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Double Standards: Portrayals of Female Athletes in Mainstream Sports Media


Dave Zirin is the sports writer for The Nation magazine, host of XM Satellite Radio’s popular weekly show, Edge of Sports Radio, author of two books, was named Press Action’s 2005 and 2006 Sportswriter of the Year, and has been called by Robert Lipsyte “the best sportswriter in the United States.”


In 2008, Danica Patrick had quite the double play. She became the first female to win an Indy Car race. She also became the first race car driver to pose for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Sports Illustrated never gave us Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt in a Speedo, but Danica in a bikini must have seemed like a winner. The bikini was a step up from her appearance in FHM magazine, in leather underwear, her legs spread on the hood of her car.

In the accompanying interview Patrick had to answer questions like, “Is your underwear flame-retardant” and “Are there times of the month when you are a more aggressive or angry driver?”

It’s worth asking what is more infuriating: that they asked or that she answered? But the root problem is not this idiot yuppie porn magazine or Danica’s desire to exploit herself:

It’s the fact that to be a woman athlete in the 21st century is to live in a world where no matter your accomplishment you are the main attraction in a carnival of sexism. This was seen in even more dramatic fashion, in the case of Candace Parker.

Parker is the greatest women’s basketball player I’ve ever seen lace them up. She was also pregnant when ESPN had her on their cover, in glowing maternal white cradling her belly.

Candace Parker ESPN March 22, 2009 CoverHere is how the article starts: Candace Parker “is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup… She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. Perfect, white teeth…”

As sports blogger Helen Wheelock wrote me, imagine that applied to men’s sports: Imagine an article starting this way:

“Lebron James is handsome. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a medium jock strap he is proud of but never flaunts.”

The ESPN article went on to praise Parker, writing, that there is nothing, “crass or needy about her, nothing vulgar. Never see her Nuding it up. She’s Wholesome. The kind of girl you bring home to meet Mom and Dad.”

The writer then brings Danica Patrick into the discussion, noting that, “Patrick is nowhere near the best in her field, but she doesn’t need to be, because she is hot enough to pose for Maxim. While that works for her, Parker wants more.”

There you go. Danica: whore. Parker: earth mother: Welcome to the 1950s, where women in sports must either be sexually available or ready to bear children before their skills enter the discussion.

And if they aren’t willing to play into either of those tired gender stereotypes, then they are doomed to pop-cultural purgatory.

An overstatement? Let’s look at ESPN the magazine. In five years (2004-2009) female athletes have appeared on seven ESPN covers—that’s about 4% of the time. The covers themselves are a collection of glam, not grit.

I can absolutely understand that the whole Danica Patrick and Candace Parker dynamic here can conjure emotions: annoyance, anger, fury.

Here’s another one though for my money: it’s tired. It’s tired because it shows that the box these women are in is the same damn box women athletes have been in for a century: “We are not a threat. We are submissive.” And most critically: “We are hetero hetero hetero. We are so straight we have pregnant bellies or we want to be drooled on by frat boy idiots.”

The vise for women athletes is always and forever present: it is the same vise of sexism on one side and homophobia on the other.

You must be a prehistoric stereotype of a woman before you are an athlete.

40 years ago someone from the Style Section tried to interview Billie Jean King and she said, “This is the problem! We gotta get off the style section and in the sports section!” That is still the problem.

That is still the minefield that women athletes must walk in order to play.

After Title IX was passed, and Billie Jean King emerged, there was an understandable belief that women’s sports had arrived. But if we have learned nothing else, it’s that only movements outside the field ensure respect between the lines. And without those social movements, the times don’t stand still: they move backward. This past summer, there was the news that Wimbledon officials admit players’ looks influence court assignments. LZ Granderson of ESPN praised Wimbledon officials for their refreshing honesty and wrote for those who complain, “Well, that’s life.”

LZ Granderson is black and he’s Gay. If people said that’s life, he wouldn’t be working.

It’s only life if we accept things the way they are instead of demanding change. Yes, sports in this country is a carnival of sexism and homophobia. It is also a place that holds the promise of liberation: freedom to be physical to sweat.

But the lesson of the last hundred years is that unless we break a sweat outside the field, in the streets, then inside the game will remain the same.

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