Societal gender biases taint sports coverage

The main headline of the New York Times sports section on March 23 spoke multitudes about women’s place in the sports page. As Lee Jenkins notes in the article “Desperate Coaches’ Wives,” during televised NCAA tournament games, cameras are turning more and more frequently to the wives of male coaches sitting in the stands.

As Jenkins asserts, coaches’ wives are indeed the rage nowadays, as becomes obvious upon watching any men’s NCAA game. They cry and laugh with the feats of their husbands’ teams — and, as the article emphasized, many of them work hard to look good while they do so. One wife described her horror at having been caught by a camera at a bad moment. She quickly resolved that she needed more makeup for the next big game. Another wife fussed over what colors to wear in order to appear both supportive of her husband’s team and fashionably in season.

Does anyone else wonder what this article was doing on the front of the sports section?

Interestingly enough, Jenkins didn’t even mention the significant others of female coaches. Perhaps this is because, like most sports media coverage, this article wasn’t concerned with the women’s NCAA tournament. Or possibly it is due to the fact that women’s husbands are not particularly interesting to a target audience. Or perhaps the female partners of some of the women coaches aren’t as captivating as the female partners of the male coaches.

Or maybe, just maybe, there is no attention paid to the partners of women coaches because women coach women’s teams, and whatever theory one espouses as to the root causes of serious coverage inequity between men’s and women’s sports, nobody can deny its existence.

Jenkins’ article is hardly anomalous. Recently, numerous sports page pieces have confirmed that even in the realm of athletics, despite the supposed wonders worked by Title IX, women’s success in the eyes of a mainstream public is still directly connected to their physical availability for men. Female athletes who blatantly defy conventions of femininity in their athletic pursuits are often forced to overcompensate outside the sporting arena.

WNBA basketball players, at least the ones who do not model on the side, exude extreme discomfort when “glammed out” for commercial shoots. Marketing makeovers ensure that nobody will see their power, masculinity and defiance of convention and get the wrong idea — the “wrong idea” being that they are not interested in pleasing a male gaze. Unfortunately, even women’s sports depend a great deal upon men, as coaches, administrators, referees and, most importantly, as a consuming audience.

The article in the March 24 New Haven Register about Connecticut’s all-state high school gymnastics team further illustrates the inextricability of the female athlete from the objectified female body. The entire back page of the sports section is comprised of full-body pictures of the selected gymnasts, all of whom are female, in uniforms resembling bathing suits. An entire page of the Register is covered with 14- and 15-year-old females’ bodies.

Jenkins’ front-page Times article presents wives whose significance is entirely relative to their function in the lives of the men who comprise the legitimate event. They play the supportive wives of die-hard coaches, the mother figures and the nurturers to the team. More and more, they also represent the sexy hallmarks of the accomplishment that continues to define a woman’s success as gauged by popular media attention: her ability to satisfy the heterosexual male gaze.

Many of these wives seem to be sophisticated arm candy, or arm candy pretending to be oh-so-much more. Frustratingly, many of Jenkins’ “desperate” coaches’ wives don’t seem to have any problem with their roles. Many of them seem to relish being that hot woman in the bleacher whose every movement and gesture — but rarely words — could become a spectacle for display on national television.

This is not to suggest that their embrace of newfound “stardom” is much of a surprise, as it is all too common for women to defend their own relegation or even claim it as empowering. To acknowledge the violences of objectification terrifies many women, because let’s be honest — to refuse to cater to male standards of attractiveness leaves a woman with little to no affirmation in the mainstream world. Large-scale female achievement is almost always limited proportionally to the woman’s physical attractiveness.

The seeming skimpiness of the uniforms donned by the Register’s all-state gymnasts is not in itself my objection. The discrepancy between the pictures of the all-state gymnastics team and the depictions of other all-state athletes poses the greater problem. For virtually all other all-state teams, male or female, the photos used in the media are the head shots submitted to the students’ yearbooks. Why, do you suppose, do the all-state gymnast selections merit full-body photographs rather than head shots — and in skintight uniforms, no less?

I doubt it was a coincidence.



Loren Krywanczyk is a senior in Silliman College.

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