Announcing the Sports Page Project

Alexa Koenig
Mar 8 · 6 min read

Today, in the waning hours of International Women’s Day, a group of researchers and reporters at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley are launching a new project aimed at gender equality: the Sports Page Project.

Before I explain what we’re planning to do and how we’ll do it, here’s why.

***

Last spring, I picked up the sports page section of the New York Times. It was a section I regularly skipped, but for once I didn’t have a looming deadline. As I thumbed through multiple pages, I quickly became confused. Almost every picture was of a male athlete. Every article focused on a man or a men’s team. I wondered for a moment if this could be a special “men’s only” edition, but then realized that was ridiculous. I hopped on the internet, sure there would be content about female athletes in the online version, but it perfectly mirrored the one in print. Something was very, very wrong.

I wondered for a moment if this could be a special “men’s only” edition.

In some ways, though, this project’s origin story begins even earlier — in 1972, with the birth of Title IX. Both that landmark legislation (a set of civil rights laws aimed at destroying discrimination in education) and I were born that year, and my childhood followed the plot line of the earliest attempts at athletic equality. As most stories go, the path to parity wasn’t smooth: my father, who’d planned for boys, ended up with girls — girls he was determined would be just as tough as the sons he’d imagined. By the time I was five, my dad was drilling me on left handed layups, convincing me of the advantages I’d have if I could break away and score from either side of the basket. By the time I was old enough for organized sports, I was often the only girl (or one of a small handful of girls) on boys’ teams because there wasn’t enough demand in our small town to support a league for girls. And because of Title IX, we had to be included.

Of course, some sports remained out of bounds. My sister petitioned to be the first girl in our town to play pee-wee football. Even though, as a gymnast, she was stronger than most of the boys in our middle school, her requests were denied. While the ban on female football players is finally softening, profound improvements creep at a snail’s pace. While football was a no-go, girls were allowed to play basketball. And thus for a while I became the only girl in the boys’ league: the one other who signed up was so tormented by her teammates that she fled. That left me.

Perplexingly, the mocking from other teams rarely pointed in my direction; instead, it sharpened on my male teammates, who would blush and try to ignore the chants of being the “team with the girl.” I was afraid my teammates would come to loathe me. I’m guessing many did. The pressure was so great to be even better than the boys — to earn their respect — that I would train for hours and straight through any breaks. One day, I became so dehydrated my entire body cramped, and I couldn’t walk. My parents carried me to a bathtub and had me drink almost a gallon of water as my body seized.

What I didn’t realize at the age of 11 or 12 was that even if I did become “the best,” that wouldn’t really help. When I showed off that left-handed layup, I often heard, “Are you going to let a girl get one up on you?” Win or lose the game, there was no way to win.

When I picked up the New York Times sports section again this Fall, the Kavanaugh hearings were in full swing and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements were hard at work. As a woman who has moved from entertainment to law to technology—all male dominated fields—I am grateful for those movements. However, I began to worry that they were only harvesting the low-hanging fruit, the most egregious behavior by a few “bad apples” whose identities were widely known. We were nowhere near the roots of the problem, which is what we truly needed to destroy.

I also worried that these campaigns would do little to showcase women as strong. While stories of sexual harassment are important for underscoring the prevalence of what so many people have silently endured and for so long, I’m concerned we may get stuck: that those who speak out will be even more deeply affiliated with sex and victimhood.

To complement the risks they’ve taken to share their stories, let’s start showing women as powerful by featuring them on our sports pages. This might seem like a small contribution, but it could lead to something big.

* * *

Starting today, our team will take stock of a periodical’s sports section weekly. We’ll cover the country — from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle, from Sports Illustrated to ESPN. Sports editors, beware: we will call out what we see. We will illuminate blind spots, but we will also praise progress. If you want to educate us about the challenges to change, please do. We’re ready to listen and engage — and to hopefully make this world better for a generation of women warriors. And maybe, just maybe, that change will spread to others who have been invisible for far too long.

In addition to our social media call outs, we will publish a series of articles that spotlight the latest research on gender and sports — starting with the history of Title IX and its impact on gender parity in athletics and in life. Another series will celebrate amazing female athletes. We will also provide quantitative analysis of how often (and where) women are showing up in sports pages across the country and across the globe.

Just a cursory glance into articles in the New York Times print edition since February 11, 2019 reveals that out of 163 sports articles, only 14 (less than 9%) focus on female athletes; out of 169 bylines, only 18 (11%) appear to belong to women. These stats might be shocking, but reflect just the tip of the iceberg.

To disseminate our findings, next week we’ll launch Twitter and Facebook sites, and a series on Medium. If you want to write for the series, please submit your first or third person accounts and pieces to our editors for consideration.

Our goals are threefold: 1) to bring greater awareness to the structural, cultural, and individual barriers that are holding back women in sports, so that they become easier to tear down; 2) to discover the missing facts about those barriers in order to make them more visible; and 3) to inspire media outlets across the world to examine their shortcomings in covering female athletes and make changes that advance gender parity — and may even result in greater readership.

I’ve been told that media won’t cover female athletes at the same rate as men because there’s no audience. But an audience had to be made, sport by sport, for men. People can’t follow what they don’t know exists. So let’s start by making the invisible visible, and the silent, heard.

We may just be spotlighting sports pages. But if we start by respecting women there, we might just start respecting them everywhere. We might finally make a dent in the deep rooted biases we all hold. If we can change the perception of women in media, we can help to change the world.

In an age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s time to blow the whistle on women’s second class status.

#GameOn.

Human Rights Center

on human rights research, investigations, and action

Alexa Koenig

Written by

Executive Director, Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley

Human Rights Center

on human rights research, investigations, and action