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Addressing homophobia in women’s sports: The role of journalists

11/14/2009
by

hardin-web

Marie Hardin, Ph.D., is the associate director for research in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University, and is currently collaborating on sport media research with Tucker Center affiliates.

It’s an exciting time of year for women’s sports fans: The college basketball season – and all of the drama and promise it carries – is tipping off.  With exhibition games behind us, the season is starting in earnest this week.

At Penn State – a Gophers Big 10 rival and home to the Curley Center for Sports Journalism — the team enters its third season under the leadership of Head Coach Coquese Washington. Washington came to Penn State after long-time coach Rene Portland resigned (Portland began coaching at Penn State in 1980 and compiled a 605-235 record).

As many women’s college basketball fans know, Portland’s resignation was linked to allegations of homophobia in her program – allegations that had been circulating for decades – and a successful lawsuit by a former player (Jennifer Harris) who accused Portland of removing her from the team because of Portland’s suspicions that Harris was gay.

The case involving Portland received press coverage, including an Outside the Lines piece on ESPN. At Penn State and across Pennsylvania, the case was the subject of special interest on the sports pages because of Portland’s stature.

We examined press coverage of the Portland case, wondering how journalists would handle it. After all, we know that homophobia in women’s sports is generally ignored — with devastating consequences for many female athletes. But with the Portland case, it had to be addressed. How would it be handled?

Our analysis of coverage found several themes, the most notable being the idea that homophobia is not tolerated in sports culture and that we as a culture have “moved on.” The Portland case, then, was an aberration in journalistic accounts.

Of course, the big problem with this kind of framing of the Portland case was that it allowed homophobia to go unchecked as a general strategy to marginalize female athletes and diminish women’s sports.

At the Curley Center, we often survey journalists about issues such as homophobia and sexism. When we’ve asked reporters about homophobia, only about half agree that it is a problem in women’s sports. The fact that a larger percentage don’t understand the role of homophobia as a destructive force shows a fundamental misunderstanding of its role in reinforcing gender norms and keeping the patriarchal power structure stable.

It’s also interesting that male and female reporters were divided about homophobia. Eight of every 10 women agreed that it was a problem – a far higher percentage than for men. But it is men that most often cover women’s sports. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when a case like Portland’s is treated like an aberration.

To position homophobia as passé gives media producers a pass on examining the ways homophobia limits the potential for women in sports.  We must continue to push for more just, fair and truthful coverage of the issues that ultimately hurt the rights of female athletes.

To learn more about Portland and the history of homophobia surrounding the Penn State Women’s Basketball Team specifically and women’s sport in general, watch the award-winning documentary Training Rules, a WomanVision film.

For a full discussion of this research, please see our chapter, “The Rene Portland Case: New Homophobia and Heterosexism in Women’s Sports Coverage,” in Examining Identity in Sports Media (Eds, Heather L. Hundley and Andrew C. Billings, 2009, Sage). Marie Hardin can be reached at mch208@psu.edu.

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