Guest columnists Carrie Baker, Emma Seymour and Andy Zimbalist: The media’s role in diminishing women’s sports

  • In this March 11 file photo, Connecticut’s Napheesa Collier dribbles during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the American Athletic Conference women's tournament finals, in Uncasville, Conn. AP photo

Published: 4/5/2019 10:28:29 PM

Title IX of the Civil Rights Act spurred a revolution in the participation of women in interscholastic and intercollegiate 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. In 1972, at the college level, 15 percent of athletes were women, last year that share was 44 percent.

Participation in competitive sport yields many important benefits to female student-athletes: it helps to maintain healthier and stronger bodies, it teaches teamwork and leadership skills, it facilitates time management, it builds tenacity and it reduces the chances for addictive behavior, unwanted pregnancy, smoking and depression.

Yet, the revolution is incomplete. We are reminded of this daily. As we write, the nation is 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 $1.5 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.

How does the NCAA come to the conclusion that the women’s games have no value?

Last month, the women on the U.S. national soccer team sued the United States Soccer Federation under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 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 are paid at a rate just over one-third of what the men are paid.

The men’s team has won no gold medals and no World Cups. Not only are they paid at a rate nearly three times higher than the women, the men travel on jet charters most of the time while the women travel on commercial aircraft, the men stay in nicer hotels, get larger per diems and play on grass fields. The women are often forced to play on artificial turf fields, which promote a faster paced game that is much more dangerous and conducive to injury.

One of the most important reasons why women are still neglected and economically exploited in sport is the media. Whether on television, radio, or the print media, women’s sports are largely ignored. Various studies attest 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 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 gender coverage of the sports section in the Gazette from Feb. 19 through March 2. Here’s what we found. There were: 93 stories on men’s sports and 32 on women’s; 57 photos of male sports, 15 of women; 95 front page paragraphs on men, 29 on women; and, 42 front page stories on men, 16 on women.

We were especially disheartened at how little attention the Smith College women’s basketball team received. The Smith team came in second place out of 11 teams in its NEWMAC conference with 22 wins against 7 losses, finishing just one game out of first. Smith then competed both in the NEWMAC playoffs and in the national Division III NCAA tournament.

Smith won its first game against the Merchant Marine Academy in the national tournament. It then took on the second ranked team in the country and maintained a lead into the fourth quarter before losing a close game. The Smith team’s roster included Lauren Bondi, chosen as a national All-Academic and All-American athlete. Bondi, along with Kennedy Guest-Pritchett, each scored over 1,000 points in their Smith careers.

How would anyone outside the Smith community know about this exciting team and its accomplishments? During our sample period, which encompassed the end of the regular season, the NEWMAC playoffs and the national tournament, the Gazette ran exactly one short, three-sentence news item about the team, focusing on Smith’s victory over the Merchant Marine Academy.

That was it, just one back page news item, three sentences, no headlines, no box score, no photos.

In striking contrast, during this same period, the Gazette assiduously covered the UMass men’s basketball team, as if they were a top 10-ranked team nationally — when in fact they had a terrible season. Front page stories and large photos ran before and after practically every UMass game. The Minutemen had 11 wins against 21 losses and finished 12th out of 14 schools in their conference.

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. Emma Seymour is a senior at Smith College and member of the Smith Basketball team. Andy Zimbalist is an Economics Professor at Smith College.


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