Coverage reveals gender gap

After all of the hooplah of the Super Bowl nearly a month ago and the NBA All-Star game last week, it has been a very slow week in sports. Because of the dearth of sports-related news, sports news outlets have been trying to fill pages and air time. Since a viewer can only sit through so many terrible home videos of high school sporting events, the topic of choice for news agencies has been women in sports.

Now, this is not untimely given recent events. Professional NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, who is starting her first full season on NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series, became the first woman ever to earn pole, or first, starting position. The fact that this race is the Daytona 500, the most prestigious race on the NASCAR schedule, has made the achievement all the more impressive.

Ronda Rousey, who won the bronze medal in judo in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is headlining the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 157 fight card, after UFC President Dana White said on tape that we would never see women fighting in the UFC.

This week also marked the announcement that, for the first time, a female player will attend one of the NFL’s regional scouting combines. Kicker Lauren Silberman, a former club soccer player at University of Wisconsin-Madison and master’s student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the first woman to try out for the NFL after the league changed its rules in 2012 to allow women to compete.

But each of these women has faced challenges and questions from both their competitors and the media that are holding them back.

Patrick has always had a large media following not because of her stature as a top female in a traditionally male-dominated sport (racing), but more because of her looks and personality. She has been featured in many of’s racy Super Bowl commercials and even participated in Sports Illustrated’s 2009 Swimsuit Issue.

As she enters this season, she has been plagued by questions about her relationship with fellow Sprint Cup Rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. After winning the pole position, she was asked about whether or not she would accept the traditional kiss from the scantily clad Sprint Cup Girl in the winner’s circle if she were to win. Who would she kiss and hug first: her boyfriend, her boss and racing teammate Tony Stewart, or some new mysterious stranger?

Rousey is flipping the mixed martial arts (MMA) world on its head with her success. She has a 6–0 record with her last five fights ending in the first minute due to submissions. But she and her competitor Liz Carmouche, an ex-marine and recently-out lesbian, have faced many challenges. Many UFC fans have been attacking comments boards with discriminatory posts, and have shown disgust at the mere thought that women or members of the LGBT community should be allowed to fight, much less headline a fight card. These comments have ranged from attacking her appearance, her skill level, and women in general.

Now, to the UFC’s credit, it has used a much different marketing strategy when trying to expand the female presence in the sport.
Unlike basketball, which has separate leagues for its male and female players (the NBA and WNBA), the UFC is making mixed-gender fight cards a standard concept. With each card being bought as a pay-per-view unit for over $50 depending on the cable provider, fans are forced to pay for these bouts whether they watch them or not.

Silberman is suffering from lack of publicity. While female kickers have not been uncommon in high school and even college football for well over a decade, it took until last year for the NFL to finally change its rules to allow a female player into its boys club. They have been content in riding the publicity of 9-year-old Internet sensation Sam Gordon, who as a girl dominated her Utah pee-wee football league.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even made her a guest of honor at the Super Bowl, but Silberman and many other outstanding female players at much higher levels of competition have been ignored by the league.We like to think of ourselves as a progressive society with full gender and racial equality, but as these three women have shown, the media and the sports leagues themselves still treat them differently.

Whether it is through media coverage, like Patrick; spectator hate and disapproval, like Rousey and Carmouche; or just ignorance and indifference, like Silberman; women still struggle to break down gender barriers. The media has a responsibility to cover women on a regular, consistent basis as they would any man who makes sports history — not as a novelty on slow news weeks.