Why the Way News Media Covers Women in Sport Matters

2016 Rio Olympics - Artistic Gymnastics - Women's Team Victory Ceremony
USA women’s gymnastics team in Rio, with their team gold medals. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX

We’ve all heard it before: more money and attention go to men’s sport because men’s sports are more popular. For women who are athletes, it’s a constant battle to be taken seriously for their accomplishments. On one front, the women need to work hard to keep the focus on their athletic achievement (as opposed to their looks, who they want to date, or what they post on social media). On another front, they struggle to get their share of media coverage.

Just ask Canadian tennis player, Eugenie Bouchard, who was once famously asked “to twirl” in an on-court interview and also, on a different occasion, asked who her ideal date would be. More recently, CBC sportscaster, Adam Kreek, blamed her Olympics singles loss on what she does on social media. He said:

“she’s posting pictures of herself, she’s holding up the toothpaste and she’s trying out different hairstyles.”

The remark inspired Canadian kayaker Adam Van Koeverden to respond in a blog post calling out sexism in sport (unfortunately titled “Feminism in Sport” instead of “Sexism in Sport,” which was really the topic and is the point).

And then we’ve got the now-familiar offenses from the first few days of coverage:

When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu set a new world record in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday, NBC commenter Dan Hicks said, “There’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszu, his wife, into a whole different swimmer,” when the camera panned to her husband in the stands.


the Chicago Tribune faced widespread scrutiny for publishing a story about U.S. trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein (who happens to be married to a Chicago Bears football player) winning bronze with the following headline: “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.”

Many argued the headline was sexist because it identified Cogdell-Unrein as a wife, instead of an athlete.


Also on Sunday, as U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky beat her own world record in the women’s 400 metre freestyle, NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines said, “People think she swims like a man.”

Gaines tried to defend his remark as “a compliment.” But “swims like a man” is not much different from “runs like a girl” in the message it sends about the athletic capabilities of girls and women as inferior.

Ledecky, an astonishingly strong swimmer and well-known athlete in her own right, just can’t seem to escape or get out from the shadow of Michael Phelps. She’s been called “the female Michael Phelps,” and his silver medal gained the main headline while her world record breaking gold was relegated to a subtitle:

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Time got the order right in its headline, “Ledecky Blows away Field as Phelps Settle for Silver in Final Individual Races of the Olympics.”

And of course, when the camera caught the unbelievably impressive US women’s gymnastics team laughing between events, an NBC commentator said, “they look like they might as well be standing in a mall.”

When you say stuff like that, social media responds:

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Men’s tennis gold medalist, Andy Murray, was congratulated for an achievement the Venus and Serena Williams have both already accomplished: two Olympic gold medals. Murray caught the mistake and corrected it, saying, “I think Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each.”

The examples could go on and on and on. Why does this matter? This stuff isn’t just an irritating annoyance. It reveals a deeply sexist attitude that permeates mainstream media and culture. I mean, people said these things and thought they were okay. Editors approved these headlines. TV journalists think it’s okay to make off-the-cuff comments criticizing a world class athlete for posting selfies on social media and denigrating a truly formidable group of athletes (the US women’s gymnasts) by saying “they might as well be at a mall.” What does that even mean?

manuel-simone and Penny Oleksiak
US swimmer, Simone Manual, the first African American woman to win gold at an Olympics and Canadian swimmer, Penny Oleksiak, also winning gold (and three other medals), share the top spot in the women’s 100 m freestyle in Rio 2016. Photo credit: Sean Fitzpatrick, the Canadian Press.

Myself, I’m finding the onslaught of sexist coverage during the Olympics this year to be wearying. I mean, people call the stuff out, apologies get made, and then tomorrow it happens again.

Cover the Athlete is an initiative that tries to raise awareness about this type of commentary. Awareness is the first step in achieving change. #covertheathlete posted an excellent video, which I’m sure many of you have already seen, that turns the tables, showing what it would look like if interviewers asked male athletes the same sorts of questions.  You can watch the video here.

Despite how exhausting it is to stay vigilant and speak up when this type of thing happens, it’s an important equity issue.

Canadian women’s rugby team with their Olympic bronze medals.

Do you call people out, either on social media or face-to-face (depending), when they engage in “casual sexism” of the sort this  year’s Olympic coverage displays?


11 thoughts on “Why the Way News Media Covers Women in Sport Matters

  1. The question is will calling people out backfire? These men engaging in “casual sexism” could retaliate by branding women as being petty just because of their inconsiderate choice of words although it could be intentionally provoking.

    1. How could it possibly backfire? Is *not* calling this kind of thing out going to result in it spontaneously ceasing to occur? Yes, these men could brand the women as just being petty, but they’re already trivializing women athletes so there’s very little to lose.

      1. True. Nothing to lose since these reporters are already disrespectful towards women athletes. The worse case scenario will only be that they do not take the calling out seriously.

  2. Really good post on the distorted and sexist coverage. In Australia I haven’t had to listen to NBC commentators, but the demeaning headlines keep coming. And yes, I keep calling them out. It’s what we can do, in addition to being active ourselves, showing people what women of all sizes, shapes, colors, capacities, and interests can and do achieve.

  3. I asked my 9 year old daughter what she thought about the headline Tracy shared and what she would do if she was a journalist covering the Phelps and Ledecky races. She said she would write about Ledecky first. I asked her why and she said, “Because she won the gold, mom.” Simple, straightforward and obvious to a 9 year old.

  4. I agree with you that all the sexism in covering women in sports is exhausting. That said, I’m ecstatic that people are calling this out. It has been so ingrained for years- hopefully there will be less of it in the future. Great post.

  5. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    I wrote this during the 2016 Olympics, when sexist media coverage was happening almost every day. I was reminded of it last night when I was at an amazing documentary that tells the incredible story of Tracy Edwards and her all-woman crew on the sailing vessel Maiden, the first all-woman crew in the Whitbread Around the World sailing race (in 1989-90 — it takes nine months). One of the ongoing themes in that film is the sexist media coverage (endlessly so) and how demoralizing it was for these women, who were engaged in a difficult and dangerous undertaking that took skill and courage. They were expected to fail. And when they actually turned out to be competitive, they were “sailing like men.” Read on about why sexist sports coverage matters.

  6. I believe the media plays a huge role in affecting the views we have on each other. When someone on the media says something belligerent and abrasive more will follow. Ive been looking at ways to get more lean and fit so that i can just remove the negativity. Ive been hearing lots about the Cinderella

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