NEW YORK—A few days before a broadcasting empire crumbled like a stale saltine, and Essence Carson and her Rutgers teammates started getting as much air time as the evening anchors, Anita DeFrantz was driving her car on a California freeway, feeling as if she’d been kicked in the gut.
DeFrantz, 54, is a lawyer, social activist, Olympic medalist and chairperson of the International Olympic Committee’s Commission on Women & Sport. She is among the most influential women in American amateur sport, and when she heard about the three words that have rocked the nation—“nappy-headed ho’s”—her initial reaction was compassion for the women who were subjected to “an outrageous verbal assault.”
Her second reaction may have been even more chilling.
“Here we go again—a prominent media person using sex and skin color to insult an innocent group of women,” says DeFrantz, president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. “As an African-American, the message I got from Imus’ words could not have been more clear: the Rutgers athletes didn’t deserve to be on the floor. They were subhuman, after all, because their skin is dark. Things white and light are always right; this is the message that is constantly being given through the media in this country. It’s time for us to seriously consider why. And it’s time for it to stop.”
It has been approximately two weeks since the women’s basketball team of Rutgers played for the national championship and Don Imus spoke his ill-fated aside into a microphone, comments that took a second to utter, and have stoked a frenzied national debate about race and gender ever since. The upshot has been to put women’s athletics in a place where it rarely is—front and center in the American consciousness—and stir discussion about how female athletes are portrayed, when they are portrayed at all.
Carolyn Peck, for one, is grateful for the exposure, if not for how it arrived.
“A lot of times when women’s sports is on the front page, it’s something negative that puts it there,” says Peck, the former Florida coach who won the national championship as the coach of Purdue in 1999, and worked this year’s Final Four as an analyst for ESPN2. “When I was fired by the University of Florida, I was on the front page. Other than that, whenever we had games, the stories were on page 7, grouped in with all the other sports.”
In the 35 years since the passage of Title IX, the federal legislation barring discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded program, there has been a certifiable social revolution on America’s courts and playing fields.
In 1971, there were 16,000 women playing college sports in all divisions, and fewer than three female teams per school. In 2006, there were some 180,000 female college athletes, and more than eight teams per NCAA school, according to research by Linda Carpenter and Vivian Acosta, former Brooklyn College professors who have been tracking the growth of women’s intercollegiate sports for nearly 30 years.
The growth in youth and high-school participation has been equally striking, as girls have gone from a tiny minority before Title IX to a major presence from coast to coast. For the 2005-2006 school year, almost three million of the 7.1 million high school athletes were girls, according to figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The exponential growth in participation, however, has not been reflected by an increase in media coverage, says Dr. Margaret Carlisle Duncan, a professor of human movement sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In an ongoing study most recently conducted in 2004, Duncan and co-researcher Michael Messner of USC examined a three-week period of ESPN’s SportsCenter and found that male stories outnumbered female stories by a ratio of 20 to 1. In a parallel study of local network affiliates in the L.A. market, Duncan and Messner found that just 6.3 percent of all sports stories covered during a six-week period were about females—a number only marginally better than the 5 percent accorded women’s sports in 1989—the year the study started.
The numbers aren’t terribly surprising when you consider the relative scarcity of women’s pro sports compared with men’s, but advocates in women’s sports maintain that their events are seriously under-reported nonetheless.
“I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but it all boils down to the same thing,” Duncan says. “For women to get adequate sports coverage and get their due, the whole gender order in this country—the way we think about men and women, boys and girls—needs to change. It’s a set of ideas that circulates not just in sports, but all through our culture—an idea that regards women as inferior to men.”
To Billie Jean King, founder of the women’s professional tennis tour and steadfast crusader for gender equity, the reason behind the coverage shortfall is as clear as X and Y.
“We cannot lose sight of the fact that 90 percent of the media is controlled by men and too often what we see is through their eyes,” says King, who, coincidentally, was handing out the 2007 Billie awards last week, honoring media excellence in the coverage of women’s sports, even as the Imus firestorm was raging. “Until we get more balanced representation of men and women in decision-making powers in the media, the picture isn’t going to change much.”
Adds Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, “If you look at it from a sociological perspective, you have a male-dominated culture that doesn’t want to give up its economic largesse. It’s like pulling teeth getting them to share it.”
Dr. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, believes that the coverage of women’s athletics is better than it used to be and is heartened by such developments as the announcement this winter by the All-England Club that women’s prize money at Wimbledon would at last be equal to the men’s. Donna Orender, commissioner of the WNBA, notes that the Rutgers women and the women’s national title game “wouldn’t have even been on Imus’ radar 10 years ago.” Still, Kane views this as “the best of times and the worst of times” in the media’s portrayal of female athletes.
The positive is that coverage is better, however minimally. Not so positive is the nature of that coverage, especially off the court, where she sees “a startling linkage between the portrayal of female athletes and soft pornography.
“It used to be that female athletes were portrayed as wholesome, All-American girls,” Kane says. “Now you get female athletes in GQ, Playboy and the Swimsuit issue. The result of it is coverage that is very damaging—that trivializes and marginalizes women athletes because it does not give them the respect they deserve as competent athletes.”
Particularly offensive to Kane, Lopiano and others is when accomplished female athletes allow themselves to be portrayed as blatant sex objects, completely devoid of any connection to their sport. Danica Patrick has an acclaimed Indy driving record; does she need to perch herself suggestively on the bumper of a ‘57 Chevy, wearing not much of anything? Does Amanda Beard, four-time Olympic medalist, gain from being featured in a sultry spread of photos in FHM?
Only a minority of elite female athletes promote themselves in such a way, but it nonetheless fuels an age-old stereotype that how a woman looks is more important than anything else. Sue Rodin, a New York-based agent and president of Stars & Strategies, laughed about the detailed analysis of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s choice of a pants suit during the State of the Union address. “I don’t recall hearing that conversation about Dennis Hastert,” Rodin said.
Said Lopiano, “I think it’s a sign of the times that an athlete like Danica Patrick thinks she has to be a sex object in order to get attention.”
Several athletes who have posed suggestively argue that they are simply flexing their economic muscle, striking while the proverbial iron is hot. Others have said they are proud of their bodies, so why conceal it? Nobody disputes that sex sells in American culture, but should female athletes be willing co-conspirators? Vonetta Flowers won the Olympic gold in bobsled in 2002. “It’s no secret than an attractive woman in heels and a short skirt will gain the attention of a man faster than a woman in a full-length dress and a bonnet,” Flowers says. “(But) for me it’s important to remember that I not only represent myself, I represent my family, my church and other little girls that want to compete at the Olympic level.”
To Kane, much of the porning-up of female sports stars is driven by homophobia.
“If you present this traditional feminine image, you can reassure sponsors, parents and female athletes themselves that you can still be a lady even if you play a so-called masculine sport,” she says. “It’s subtext for: `Don’t worry. I’m not gay.’”
Martha Burk, founder of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy in Washington, D.C., believes the overt sexualization of female athletes sends a damaging message to young girls about how they should comport themselves. “I think it’s wrong, I think it’s a shame and I think it’s unfortunate that women are buying into it,” Burk said. “It demeans them and it demeans their sport. If women as a group, as strong athletes, just said, `No, I’m an athlete, I want to be portrayed as an athlete,’ then it would stop.”
Even as opinions about Imus swirl and people stake out their positions and the debate rages on, Linda Carpenter, the researcher and former Brooklyn College professor, says the most instructive lesson that could come from the episode is if it moves people to think about how much words can hurt, and how it feels to be on the receiving end of that hurt. Have we gotten to a point where we don’t care if such hurt is inflicted, Carpenter wonders?
“This is very different from political correctness,” she says. “This is the measure of the soul of a society.”
Anita DeFrantz hopes that much societal soul-searching ensues, and that she doesn’t experience that `here-we-go-again feeling’ anytime soon. Says Vivian Acosta, Carpenter’s colleague, “Sometimes when something bad happens it results in an ultimate good. This was a very, very bad thing. Maybe it will make us more careful and more inclusive and more sensitive.”
BURK: RACE WAS THE DIFFERENCE
Four years ago, Martha Burk took on the all-male corridors of Augusta National Golf Club, trying to mobilize a corporate boycott to exert economic pressure on the club to admit a female member. The companies basically ignored her, and the Masters went on its hidebound way.
The difference in the corporate response during the Imus affair last week could not have been more stark, as companies ranging from American Express to Staples fled Imus as if he were a tropical disease. Burk, president of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy and chair of the corporate-accountability project, says the reason for the divergent responses is clear.
“It is the difference between race and gender,” Burk says. “They totally stonewalled us on Augusta, but they couldn’t do that here because of the racial element. The issue of race is much more of a cultural no-no. Without that, they would’ve bypassed it the same way they did with Augusta. They would’ve said, `Oh, it’s just a bunch of dykes playing basketball’, and would’ve gone right on.”
To Burk, the most telling corporate reaction of all belonged to CBS. “They drew a complete distinction between race and gender,” Burk says. “They stonewalled us, and they were ready to underwrite the tournament without sponsors.”
For her part, Donna Orender, former pro basketball player and commissioner of the WNBA, was not surprised by the swift corporate action last week.
“This was such a blatant and offensive comment that denigrated women on many levels,” Orender says. “There was racial denigration. There was a sexist denigration. Any company in this day and age cannot afford to associate itself with words, images and deeds that are going to negatively impact their brand.”
Burk believes that Imus felt emboldened to pick on the Rutgers’ women precisely because they were women, and thinks he never would’ve discussed the Rutgers’ men’s team in the same spirit.
“My view is that had been the men’s team, he would not have called the team Brillo-headed pimps. But because it was women, he gave himself permission in the first place to say something.”