces the traditional male / female value system which they have tried to distance themselves from.

The proverbial glass ceiling for women in the sports work place is illustrated when we consider that 80% of sport communication positions are held by men. Women will continue to face an uphill battle for equal opportunity to play, equal representation in the coaching ranks, and equal media attention due to the male culture of superiority, but the women’s sport movement is doing no favors for themselves when they send mixed messages to both sides of the tracks. The freight train has arrived, now it just needs a conductor.