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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Media’s Effect on Perceptions of Athletes’ Gender and Race

Most people see sport as an unscripted event pitting two opposing entities against each other, resulting in a victor and a loser. Sport is an unobjective series of events, a chance for viewers to watch a drama in its purest form. The ever-increasing popularity of sport can be directly linked to advances in and popularity of television broadcasting. Rada and Wulfemeyer (2005) argued that the marriage of sport and television produced one of the more mutually beneficial relationships in the marketplace. While the relationship may have been beneficial in terms of revenue, it has produced some negative effects on viewers.

Mass media is a type of communication that is designed to reach the general population. With television at the core of our modern society, messages sent via television often have a profound effect on the viewers—who often construe media messages as fact. This can sometimes distort the truth, as when the media works to shape viewer perceptions by portraying athletes negatively based on race or gender and stereotyped beliefs about both.

Koivula (1999) states that, in order to deepen our understanding of cultural values embedded in sport and to explore current values and power structures, we must study the potential effect of mass media on our beliefs. Socialization can be a by-product of sport-related media. Such socialization can be understood as the process through which media viewers learn beliefs, values, knowledge, and skills pertaining to our society. When these beliefs, values, knowledge, and skills reflect misconceived stereotypes of race and gender, the media in essence reinforces these stereotypes in the society.

Media’s continual presence, especially that of television, allows any stereotyping reflected in content to be repeatedly consumed by viewers, who often come to adopt the stereotyping within their beliefs. According to Rada and Wulfemeyer (2005), research has demonstrated that bias can take many forms, from what is heard (e.g., spoken commentary by on-air talent) to what is seen (e.g., production practices of media covering sports). This has led to false impressions of gender and race within sport, which mark today’s society.

Throughout history, women have struggled to gain equality in all walks of life. It is no different in the world of sport. Sport has long been thought a man’s domain, with women viewed strictly as spectators. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 paved the way for women to become part of contemporary sports, stating that in the United States no one may be (a) excluded from, or (b) denied the benefits that result from, or (c) be in any way discriminated against in the course of an education program or activity supported financially by the federal government. While women now more than ever participate in sports, the media still tend to perpetuate stereotypes about female athletes that male athletes do not encounter. Many researchers have found women’s sports to receive strikingly less coverage than men’s, even when women happen to constitute the majority of a sport’s participants (Koivula, 1999). When the media comment on women’s sports, female athletes may well be referred to (depending on the sport) in either a sexual manner or a brutish, demeaning manner. The media praises men for athletic ability in sports, but too often praises women only for physical attractiveness. A perfect example of this is the reputable magazine Sports Illustrated. Long established as the premier magazine for sports, Sports Illustrated is also famous for its “swimsuit edition,” in which women are portrayed as sexual objects. Another example comes from the 1999 women’s soccer world cup competition. In that event, Brandi Chastain won the final round for the USA by scoring on a penalty shot. Her goal was a defining moment in women’s soccer. Sports Illustrated, however, adorned the cover of its subsequent issue with a photo of Chastain removing her jersey in celebration (showing her bra). Sexual undertones distracted readers from what might have been rendered as the women’s proud step forward in a male-dominated sport.

Descriptors involving sports skills are often absent from descriptions of women athletes. Instead, references to them more typically involve aesthetic judgment (e.g., graceful) or note their femininity or lack of it (Koivula, 1999). Continual media messages regarding women may cause certain learned beliefs to set in in a society; when those beliefs reflect stereotypes, women’s progress is obscured. While women and women athletes have made great strides, they still find themselves belonging to a misconceived stereotype, one created long ago but reinforced by media today.

Like women, African Americans have struggled for equitable treatment by society. The rate of participation in contemporary sports by African Americans (just as by women) has risen. Indeed, African American men are now the norm for the athlete in most major sports (certainly distinguishing them from women athletes). But while African American men may have achieved equality in terms of playing for intercollegiate and professional teams, they remain subject to different treatment by media covering their sports (Rada and Wulfemeyer, 2005). Sports commentators too often describe African American athletes in terms of their power or physique, using descriptors that seem, on the surface, to be complimentary. But as Rada and Wulfemeyer explain, the compliments reinforce a racial bias, in that they differ from descriptors applied by sports commentators to white athletes. According to the Rada and Wulfemeyer, African American players receive a greater number of negative comments than white players do relating to on-field indicators of intellect. Thus do the media reinforce the misconceived stereotype that African Americans are more brawn than brain. Research has also demonstrated a direct link between people’s perceptions and racial stereotyping of athletes in the media.

African American male athletes are usually described as having unrivaled muscular physiques with skill sets appropriate to them. Continual description of African American male athletes in terms of brawn reinforces the stereotypical image of the African American as physical rather than intellectual being. Evidence of such racial bias is magnified when held up to typical media portrayals of white male athletes (Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005), who are commonly described and praised by the media in terms of intellectual prowess. Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers, for example, is a white male whom commentators often commend for his high basketball IQ when he makes plays, but often fault for his insufficient physical ability when he doesn’t. African American teammates of Walton’s, in contrast, find their “skills” praised when they execute well and their “mental errors” blamed for failures to execute. Sports-related socialization of this discriminatory type can perpetuate stereotypes generation after generation.

When considering gender and race within contemporary sports, most Americans probably have little difficulty seeing that women athletes continue to struggle for acceptance. While inclusion today usually extends to opportunities for women to participate in sports, it does not reach far enough to block sexual and/or demeaning media portrayals of women athletes by the media. These are apparent from time to time to most sports viewers. Most discouraging is that, even though many viewers would acknowledge gender bias within sport, very little is being done to combat it.
On the other hand, viewers seem to find it more difficult to recognize racial bias in the sports media. So often repeated are commentators’ stereotyped observations that viewers accept them as normal, never thinking in terms of racial discrimination. More viewers must learn to evaluate sports commentary through the prism of race in order to note that praise of whites for intelligence and of African Americans for skill, power, and physique suggests and sustains inherent racial bias.

Since gender and racial bias persists in the sports media, further research needs to be done on training completed by media personnel, especially TV commentators. Many national sports commentators are ex-players lacking formal training in communications. With proper training, commentators might be better prepared to perform in the stressful atmosphere of a live sports event. Moreover, proper training might enable commentators to keep their stereotypical comments in check. Additional research on the effects media has had on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes toward race and gender might prove informative and could eventually be beneficial for ridding the media of bias toward groups of athletes.


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