With most professional and amateur sports leagues around the world on hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the Olympics postponed until 2021, it can seem like sports have been reduced to reruns, along with the “see 10, do 10” push-up chain and toilet paper challenge attempts athletes post on Instagram.
However, this might be the perfect time to hold important conversations about gender inequality in sports. As I wrote in a Uniter piece published in early 2018, women who work in sports media – particularly those in visible roles as sideline reporters, analysts and, occasionally, commentators – “face undue criticism, even though they’re clearly qualified, knowledgeable and experienced.”
Sports journalism is a competitive field, and it takes talent, combined with years of work, to make it to the show. In the past decade, more and more women have been recognized for their abilities and given opportunities to finally grace the airwaves as play-by-play commentators.
Earlier this year, Melanie Newman became the first woman to call a game for the Baltimore Orioles when she broadcast their spring training match against the Tampa Bay Rays. Before the MLB season was put on hold, Newman was slated to call over 50 games in the booth and another 50 as part of TV broadcasts.
In March, Sportsnet broadcast an NHL game with an all-women on-air crew. NBC also put women behind the microphone, but it’s important to note that these broadcast crews were formed to mark International Women’s Day, which, Bob Duff points out in a Featurd column, “makes the whole thing smack of attention-grabbing publicity stunt. And it isn’t the least bit fair to the pros who called the games.”
Truthfully, that’s just the tip of the “unfairness” iceberg. The women who make it on the air or into coveted beat reporting positions often deal with harassment, threats and assault.
In 2008, sportscaster Erin Andrews was secretly videotaped by a stalker while she was naked in her hotel room. A decade later, Julieth González Therán was groped as she reported live on the World Cup in Russia. While working in sports media, I was belittled by older men in the press box and sexually assaulted by athletes on two separate occasions.
These experiences aren’t limited to reporters. Athletes, coaches and fans are also subject to discrimination and harm. More than 150 women, including decorated Olympian Aly Raisman, testified at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty to charges of criminal sexual conduct and child pornography.
Women in sports are routinely mistreated. Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic track athlete, lost her ability to compete as a woman – all because she has a naturally high testosterone level. The United States’ national women’s soccer team has been locked in a years-long battle for fair pay, and Nike only recently guaranteed pay and bonuses for sponsored athletes on maternity leave.
Nike’s move was long overdue, but it’s a step in the right direction. There are now more women serving on NFL and NBA coaching staffs than ever before. In a panel discussion held earlier this year about the need for more women coaches, Jen Welter (the first woman to ever coach in the NFL), stressed the importance of normalizing women in sport.
“We have to look at all angles of culture,” she said. “So if you want to see change in sport, that includes sport video games, it includes sport research, it includes sport media, it includes things as powerful and prolific as hip-hop culture, right?
“Are we dropping female names to the same extent that we are male names? Or where are our warm-up songs coming from? Or do our videos not only show guys out there balling, but women as well?”
Women deserve more recognition, period. It doesn’t escape my notice that many of the articles I read to research this topic were written by men. As much as I’d love to see more women’s bylines in the sports section (including my own), we need these allies. Much like how Andy Murray stuck up for American tennis players Serena and Venus Williams in now-famous interviews, men need to speak out against gender-based harassment, wage gaps and sexist hiring practices in this and every other industry.
That includes the men in charge of programming content for major sports networks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. One Twitter user suggested that sports channels use this time to re-broadcast women’s games and tournaments that were relegated to strange time slots or not shown at all. This may not be possible, since, even if high-quality footage of these matches exists, these networks might not have the broadcast rights.
TSN started releasing must-watch lists of sports movies, documentaries and shows that folks can binge while in social isolation. With the exception of A League of Their Own, few highlight women. I don’t even want to know how many fail the Bechdel Test.
However, it’s heartening to see athletes and reporters alike pay tribute to Oregon Ducks star guard Sabrina Ionescu after her senior season of NCAA women’s basketball was cut short due to COVID-19 cancellations. She was unanimously named the Associated Press women’s basketball player of the year and deserves the attention and praise that accompany the title.
But the sports world can do better. Call me a dreamer, but I want to see the day when women athletes are recognized simply for doing their jobs well – and not because they shattered yet another glass ceiling or records like one for NCAA career triple-doubles.
I want to walk back into a broadcast booth one day and not worry that doing so will lead to harassment, threats and judgment. It’s something to think about as we sit at home over the coming weeks. As I wrote for The Uniter in 2019, there’s “solidarity in solitude.” Let’s hope that manifests in the sports world, too.
In 2016, Danielle became the first woman to call solo play-by-play of a professional Canadian baseball game. She now works as a writer, editor and marketer in Winnipeg, Canada.
Published in Volume 74, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 2, 2020)