Female athletes deserve less objectified, more balanced media coverage

Andy Jobanek

At the turn of the century, female athletes made up 40 percent of sports participants nationally, but received only 8 percent of the entire sports coverage. Those numbers haven’t changed much since then.

When female athletes do get covered for major news publications, it is done in such a way that reinforces traditional images of femininity. It appears that the goal of these journalists is to mold these women into presentable debutantes rather than report about their careers.

On Dec. 5 of last year, Gene Wojciechowski, a columnist for ESPN.com, wrote a feature on Candice Parker, who many sports analysts think may become the greatest women’s basketball player of all time. Wojciechowski, instead of writing about Parker’s decoration as a two time all-American, a John R. Wooden Award recipient and national champion, begins his article comparing this fierce athlete to Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde.” Apparently, they both have small dogs. The similarities end there.

Later in the article, Wojciechowski privileges his reader with the knowledge that Candice Parker doesn’t do her laundry every week. Not only that, but she knows the lyrics from Disney’s “Part of Your World.”

While dominant male athletes such as Brett Favre, Tiger Woods or Roger Federer are elevated to superhuman levels, Wojciechowski diminishes Candice Parker to a little girl in pigtails.
This is not an isolated incident.

Back in the 1980s, Chris Evert was a world number one tennis player and won 18 grand slam singles titles. Upon her retirement in 1989, Sports Illustrated decided to put her on the magazine’s cover. Next to Evert’s picture was the quotation: “I’m going to be a full time wife.” On the inside of the magazine were several pictures of Evert during her career and her husband was in each one.

Both in the feature on Candice Parker and the cover of Chris Evert, the focus is not on their athletic prowess and strength, but on their femininity. The most frequent example of this happening in the media is when an athlete gains recognition for her looks, rather than her game. Anna Kournikova was the most highly paid woman in sports at the turn of the century, but it wasn’t because of her backhand.

Most recently, on Thursday, Jan. 24, Michael Wilbon of “Pardon the Interruption” admitted that the only reason he is going to watch the final of the Australian Open was because both Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic were beautiful women.

Several people will point out in response to the outrage over comments such as Michael Wilbon’s that male athletes are seen as sex figures as well. This is indeed true, but there is a huge difference in the presentation of both genders. When a male athlete is marketed as attractive, he is shown performing in his sport because sweaty, muscular men are supposed to be sexy.

The same is not true for women. An attractive female athlete is rarely pictured actually performing in her sport. Instead, these women get dolled up and become the equivalent of a model.

Both male and female athletes may be seen as sexual figures, but the gendering of their sex appeal harbors the same submissive image as the ultra feminine Candice Parker or Chris Evert.

The most extreme case of this happening is when magazines like Maxim or Playboy pay a prominent athlete to pose nude. No one is going to look at a naked woman and suddenly respect her for her athletic ability. In addition, no magazine is going to pay prominent male athletes such as golfer John Daly to pose nude, and please let none of them do so.