Will anything change?

The media has the power to dictate the way that a woman will be acknowledged.  Female athletes are generally recognized when their stereotypical roles and body are being used in pleasing ways.  Often, women are accepted by the public for their athleticism when the sport is more feminine than those women who participate in more masculine sports.

Female athletes are underrepresented by the media. Significantly more headlines can be found to be related to the performance of male athletes and significantly more photographs can be found published of male athletes.  Newspaper coverage of female athletes can be found to emphasize their femininity (George, Hartley, & Paris, 2001) not their athletic ability.  Women’s athletic achievements are often considered less newsworthy by both the press and television companies.  At times the media appears to be giving the audience the impression that women’s sports are less competitive, exciting, and interesting than men’s sports.  Reporters are the gatekeepers of information and they have the power to portray female athletes more positively. 

Endorsement deals for athletes are also dominated by male athletes and female athletes are often portrayed for their beauty.  Male athletes are also obtaining the high paying endorsement deals and monopolizing the media exposure in the marketing area of product endorsement (Veltri & Long, 1998 ).  However, corporate America can not ignore the fact that there is room in the marketplace for the female athlete.

Society tells us that boys are the athletic ones and girls are beautiful.  However, more and more women are making a living for athletic ability, most of the time because they are a beautiful athlete.  Women athletes have made huge strides since Title IX but there is still room for improvement.  The media coverage of female athletes needs to change for all the young girls who look up to these female athletes as role models and the mass media needs to take a more active role and cover male and female sports equally.  However, many do not see this changing.  USA Today columnist and part-time ESPN Commentator Christine Brennan believes there is a different underlying reason behind the network’s (ESPN) coverage decisions and does not expect things to change anytime soon (Williamson, 2003).  She said simply, “It’s a boy’s club.  They don’t care.”

I believe Christine Brennan is correct and that media coverage of female athletes is not going to change anytime soon.  Sports are a boys club and the majority of viewers are male.  This makes it hard for networks to change the content of their programs, for endoresers to chose female athetles over male athletes and for photographers to change the way they photograph female athletes.  Young women can continue to make stride and push the issue that female athletes are important and worth the coverage.


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Is it going to get better?

The following video is showing that endorsers are realizing the importance of female athletes.  This video is a commercial for Nike. 


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Athlete endorsements

Athletes as product endorsers are everywhere you look in advertisements.  Athletes are endorsing everything from athletic equipment, soda, cars, and clothing.  Some athletes are making multimillion dollar endorsements and even having an impact on Wall Street.  A large part of athlete endorsements are male athletes and when females are used they are shown suggestively or partially clad.  Many media studies have shown that women athletes are underrepresented in magazines, newspapers, and television and this underrepresentation gives the impression that females are absent in the sports world (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007). 

            When an athlete or celebrity is used as an endorser it will attract attention to the product, leading the consumer to purchase the endorsed product because of their aspirations to be more like the athlete or celebrity.  A consumer will base their aspirations of a purchase on physical attractiveness, trustworthiness, and expertise.  Research has shown that highly credible sources have been able to produce more positive attitude changes and induce behavioral changes more often than less credible sources (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007).  The degree of physical attractiveness of the endorser necessary for effectiveness may vary depending on the product being endorsed.  The athletes’ attractiveness leads to more positive attitude towards the advertisement and higher spokesperson credibility.  Physically attractive communicators are more successful at changing beliefs than are unattractive communicators.  This is important to endorsers since prior research and current advertisement suggests that females are usually chosen for their sex appeal as opposed to their athletic ability (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007). 

            Women have made strides over the past few decades and are finally being recognized for their athletic ability; however, are these women really being recognized for their athleticism or for their beauty as a female.  The media has been a significant factor in the way women have been portrayed as athletes.  Women athletes who have endorsement deals are often used for their physical appearance or their fashion appeal.  Unlike male athletes, female athletes will have a shorter career and do not have the chance to participate in popular professional sports leagues.  Companies that feature female athletes as endorsers tend to show a more personal side of the sports figure (Veltri & Long, 1998 ).

            As of 1998, over 200 female athletes had signed endorsements with various companies, while the National Football League (NFL) alone had 250 male athletes had endorsement deals with Nike and Reebok and 400 male athletes from football, baseball and soccer.  One possible explanation for the lack of female athlete endorsers involves attitudes of women toward female athletes consistent with the gender schema theory (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007).    Although female consumers may contribute to this situation by not indentifying with female athletes in the same manner those males identify with male athletes.  Men look up to athletes like Michael Jordan and other male athletes as role models and will typically buy products that they endorse.  However, women are not influenced the same way and sports are not the focus of their lives.  Many advertisers may fear that women could view female athletes as too masculine and could react negatively to this image (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007).          

            Despite Title IX and peoples’ views of women in general, consumers are presented with an inconsistent view of female athletes, one that is athletic and feminine.  Participation in sports is a norm for boys, while girls’ participation is considered exceptional.  People are surprised when a girl is athletic or if a female is knowledgeable about sports.  In society boys are supposed to be athletic, where beauty and popularity are ideal characteristics for girls.  The female athlete is often portrayed first as a woman and second as an athlete, whereas male athletes are just portrayed as an athlete.  This can be seen in a popular Nike commercial featuring Maria Sharapova, a professional tennis player who has won Wimbledon.  The ad starts with Maria walking to a tennis match and people along the way singing “You’re so pretty”.  Maria Sharapova reaches the tennis arena while you hear people singing “You’re so pretty” and the ad ends with her playing tennis and silencing everyone because she shows how talented of a tennis player she is.  However, the ad first portrays Maria as a beautiful woman then as an athlete.       

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Focusing on her athletic ability or her beauty?


Anna Rawson- LPGA Golfer

The above photo is from golfpunkonline.com and was downloaded in April 2008.

Is this photo demonstrating Anna Rawson’s athletic ability as an LPGA golfer or her beauty???  This photo illustrates the typical way female athletes are portrayed in the media.

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Photo Analysis

Media images of women in sports are also very different from the familiar pictures of male athletes in action.  Female athletes are increasingly photographed in what some call “hyper-sexualized poses” (Armstrong, 2007).  Women athletes were once shown as feminine and now it is necessary to sexualize them for men.  A recent example of this is the July 2007 cover of Playboy featuring Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard posing nude.  Her pictorial offended many women and felt that she pushed women equalities back years because she was showing off her body instead of her athletic talent.  Women athletes are so often portrayed as sexual objects available for male consumption rather than as competitive athletes.  A popular female athlete who was often used for her looks is Anna Kournikova.  In the June 5, 2000 Sports Illustrated cover and several inside photographs of tennis player, Anna Kournikova, showed her posing seductively for the camera in her off-court wear (Schell, 2007).  Anna was never a top tennis player but she landed numerous endorsement deals and a started modeling after her tennis career was plagued with injuries.  By choosing the beautiful athletes, endorsers are giving the impression that female athletes are only beautiful.

A possible explanation of why women continue to pose scan dilly clad is the framing theory.  Frames affect the public opinion and women athletes are often framed as sex objects or beautiful athletes.  However, one way to renew the appeal of female athletes is to capitalize on their sex appeal.  A popular Olympic softball player, Jennie Finch, was named one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful Athletes” and was dubbed “World’s Sexiest Athlete” by an ESPN poll (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007).  Unlike other female athletes, including high jumper Amy Acuff and swimmer Haley Cope and Amanda Beard, Jennie Finch refuses to pose nude for Playboy magazine and also will not appear in FHM men’s magazine (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007).  These titles and polls with the athletes posing for these types of magazines may give girls the impression that despite talent, female athletes are really only valued for their looks.  

When notable female athletes are not pictured, pretty models are often used to show the ideal feminine athleticism or represent society’s traditional notions of women’s role in sport.  This portrayal creates an image of a sexy female athlete who can be athletic while maintaining heterosexual sex appeal.  The sexy image emphasizes the physical beauty and femininity more than the athletic skill, power, and strength.

The media may sexualize the female athlete by focusing on their physical appearance.  Content of sports photographs suggest that only the most glamorous women athletes are worthy of being pictured and their nonnative poses often resemble soft-core pornography (Schell, 2007).  Some feel these images divert attention from women’s achievements as serious athletes and reinforce the misconception that women are uncompetitive.  Many female athletes that represent their sport are sometimes not the best but the most beautiful.



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Media coverage

Mass media is very important for sports because a majority of spectators will observe a sporting event through mass media.  The media also has a significant influence on individuals and culture, supporting the agenda-setting theory that the media are the gatekeepers of information.  Some feel that “the mass media have become one of the most powerful institutional forces for shaping values and attitudes in modern culture” (Cunningham, 2004).  The media has not used this influence to cover women’s sports. 

Even though the 1996 Summer Olympics and the 1998 Olympics were landmark events for U.S. women’s sports teams, the media still stereotyped the athletes and did not give them the same type of coverage that male sports received during the Olympics.  The 1996 Summer Olympics was the first year for some popular women’s sports in the Olympics and several teams such as basketball, gymnastics, soccer, softball and synchronize swimming won gold medals and in the 1998 Winter Olympics the U.S. women’s hockey team won gold (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999).  These women received loads of media attention and followed their performances closely.  The intense media coverage of these women’s accomplishments gave researchers a perfect opportunity to analyze how the print media coverage of female athletes’ performance reflects beliefs about gender (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999).

The study extends the work on the gender appropriateness of sport by Matteo by showing how these beliefs are conveyed in print media’s description of female athletes’ performance in male-appropriate, female appropriate and neutral sports (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999).  Female athletes are judged and evaluated using traditional beliefs about gender whether they are competing in a traditional gender-appropriate or in a nontraditional gender-appropriate sport.  The study found that all five gold medal winning contests described within the print media contained a high frequency of gender stereotypic comments that were clearly related to the overall gendered nature of the sport. 

Female athletes playing male-appropriate sports; basketball, hockey, and soccer, had achieved a superior performance level; however, the print media frequently deemphasized task-relevant aspects of their performance and focused instead on performance irrelevant dimensions (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007).  The sportswriters frequently compared female athletes on gold medal winning teams to their male counterparts.  Even though the women play and succeed in the male-appropriate sports, their success is socially constructed as an alternative to their male counterparts, who play the version of the sport that really counts (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999).

On the other hand, female-appropriate sports, reporters were more focused on describing their performance and providing details of what the athlete had done to succeed in the sport.  However, the athletes that played female-appropriate sports were more likely to have female stereotypic comments (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999).  The athletes’ beauty was often an emphasis of the coverage.  The reporters are framing the female athletes differently then male athletes.         

Media coverage of female athletes on major sports publications are lagging behind their male counterparts.  For example, women were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated a total of 4 times out of 53 issues in 1996 (Knight, 2001).  This is an old statistic but can still be held true.  As a subscriber of Sports Illustrated for 2007, I have only received 3 issues with a prominent female athlete or celebrity on the cover, one being the swim suit edition.  As the gatekeepers of information, Sports Illustrated sets the “agenda” for the magazine.

Women are often ignored on a national media level as well.  ESPN, a popular sports television station, has paid little attention to women’s sports in its nightly Sports Center coverage.  Yes, there is a mention here and there regarding female athletes; however, a story of substance is rarely seen.  According to a study in 2003 by Dr. C. A. Tuggle, associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s primary evening sports news program, Sports Center, pays less attention to women’s sports then when the study was preformed previously in 1995.  The continuing research recorded and analyzed 30 days of the ESPN program in 2002.  The study found 807 stories on the hour-long show.  However, during the 30 days, ESPN ran 778 stories about males, only 16 about females and another 13 that mentioned both male and female.  The program devoted on average more than 70 percent more time to stories featuring males than those about females (Williamson, 2003).  Tuggle says, “Television coverage is considered a frame, a window on the world through which we learn about ourselves and others.  The very act of selecting certain events to cover and then the process by which that coverage is edited to fit with time or space constraints, constitutes framing” (Williamson, 2003).  This study shows just how much women athletes are ignored by the major sports media outlets.  In today’s sports world, networks are determining what sports will and will not cover.

A more recent study done by Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies in the USC College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, researched coverage on television news and sports highlights shows.  This particular study found that 90 percent of the coverage on television news and sports highlights shows is of men’s sports (Sutliff, 2005).  The study began in 1989 and has been updated every five years up to 2004.  Messner said he thinks the predominant finding is the lack of change in coverage.  He said that the proportion of TV coverage is pretty much the same as it was in 1989 (Sutliff, 2005).  The researchers analyzed six weeks of TV sports news on three Los Angeles networks.  They examined 236 sports news broadcasts, totaling nearly 17 hours of airtime.  The researchers also analyzed three weeks, 21 broadcasts, of ESPN’s Sports Center program, totaling nearly 16 hours and Fox’s Southern California Sports Report, totaling seven hours. 

The researchers found that on the three L.A. networks that men received 91 percent of the airtime, women’s sports received only six percent and gender neutral topics received two percent of airtime (Sutliff, 2005).  The sports specific networks had an even lower representation of women’s sports.  With ESPN and Fox programs showing women’s sports only two percent and three percent of the airtime, respectively (Sutliff, 2005).  The researcher were surprised that women’s sports coverage had not changed over the past 15 years but were pleased to find that the reporting of women’s sports has become more respectful.  Although the reporting became more respectful toward the female athlete, the sexualization of female athletes was still an element of the coverage.  One example the research points out was the coverage of tennis star Maria Sharapova.  Sports commentators often commented or joked about her appearance and featured her as a sex symbol.  The researchers believed this tapped into a larger issue.  Messner felt that when sports media focuses on a female athlete who is a good looking like Sharapova, they are more likely to focus on someone like that because she still fits that ideal model of heterosexual attractiveness (Sutliff, 2005).  

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Why is this topic important to me?

This topic was very important to me and hit very close to home.  I have been playing sports and have been interested in sports for as long as I can remember.  I have been playing softball since the age of seven and continue to play softball and other various sports today.  As an athlete, I found it difficult at times to find someone that I could look up to.  It was also hard to find the sports that I play on television to watch.  Men are able to turn on the television or pick up a magazine and see their favorite athlete playing their sport.  Women; however, are rarely able to watch their role models succeed at their sport.  Also, when you do find your favorite athlete in a magazine or on television, they are usually being portrayed as sexual objects.  Female athletes are often not on television or in magazines because society believes a woman should be focused on more feminine things.  Female and male athletes should be covered in the media equally.

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