The Olympic Effect on Gender Coverage

By Katie Giacobbe and Juana Lopez

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Serena Williams lost in the first round of the Rio Olympics last summer. Her surprising early exit received much media coverage, but Williams still has image problems when compared to other athletes. She’s been called one of the “greatest female athletes” ever. Photo by: Miki Turner/mikiphoto

Media coverage has historically treated women differently than men. And, despite major efforts from the feminist movements in the ’60s and ’70s, women athletes are still viewed through a different lens than the men.

Gender studies expert Laura Castañeda, however, believes that there has been significant overall improvement, but there is still a ways to go when it comes covering male and female athletes in the sports pages and on TV.

“It’s changed tremendously, it’s far from perfect as we saw with the latest coverage from the Olympics in Rio,” she said. “Lots of sexism, lots of misogyny still out there but compared to what it was, yes, we have a lot more coverage.”

For example, more women’s games are televised, especially the U.S. women’s soccer team and the still-struggling WNBA. And, this year, USC’s water polo, soccer and beach volleyball teams were honored at ESPN’s ESPY Awards for winning NCAA championships. And in print, top NCAA women’s basketball teams like UConn, Tennessee, South Carolina, Stanford and others often receive as much ink as the lower-ranked men’s teams.

This UNDERCOVERAGE, however, goes far beyond women — it also affects women athletes who are also classified as minorities. Castañeda believes that underrepresented groups are simply ignored and that there is hardly any coverage on them. When there is some coverage, it’s a very low stress, low stakes kind of coverage, and eventually it does get into some substantive issues especially in women’s and men’s coverage.

“I definitely think there is a difference between the way male and female athletes are treated. I also believe that as a woman we have still a lot to do,” Serena Williams told ESPN before her stunning semifinal loss at this year’s U.S. Open.

Like Castañeda, Michael Messner, a USC professor who co-authored a series of reports on the sparse coverage of women’s sports in TV news and highlight shows, also believes that certain racial groups are underrepresented or picked upon.

Such has been the case with former French Olympic figure skater Surya Bonaly, who was chastised for doing illegal backflips on the ice and for the less than glamorous costumes she wore. Same with Olympic gold medalists Venus and Serena Williams. The press often focused on their hair, their unapologetically controversial father-coach and their athletic builds. Most recently, Olympic gold medalists Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles were criticized for their looks — and even the medications they used. Biles suffers from ADHD.

“Serena is kind of the hybrid,” said USC Lecturer and former sports columnist/producer Miki Turner. “She’s inarguably one of the best athletes on the planet right now — male or female —and in some circles she’s considered sexy and attractive, but she still makes fewer endorsement dollars than Maria Sharapova because the blond, blue-eyed woman is still the prototype for sponsors and advertisers. Sharapova, even before the doping scandal, was just a good athlete. She was never great. I’ve found in the years that I actively covered women’s sports, it was hard to find one who was both great and had looks that would be deemed ‘exceptionally beautiful’ by the media.

Maria Sharapova, prior to her illegal substance scandal, was the prototype for female athletes and the endorsement queen. Photo by: Miki Turner/mikiphoto

“That’s something the men don’t really have to deal with. Michael Phelps is a phenomenal athlete but no one cares that he’s not the best looking guy on the planet.”

Further, black female athletes are often celebrated for their “natural athletic ability,” while white women are often referred to as graceful, beautiful and smart. This would apply to Olympians like Anouk Verge-Depre (beach volleyball), Mia Hamm (soccer), Allie Long (soccer), Aly Raisman (gymnastics), Hilary Knight (ice hockey), Federica Pellegrini (swimming) and others, featured in hottest female athlete lists or on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. To be fair, however, many publications — including the New York Daily News featured lots of bare-chested men in Speedos and other form-fitting athletic gear in a photo gallery featuring hot Olympians.

One of the many butt shots taken by photographers at the Rio Olympics. Photo by Andy Hooper/Daily Mail

“Mostly, I think the press is still more likely to position white women athletes as “America’s Darlings” rather than black women athletes,” he said.

Messner’s studies, which began in 1989, examines specific broadcasts on major sports networks that had little to no coverage of female athletes. They also examine the portrayal of female athletes as sexualized objects, as well as the emphasis on women’s roles at mothers.

Messner said that coverage of female athletes during the Olympics is of a better quality than the broadcasts he studied for his reports, but the post-Olympic dip in women’s sports coverage rings true to his findings.

“It’s become the norm that every four years we elevate a small group of U.S. women into the spotlight during the Olympics and then the media routinely returns to less coverage of women’s sports following the Olympics,” he said.

Messner notes that in the more recent years, there has been a shift in popularity in certain women’s sports groups, for example, the Final Five — the U.S. gymnastics team that included Douglas, Biles, Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian.

“Negative criticism of Gabby Douglas happened again. Last time was for her ‘inappropriate’ hair. This time, her supposed lack of respect for the national anthem,” he said. “This time though, I think more people were quicker to come to her defense, though this perhaps the blogosphere where lots of folks are attuned to racism and sexism.”

Several publications made an issue of Douglas’ unkept ‘do during the Rio Games. Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.

Messner said that the future of media coverage of female athletes has to do with the resources devoted to it, which is why female Olympians receive more coverage than usual.

“The mass media devote huge resources to covering U.S. athletes for U.S. media, and that includes certain women teams and athletes, especially those expected to win gold,” he said. “I am more concerned about what happens between Olympic games — the routine day-to-day.”