All’s (Un)Fair in Love, War, and the World of Sports

Image Description: A color photograph of the ESPN building in daylight. A banner on the building reads “Serving Sports Fans Anytime, Anywhere” in red letters.

Image Credits: Carol M. Highsmith via the Library of Congress

My earliest memory involving sports was when I got into a fight with a family friend, a girl two years older than me, at a college football game right before kickoff, leading both families to miss out on the rest of the game. Although I’m sure our fathers were disappointed they couldn’t watch the game, considering we had near-front row seats, football was the least of my concerns that day. In fact, it remains the last thing on my mind to this day as I still don’t care for the sport at all — and I’m not expected to.

Sports are undoubtedly a form of social currency in society that connects various types of people together by opening opportunities for engaging conversations. Ideally, this should mean that sports would create safe spaces where all fans can discuss and debate with one another. The reality though, is that because sports are so male-dominated, people who are perceived to be associated with femininity are constantly being excluded from sports-related conversations, or not taken seriously enough when they do find themselves taking part in it. Oftentimes, if they claim to be a fan of a sport, they’re boxed into two categories — they’re either in it because they find the athletes attractive, or they’re “cool” (like Andie in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” or at least until she was, until she asked her date to grab her a soda at the game’s most critical point) and considered “one of the boys” because they know the stats and actually pay attention to the game. But make no mistake, in order to jump from box one to box two, you’re almost always going to be tested on your sports knowledge by a man to validate your credibility.

Unfortunately, this also means that the world of sports is highly gendered, with few spaces for those who are nonbinary and/or transgender. This is a direct reflection of the male-dominated sports industry and how sports are covered in North America. Research shows that sports journalists have a direct influence on public perception through their coverage. Another study has also shown that the difference between how female and male athletes were presented is dependent on the writer’s gender; where male writers are “more likely to reinforce gender stereotypes,” while “female sports writers can make some difference in framing, but institutional structures minimize their impact.” And in terms of nonbinary individuals, they have yet to be included in a lot of these bigger industry wide research. Institutional structures which include, but are not limited to, the lack of diverse hiring could be a possible cause behind this. After all, according to a survey done by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) in 2021, even in the gender-binary sports world, only 14.4% of sports reporters are women, and of that percentage, 28% are women of color.  

So why is there such a big gap between the two? Simply put: it’s one of the many effects that have trickled down from the same patriarchal construct that has prevented women from participating in sports. The most commonly cited reason given for the lack of coverage and resources given to women’s sports is that it isn’t profitable. However, this is due to a lack of investment to begin with. Women’s leagues are already playing catch up to the men’s — many professional sports leagues that we are familiar with today (MLB, NFL, U.S. Soccer, NHL) were established even before women had the right to vote, and the first professional women’s league wasn’t formed until 1943 — when the U.S. entered World War II because MLB executives wanted to keep baseball alive on the home front. However, when the men came back, so did the expectations for women to stay inside. Gender stereotypes continued to exist even when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. She had to be protected by her trainer and boyfriend during the race from a race manager who tried to forcibly stop her from competing. As a result of her run, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) banned women from competing in the same race as men. Many, who defended this decision under the guise of protecting women, claimed that sports were “dangerous” for women as it could harm their ovaries and reproductive future. In reality, the men’s real concerns were regarding the protection of heteronormative gender stereotypes and the heteronormative nuclear family structure. Even now, instead of investing to generate interest in a brighter potential for women’s sports, investors continue pouring their money into the men’s market instead — all while there’s a growing demand for women’s sports in North America. The argument that women’s sports wouldn’t be profitable doesn’t make sense because as long as sports exist, there’s always going to be a market for it. Even if this doesn’t seem like the case. For example, when Disney+ could not retain their rights to show professional cricket league games in India, they also lost more than 4M+ subscribers, an 8% decrease.

Because women are so underrepresented in this field, it has led to them creating their own space in the industry in hopes of improving it for the better through equal coverage both in the reporting and who is behind the reporting.

Ellen Hyslop, co-founder of The Gist, a women-led sports media brand working on creating a more inclusive environment in the industry, spoke with FEM about why sports coverage is so important to developing an equal playing field in the industry. 

Shoulder programming, which features additional behind-the-scenes content, like Netflix’s “Drive to Survive,” generates not only an interest in a sport that people may be less familiar with, like F1 in the case with “Drive to Survive,” but also helps guide people in understanding the complexity of the sport — the challenges and required athleticism — as well.

Hyslop explains, “so when you think about sports that are under-covered, if only we could be covering them in a very similar way to F1, you could see the fandom come in. Once you know a little bit and you feel that connection to it from an education or player standpoint, you feel welcome in that community a bit more, [and] also more confident when you don’t feel like you’re on the outside looking in [because] you understand the rules.” 

Generating individual interest in the sport is only the first step. Once you generate interest in someone, they are bound to talk about it to their co-workers, friends, family and online, leading to a community being built around this shared interest.

This, in turn, helps the sport industry become more inclusive overall, as disparity in sports exists in more ways than just gender inequity. Snoop Dogg, who joined the bid against Ryan Reynolds and The Weeknd to buy the NHL team, The Ottawa Senators, has stated that part of his decision to purchase the team is to increase the media coverage that hockey gets in the United States, and globally. He wants to “take it to the urban communities…and make it accessible…get kids that look like me to try to play it at an early age. You can teach it [hockey] to kids everywhere.” Snoop Dogg also talks about how grassroot organizations can help communities grow and develop with the introduction of sports, and how playing and staying in sports benefits kids both academically and socially. The interview panel then discusses the importance of representation not only on the grassroot side, but also on television — seeing people who look like you in the broadcasting booths, in coaching and ownership positions, and players that look like you perform well, makes you believe that you also have an opportunity to be in those positions, that there’s space for you to exist in this realm.

This movement is incredibly important to changing not only how male-dominated the sports industry is, but also the overwhelming whiteness as well. Many sports organizations are already doing this with their broadcasting content by having kid reporters at important events and press conferences to increase youth interest in sports journalism. However, Hyslop notes that despite organizations making very publicized content to show changes, it still feels very surface-level as representation behind the scenes at higher positions remain limited, “just because you have this number you have to hit doesn’t mean that you’re actually committed to representation.” She cites the Rooney Rule from the NFL as an example — the most recently revised edition of the rule states that it “[requires] every team to interview at least two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator job. Additionally, at least one minority and/or female candidate must be interviewed for senior level positions.” However, despite this rule being adopted all the way back in 2003, there hasn’t been much improvement in the hiring results. It wasn’t until 2022 that Lo Van Pham became the first Asian American NFL official in history. And currently there are only three head coaches out of the thirty-two who are Black, which has led to a lawsuit in 2022.

There has been similar criticism against the NHL as well with their “Hockey is for Everyone” project. According to the NHL website, this campaign “…uses the game of hockey – and the League’s global influence – to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.” This translates to community events and in-game programming including certain nights where players would wear specific jerseys during their warmups that would later be autographed and auctioned off with profits going to charities and organizations. However, the league’s board of governors have decided to cease special jerseys for the 2023-2024 season as the 2022-2023 season saw many threats to Pride Nights when individual players, and entire teams, started to pull away from wearing Pride Jerseys citing various personal reasons such as religion and political safety. The controversy has led to conversations circulating in the media and on social media platforms regarding the anti-LGBTQ politics of the league and how these so-called inclusive events are not for promoting inclusion, but for generating profit from an increase in ticket sales. After all, if you claim that a sport is open to everyone, how welcome would a person feel if the player or team they look up to won’t even wear what is essentially a piece of fabric in support of your rights for thirty minutes?

So, what can we do about this? Encourage local journalism whether it be at the college-level or within your own communities. And maybe even provide new content alongside the expected recap of the last game. Hyslop offers journalists seeking to do this some advice: “really understand why someone would care and what the hook is going to be, while also at the same time leaning into the passions of what gets people fired up from a local perspective. For writers at The Gist, we like to talk about what’s happening in specific cities with men’s sports as well as women’s sports. But also taking a step back and looking at the macro perspective for that city. Those types of stories and understanding the intersection between sports and culture could be a unique angle for people covering their local sports teams too.”

At a college-level where sports typically have an already loyal and established following for the school, team, and individual players, this can be even more impactful. The University of Michigan has a “Scholar Series” where they feature a student athlete and talk about their academic pursuits. I happened to come across one of their articles about Mark Estapa, an ice hockey player, being discussed on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr where young fans, regardless of gender and race, talked about their desires to attend UMich because of how he described the academic environment and support in the article. Moreover, they also mention their admiration for his perseverance towards wanting to play the sport at a professional level despite the challenges that comes with being an undrafted player. This article was the starting point to other articles featured on their website that ultimately made me realize: maybe student athletes being viewed as micro-influencers isn’t so bad after all if they can use their influence for the good of their community whether it be by inspiring people to pick up or stay in a sport, or by encouraging people to pursue a higher education. Either way, more coverage, no matter the level, increases the possibility of opening up new avenues for a person, regardless of race, sexuality or gender, to consider for their future at any stage of life — which is especially critical in a world where regression and standstill seems to be more commonplace than progression.

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