By Michela Musto, Cheryl Cooky, and Michael A. Messner
“If [Serena Williams] played in the men’s circuit, she’d be like 700 in the world.” – John McEnroe
During a recent interview on National Public Radio, former American tennis champion and current sports commentator John McEnroe was asked whether Serena Williams was the best tennis player in the world (see here). Williams has been ranked number one at least eight times during her career and holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles among active players. She is also the only player—male or female—who has won three of four Grand Slam tournaments six times. Many sports commentators and former tennis champions, including Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and Andre Agassi, agree she is one of the greatest players of all time[i]. Despite calling her the best female player in the world, McEnroe said that “like 700” male players could outperform her.
McEnroe is part of a long history of male sports commentators and journalists making trivializing and objectifying remarks about sportswomen. Consider Don Imus’s racist, sexist, and classist comments in 2007, when he described the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as a “bunch of nappy headed ho’s.[ii]” Or when sports news commentator Bill Weir trivialized the 1999 World Cup champion U.S. national women’s soccer team by referring to them as the “ponytail express[iii].”
Despite these egregious examples of sexist commentary, our recent research in Gender & Society suggests a shift in how televised news and highlight shows cover women’s sports. Once every five years, we have examined six weeks of sports news on three Los Angeles-based network affiliate stations (KCBS, KNBC, and KABC) and three weeks of ESPN’s SportsCenter. When we first began the study in 1989, we found that sports commentators regularly made overtly sexist comments similar to the ones made by McEnroe, Imus, or Weir.
But in our most recent study we found that sports news commentators now cover women athletes differently. Rather than sexualizing or trivializing women athletes, sports shows depict women athletes in a lackluster, matter-of-fact manner, which we call “gender bland sexism.” Gender bland sexism is a contemporary gender framework that disguises sexism against women athletes as reactions to individual athletes’ merit and performance, which makes women’s athletic accomplishments appear lackluster, compared to men’s.
Gender bland sexism is evident in this excerpt from a SportsCenter “Top Ten Plays” segment.
The ninth best play goes to Missy Franklin. The commentator says, “Missy Franklin. In the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championship. Way ahead of the pack in the 200-yard freestyle. Wins easily.” The commentators also note that she “sets the American, NCAA and U.S. Open record in the event.” Number six is from a spring training MLB game between the Cubs and the White Sox. The second baseman catches the ball and tags a player out, and a commentator gushes, “I think he’s ready for the regular season! Let’s get it going!” Number four is from the Heat vs. Grizzlies basketball game, showing Ray Allen scoring. The voice-over from the in-studio commentator exclaims, “From fizzle to sizzle!”
If one were to rank the sports achievements included in this segment, winning an NCAA championship in multiple record-breaking time is certainly a more noteworthy athletic accomplishment than the routine men’s events presented (i.e., tagging a player out at second base during a pre-season game or scoring a basket during a regular season game). Yet the commentators’ delivery of the men’s stories sizzled, while coverage of Franklin’s record-shattering swim fizzled. Instead of exclaiming that Franklin “got it going!” the commentator flatly observed Franklin was “way ahead” and “wins easily.” His bland commentary makes it seem as if Franklin’s achievement was unimpressive, thus sending the audience a subtle message that women’s sports lack excitement. We found that sports news shows consistently covered women’s sports in this gender bland manner.
Commentators also regularly used dominant language when describing events that transpired during men’s games. For example, a SportsCenter segment described NBA basketball player Andrew Wiggins as putting two players “in the spin cycle” as he completed a “monstrous two-handed jam.” But when women’s sports were covered, dominant language was almost always missing from commentators’ analysis. For example, SportsCenter awarded an ESPN “Star of the Night” to Shannon Szabados, an Olympic gold medalist and the first woman to play in a Canadian men’s professional hockey league. The commentator explained, “She had 27 saves, it was a 4-3 loss for her Columbus Cottonmouths to the visiting Knoxville Ice Bears in the Southern Professional Hockey League, but Shannon Szabados did work.” Despite Szabados’ historic accomplishments, the discussion of her performance could not have been more literal. The commentator blandly concluded that she “did work.”
In the classic text Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva draws attention to the ways that white people express racist views in “color-blind” ways (such as when whites criticize the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that “all lives matter”). By couching contemporary forms of racism in ostensibly nonracial ways, color-blind racial discourses make the underlying dynamics difficult to detect. Like color-blind racism, gender bland sexism enables commentators to subtly convey beliefs about men’s athletic superiority. Coverage of women’s sports fizzles in comparison to men’s coverage, which continues the aggressive and celebratory audience-building for men’s sports while simultaneously shielding televised sports news and highlights shows from charges of sexism. After all, now commentators are speaking “respectfully” about women, even if this means delivering the facts in a monotone voice, with an uninspired delivery.
Gender bland sexism makes the overall lack of coverage of women’s sports (less than 2-3% of total coverage) appear to be a rational response to women’s presumably “naturally” lackluster performances. Gender bland sexism also lets sports media off the hook from investing more time, resources, and energy into covering women’s sports with the same degree of interest, quality and production values as they do when covering men’s sports. Consequently, gender-bland sexism is a form of stealth sexism, operating under the radar to reify gender boundaries and render invisible the very real and continued need to address persisting inequalities women face in sport.
For more on this study please also read: A Subtler Sexism Now Frames TV Coverage of Women in Sports
Michela Musto is a PhD Candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on gender, children & youth, education, and sport. She is the co-editor of Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds, with Michael Messner, and her work has been published in Gender & Society, Communication & Sport, and the Sociology of Sport Journal.
Cheryl Cooky is an associate professor in American studies at Purdue University. Her teaching and research focuses on gender and sports, and feminism in media and popular culture. She is the co-author of No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sports, and the Unevenness of Social Change, with Michael Messner, the Past-President of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, and serves on the editorial boards of the Sociology of Sport Journal, Communication & Sport, Qualitative Research on Sport, Exercise & Health and the International Review of the Sociology of Sport.
Michael Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California. His teaching and research focuses on gender and sports, men and masculinities, gender-based violence, and war and peace. He is author or editor of several books, including Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds, edited with Michela Musto, and No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sports, and the Unevenness of Social Change, with Cheryl Cooky.