As I write this on Tuesday morning the medals keep coming for Canada at the Tokyo Olympics. All being won by women right now. Maude Charron has just won a gold medal in weightlifting. You couldn’t help but be moved by her roar of triumph as she completed that feat of strength.
The roar from Canadians as those medals accumulate is about strong, resilient women and their remarkable achievements. Some were expected; this is the fourth consecutive time that Canada’s women’s soccer team has advanced to the quarter-finals of the Olympic tournament. It has won bronze twice. Some of the swimmers are already legends.
But I’m here to offer you a periodic reminder – before and after the Olympics, women’s sports get less attention than they merit. We will cheer on, or even worship, our women athletes now. Their accomplishments will lift the spirits of a nation and inspire young women to devote themselves to a sport. Then, afterwards, the achievement will become a memory and the activities will barely feature in media coverage, especially on television. This has to stop.
I was reminded recently that exactly 10 years ago, in the summer of 2011. I went to a TV studio in Toronto and took part in a panel discussion on the American ESPN channel about the coverage of women’s sports. They’d found me because I write often about women’s soccer. On the panel was Brandi Chastain, who became an icon by scoring the winning penalty kick in a shootout against China to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup for the United States.
We all talked around and around about ways to get consistent coverage of women’s sports in mainstream media. But there was an overall feeling of fatigue with the issue. And things haven’t improved much since 2011. A recent Purdue University study of coverage found that in 2019, before the pandemic struck and upended sports, coverage of women athletes on televised news and highlight shows, including ESPN’s SportsCenter, totalled only 5.4 per cent of all airtime. This is cited as, “A negligible change from the 5 per cent observed in 1989 and 5.1 per cent in 1993. The total drops to 3.5 per cent if coverage of the 2019 Women’s World Cup is removed.”
The picture most people have is distorted by the amount of coverage given to superstar figures such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who tend to be treated as celebrities, not athletes. They make the mainstream news when something negative happens. And the circumstance is further complicated by the fact that the issue of “mental health” is raised, with the underlying suggestion that some women athletes simply lack mental toughness. Things get even more tangled when it is pointed out that, in the case of Osaka, she has cultivated media attention and allowed cameras into her private life for a Netflix documentary. More media coverage of women athletes is needed and yet hatred of the media increases when any skepticism by the media about mental health is expressed.
The core issue, as the Purdue study (authored by Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky) underlines, is that day-to-day sports coverage, especially on television news and highlights shows, ignores women’s sports most of the time. Cooky has said, “Eighty per cent of the news and highlights programs in our study devoted zero time for women’s sports.” She also points out that day-to-day coverage normalizes women’s sports (a strangely necessary task), builds knowledge for the audience and, as happens with coverage of the big three men’s sports in the U.S. – football, basketball and baseball – builds excitement about the teams. No coverage equals no excitement and no excitement means even less coverage.
One of the suggestions I made in that discussion on ESPN 10 years ago was that media institutions that have a public responsibility, such as the CBC in Canada and the BBC in Britain, need to be pressured into doing better. Thankfully, that has happened to varying degrees, and both CBC and the BBC now devote far more coverage to women’s soccer than before. You can now find women’s soccer from England – where many Canadian players are employed – on commercial sports channels in Canada. That might be because the rights to other soccer tournaments have gone to specialty streaming services, but we’ll take it.
It has to be about more than women’s pro soccer, though. When I heard that roar from Maude Charron, ecstatic in her own strength, I was reminded that, as soon as these Olympics are over, most coverage of women’s sports will be on mute, or will disappear.
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