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john doyle: television

To some questions there are no easy answers. Like, for instance, "How should women's sports be covered by television and other media?"

Right now, there's a story going around that the German team in the Women's World Cup posed for Playboy magazine to help promote the tournament now unfolding in Germany. It isn't quite true.

What's true is that several German female professional soccer players posed for the German edition of Playboy. Some have played for the German youth team. But none of the players on the current national team took part in the Playboy shenanigans. Still, the story has wide currency. And that's hardly surprising - the German soccer organization and the woman who is head of the Women's World Cup organizing committee gave their consent to the Playboy photo spread.

One imagines they gave their consent because it was a useful marketing tool. The FIFA Women's World Cup (There are two games airing Tuesday on Rogers Sportsnet, Colombia vs. Sweden at 8:30 a.m. and U.S. vs. North Korea, at noon) is a high-profile event in some parts of the world and most games in Germany are sold out, but this level of attention is rare. For the most part, women's sports receive negligible media attention, especially from television.

Outside of a major global event like the Women's World Cup, sports coverage is male-focused all the way. I can't tell you the exact figures in Canada, but I can point to stats for the huge U.S. sports broadcaster ESPN. A 2009 study showed that 96.3 per cent of ESPN's coverage was devoted to men's sports, women's sports accounted for 1.6 per cent of airtime and "gender neutral" sports topics accounted for 2.1 per cent.

That's the reality. And in this context, as women's sports struggle for attention, especially women's team sports, a tension arises. On the one hand, most of the male-dominated sports media instinctively believes that what the women's games need is the sexualization of female players. On the other hand, women viewers - who make up about 30 per cent of the audience for a channel like ESPN - tend to resent sexualization. Women athletes being seen as eye candy instigates a lot of eye rolling.

Not everyone agrees on this, though. Male athletes are routinely objectified as sex fantasy figures. David Beckham is an iconic object of desire to both women and gay soccer followers. If he and many other soccer stars are treated as gorgeous, sexy figures, why should women athletes be any different?

The core problem is that at the same time, the full acceptance of women's sports as a serious area for the sports media is a long way off. There is a knee-jerk inclination to compare the merit of women's sports with men's sports and find the female version wanting. There is also an inclination to highlight those women players who exhibit the most male characteristics. In this regard, television coverage isn't always on the same page and other media. Much coverage of Canada's 2-1 loss to Germany at the Women's World Cup rested entirely on Christine Sinclair's broken nose, her determination to keep playing and all the macho grit encapsulated in that. As sports stories go, the facts might be true, but the angle is hokey.

On TV the coverage was much more expansive. Consideration was given to the tactics employed by both Canada and Germany. On CBC, having both Clare Rustad and Jason de Vos as analysts was a bonus. Both are former players and both were interested in taking the game seriously as a game, not as a drama about one player - Sinclair - that skeptics of women's soccer might be able to identify with. The shocking lack of co-ordinated defensive measures by Canada early in the game was discussed. Germany's use of the midfield space to find room for overlapping wingers to surge forward was analyzed. As it should have been.

Many of the Women's World Cup games are also airing on Sportsnet and, sensibly, it also has two former players, Kara Lang and Craig Forrest, doing in-studio analysis. Again, both bring a knowledgeable seriousness to the coverage. This is one instance where television coverage of a sport can actually have more heft and depth than what appears in other media.

Still, coverage of all women's sports is an evolving issue. One has to ask, if the template for covering male sports is applied to covering women's sports, isn't that a good thing? Isn't it equality? I don't have the answers. I do, however, suspect that there is a generational issue at work here. Perhaps younger women have no problem with female soccer players posing for Playboy in the same way that they support the "SlutWalk" marches, which assert that women can and will wear any kind of clothing they want.

This Women's World Cup affords us an opportunity to think about these matters. You know, soccer is called "the beautiful game" not because it is always played by beautiful people, but because it has an intrinsic elegance and grace, whether played by women or men of any physical type. We take sports seriously in Canada. We should take sports coverage seriously too.


Frontline (PBS, 9 p.m.) is new and will interest Canadian viewers tonight. It looks at the matter of children dying under unclear circumstances and the quality of expert testimony in these cases. It points out that there have been more than 20 child death cases in which people were jailed on medical evidence that was later found unreliable or flat-out wrong.

Check local listings.