Columnist Carrie N. Baker with Andrew Zimbalist: Media bias holds back women’s sports

  • Morgan Morrison, right, of Smith College, shoots against Kenna Williams, of Franklin & Marshall, in 2019, during the Smith Holiday Tournament at Smith College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Title IX of the Civil Rights Act spurred a revolution in women’s participation in high school and college sports in the United States.

In 1972, when Title IX became law, only 7 percent of high school athletes were women; last year 43 percent of high school athletes were women. At the college level, while 15 percent of NCAA athletes were women in 1972, last year that share was 44 percent.

Despite this progress, male-dominated institutions — including sports federations, universities and the media — continue to deny women’s sports the benefits and recognition they deserve.

But women are fighting back and achieved some success this year. In February, the United States Soccer Federation finally settled a pay equity lawsuit filed in 2019 by the women’s national soccer team. Despite having won four Olympic gold medals and three World Cups, and being the No. 1-ranked women’s team in the world, the women were paid at a rate just over one-third of what the men were paid. The men’s team had won no gold medals and no World Cups. The women received a $24 million settlement, largely for backpay. In May, the women’s team struck a labor deal with the U.S. Soccer Federation that will close the pay gap between them and the men’s team and ensure equal salaries and bonuses, including for the World Cup.

Despite this success, we still have a long way to go. In eight weeks, the nation will be in the grips of the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament. On the men’s side of the tournament, each time a team wins a game, it is worth over $2 million to the team’s conference, courtesy of the NCAA reward system. On the women’s side, each win is worth exactly nothing. Yet, thousands of people attend the women’s tournament games, millions watch their games on television and companies spend millions of dollars on advertising.

One significant reason why women are still economically exploited in sport is media neglect. Whether on television, radio or print media, women’s sports are largely ignored. Research attests to this reality. According to one study of sports television coverage in southern California, females account for over 40 percent of athletes, yet they receive less than 4 percent of the coverage on news shows.

Despite being in one of the most progressive communities in the country, our own local paper in Northampton, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, tilts coverage to favor men’s over women’s sports.

We did a survey of the recent coverage of the sports section in the Gazette from December 29 to January 12. Here’s what we found: there were 58 stories on men’s sports and 20 stories on women’s sports. There were 50 photos of male sports and 19 of women sports. There were 35 front-page stories in the sports section on men and 14 on women. There were 314 front-page paragraphs in the sports section on men, and 115 on women. The bottom line: the Gazette’s sports coverage is very male dominated: 75 percent of sports stories and photos are about males and only 25 percent are about females. This percentage is essentially the same as when we did the same analysis for this column almost four years ago.

We were especially disheartened at how little attention the Smith College women’s basketball team received. The Smith team is ranked 5th among women’s Division 3 teams nationally. Last year it went to the national Sweet 16. This year the team record is 17 wins and 1 loss.

How would anyone outside the Smith community know about this exciting team and its accomplishments? During our sample period, the Gazette had no articles about the Smith basketball team.

In striking contrast, during this same period, the Gazette assiduously covered the UMass men’s basketball team, who, thus far, have a 10 win and 6 loss record overall, and a 1 win and 3 loss record in their conference. The Gazette carried 11 articles on the UMass men’s team, 10 on the front page of the sports section, six of which were accompanied by at least one photo.

Not until women receive their merited share of news and promotion will the full Title IX revolution be realized. We recognize that the media cannot get too far ahead of its audience, but it can push the envelope and not passively reinforce the status quo. The national media must do better and certainly in Northampton we can expect our local paper to lead the way.

Carrie N. Baker is a Women and Gender Studies Professor at Smith College. Andy Zimbalist is an Economics Professor at Smith College.
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