When The Seattle Seahawks won the super bowl last Sunday, Fox News made a big deal about how it was the city’s first National Championship since the 1979 Super Sonics won the NBA finals. This didn’t sit well with members of the two-time (2003 and 2010) WNBA champs, The Seattle Storm. Lauren Jackson, three-time WNBA MVP and a member of both championship teams, called out the oversight on Twitter: “Minimalizing female achievement in sport… Again…”
For women in sports (and fans of women in sports) it’s a familiar story. Last summer, when Andy Murray won the men’s Wimbledon championship, his victory was celebrated as the first for a Brit in 77 years – overlooking four previous British winners: Dorothy Round Little (1937), Angela Mortimer Barrett (1961), Ann Haydon Jones (1969), and Virginia Wade (1977).
When NBA player Jason Collins came out publicly as gay, he was lauded as the first openly gay player to be actively playing in a professional sports league, never mind the trailblazing out athletes in both the WNBA and the NWSL.
All of these anecdotes illustrate the same point: the continuing media marginalization of women’s achievements in sport. It’s not that women aren’t competing. According to a recent editorial in the The Tennessean, citing a report by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota, although 40% of all sports participants nationwide are female, women’s sports receive only 2-4% of all sports media coverage.
This is empirically evident when perusing major sports media outlets such as Sport Illustrated, ESPN, The Sporting News, or the sports section of any newspaper. The largest presence of women on the Sports Illustrated home page is their “swimwear daily,” featuring models in bikinis. And although ESPN does offer a hub for women’s sports news (ESPN-W), at the time that I am writing this, the only female-specific sport offered through their “MyESPN” personalization option is NCAA Women’s Hoops. No WNBA, no NWSL, no LPGA, no other NCAA options.
That female athletes compete every year in national and international tournaments and championships is largely ignored, until the Olympics. On the Olympic stage, women competing in sports finally get their due share of the limelight. Simply stated, the Olympic Games are the only occasion where coverage of women in sports receives anything close to parity with that of men in sports.
Many of my friends and colleagues have vowed to boycott this year’s Olympic Games, citing Russia’s heinous anti-gay propaganda laws and human rights violations. One can argue the effectiveness of such a boycott on affecting any political change in these policies; I’d posit that the eyes of the world upon Russia, as well as the pressure of large corporate sponsors, might yield better results.
And one thing I know, the athletes who have been training and preparing for their Olympic moment — the pinnacle of their athletic careers — have no say in where the Olympics will be held. Why should their accomplishments be diminished because the Olympics Committee made a bad decision?
Like many sports fans, part of what captivates me about watching sports are the human dramas that play out when athletes who are at the peak of their training put it all on the line: the struggles, the hustle, the heartbreak, triumph, and the sheer tenacity of will. This is no less true for women’s sports but too often the experiences of female athletes are excluded or ignored. The Olympic Games give female athletes their due spot on the world stage.
That is why I am watching the Sochi Olympics.