A Couple of Feminists Watch Sports on TV

Penn State versus USC in the big Rose Bowl match-up.  Lots of hype, millions of viewers, tons of commercials, four hours of television time.  I tune in to the second quarter with my husband, who is a long-time Penn State fan, even through the scandal of the Paterno-Sandusky era.  He’s been watching since the beginning of the game.  I sit down to do a little work while I watch.  It’s not surprising to see the frequent shots of both teams’ cheerleaders.  But I soon tire of the camera angles that always catch them from below.  I don’t want to be up their skirts, but I have no choice.  I don’t really want to see cheerleaders at all, but the camera takes me and the other millions of viewers right up their skirts.  When the camera view returns to the field, it uses a variety of angles—panoramic, to get the whole sense of the game, lateral view, to see how close to a first down the offensive team is, and close-up, to peer right into the quarterback’s tense and strategizing face.  The camera is not taking me up or into the pants of the players, and I’m grateful for that.  Before long, though, it will take the other viewers and me right back up the cheerleaders’ skirts.

Commercial breaks bring the predictable sacrifices to the male gaze—chips and dip offered by scantily clad blond women, beer, razors that make you more manly and improve your chances of getting laid, beer, mothers who nag at you to eat soup and buy a better razor, beer.  You get the picture.  The advertisements reinforce the heteronormative, male-centered reign of the program we’re watching.  If we all thought more about these messages, we might get a good laugh or cry at the limited roles we’re told are available to us, including to the young viewers who absorb these messages emitted from their many screens.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) website underscores these seven “core values”:

  • The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
  • The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
  • The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.
  • The supporting role that intercollegiate athletics plays in the higher education mission and in enhancing the sense of community and strengthening the identity of member institutions.
  • An inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation for student-athletes and career opportunities for coaches and administrators from diverse backgrounds.
  • Respect for institutional autonomy and philosophical differences.
  • Presidential leadership of intercollegiate athletics at the campus, conference and national levels.

These core values resonate well, especially for those of us in higher education, in part because they parallel many college and university mission statements.  Nevertheless, an afternoon of watching NCAA men’s sports teams compete for big money and visibility on national television reveals the enormous gap between mission and practice.  In this space is hypocrisy.

Serena Williams was quoted in The Washington Post (December 26, 2016) as saying, “Women make up so much of this world, and, yeah, if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.”  In the open letter cited in the article, Williams takes issues with being called “one of the world’s greatest female athletes, saying that LeBron, Tiger, and Federer aren’t called “one of the world’s best male athletes.” The more we acknowledge greatness in our women sports heroes (and there are many), the more we will realize both how sexist the coverage of men’s sports is and how lacking the coverage of women’s sports is.

As a sports fan and feminist, pretty soon I’m going to have to stop watching the sports events offered on TV.  (Aren’t I a tough guy, as if my refusal to watch might make a difference.)  If men’s sports were geared more towards discerning viewers, even just every so often, I’d be delighted.  If it weren’t so damned hard to find coverage of women’s soccer, field hockey, swimming, basketball, lacrosse, and track and field, I’d be delighted.

To make change happen, we can follow the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and Title IX Athletics information, boycott products sold through sexist ads and programs, and actively support girls’ and women’s sports.

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