This winter, the worst thing about Canada defeating the U.S. in the women’s Olympic hockey final was that Angela Ruggiero did not win the gold.
Ruggiero is an amazing athlete and has always struck me as genuine, authentic and outspoken. She’s the type of player who might make for good newspaper copy or sound bites — if we ever cared about women’s sports.
This week, she responded to the Chicago Tribune running what was supposed to be a light-hearted mocking poster of Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. It depicted Pronger wearing a skirt with the headline proclaiming “Chrissy Pronger. Looks like Tarzan, skates like Jane.”
(By the way, that thump you just heard was my head banging against my desk, amazed that in 2010 we have moved beyond racist jokes being “just in good humor” but still find it funny to tell people they throw like a girl.)
Ruggiero responded to the poster in an Associated Press article saying, “I’d like to see that editor out on skates. I’ll take them one-on-one on the ice any day. They obviously have never seen women’s hockey and are living in the dark ages.”
She went on to say “Some people are still ignorant. Our sport doesn’t get a lot of exposure, so you have to see us play in the world championships or the Olympics to see what the highest caliber of women’s hockey is.”
And there in lies part of the problem.
Women’s sport doesn’t get a lot of exposure.
And so who would know what Ruggiero and company can do?
Last week, the latest in a longitudinal study on Gender in Televised Sports was released. In it, the researchers looked at highlight shows — ESPN’s SportsCenter for one and three network affiliate television stations in Los Angeles.
The results for 2009? Coverage of women’s sports on SportsCenter and local newscasts declined. In fact, it was some of the lowest representation since the study began in 1989.
Sally Jenkins points out in her column on the topic that ESPN does give a fair amount of airtime to women’s sporting events, particularly on it’s college network ESPNU. And the network did cover the NCAA women’s basketball championships, showing all 48 games in some way or another.
So why the lack of women’s sports coverage on SportsCenter and why should we care?
The reasons for covering or not covering women’s sports go back and forth: Would media outlets cover it more if more people went to the games? Or would more people go to the games if the media covered it more? Is it the media’s job to respond solely to market forces or is the media underestimating the audience with narrow choices and contracting instead of expanding its audience?
More importantly, why does it matter?
It helps create legitimacy.
SportsCenter is culturally relevant. Ever play some sort of pick up game and start humming the SportsCenter theme? Ever watch high school or college kids play and talk about making SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays?
We don’t like to think we need external validation, but as social creatures meant to live and work and play with other people, acceptance on some level is important. (Granted, not the be-all-end-all of existence, but important nonetheless.)
Just this week, in celebration of the life of John Wooden, columnist Mechelle Voepel wrote how Wooden’s “blessing” of women’s basketball helped bring an air of legitimacy to the sport. His encouragement of the game of women’s basketball helped it flourish and gave supporters a counter-argument to the haters of women’s sports.
Visibility matters. You don’t have to particularly enjoy watching women’s basketball. In fact, it’s quite OK if you don’t. But when sexist commentary is allowed to flourish and when women aren’t depicted as athletes on major shows such as SportsCenter on a regular and routine basis, it remains difficult at times to be female and athlete.