How Sports Media Present and Represent Political, Social, and Cultural Issues

Have you ever heard an athlete voice their opinion, and the knee-jerk public reaction is something along the lines of, “shut up and play”? Or – as Dr. Danielle Coombs (Kent State) highlighted today – instead of trying to understand their opinion or its context, media narratives instead trivialize the athlete, framing them as ungrateful, stupid, and/or not very talented, anyway?

This and more were discussed at the “DID SHE REALLY SAY THAT?: How Sports Media Present and Represent Political, Social and Cultural Issues” AEJMC conference panel, moderated by John Shrader (U of Nebraska at Lincoln), in Washington D.C. this morning. Panelists talked about ways in which athletes’ voices are marginalized, particularly female athletes; the ramifications of this; and how to explore this in our research and with our students.

These are old issues. But we still have these discussions because researching hegemony in sport and bringing our findings back to the classroom is hard. Even scary. Because people, regardless of their race, sex, political leanings, religion, sports fandom, or pet preference have long-since been socialized to view some of the most pressing inequalities in sport as being, well … normal.

Common sense.

Natural.

“That’s just how it is.”

To the point that they don’t even think about it.

When I began my career as a sports writer, high schools I covered referred to their boys teams by a mascot, but for the girls teams, would add “Lady.” (For example, Eagles and Lady Eagles, respectively.) I remember laughing a little bit about it. I wasn't familiar with that trend. But the people around me looked at me like I was an alien.

I get it. They were used to it; it didn't seem like a big deal. But it was revealing of a power structure that is a big deal, regardless of whether we've contemplated it. When someone says, “NCAA basketball tournament” or “World Cup,” the presumption is that these are men’s teams. The women’s teams have “women” pegged onto them, like they are distinguished as the offshoot or “other;” their performance and style examined through the lens of the men’s performance and style.

I could list pages of research citations, going back decades, that examined media coverage of female athletes and how media narratives focus more on their personal lives, particularly their spouse and children, and more often feature them in passive, off-the-court poses, than action shots. Here is an oldie, but a goodie, by Dr. Mary Jo Kane (U of Minnesota) about some of the ramifications of these narratives, "Sex Sells Sex, Not Women's Sports."

These issues aren’t new. But effectively untangling them in our research and with our students – in an atmosphere where students can feel welcome and safe – continues to be a challenge.

Thankfully, the talented scholars on today’s panel are on it.

19 views