More balance needed in the commentary box

While watching the Melbourne Cup last week, no matter your opinion about horse racing as a sport, it was exciting to see the first win by a female jockey, Michelle Payne. As an advocate for female athletes, it was even more exciting to hear Payne calling out sexism in her sport, and telling doubters who think women aren’t strong or good enough to “get stuffed”.

Despite this strong message I couldn’t help but cringe when, in the moments after the win when the commentators were trying to fill the gaps before they could get an interview, Payne was described as a “beautiful young lady”, or words to that effect. I doubt you would have heard a male jockey described as “handsome” had he won. In addition, a few have since tried to suggest that Payne should not have called out the sexism in racing as she did, which of course just reinforces the problem.

For all the strides that women have made in sport, and the increasing acceptance of female athletes, there is a pervasive problem whereby media coverage continues to focus on women’s bodies, their fashion, or their social lives, rather than their sport. This belittles their achievements. Whilst in the case of Michelle Payne the comment on air was fairly benign, it highlights the fact that commentators still seem to find it hard to know quite what to say about female athletes.

A recent online initiative called #covertheathlete seeks to show the way that female athletes are treated by the media – including “sexist commentary, inappropriate interview questions and articles focused on physical appearance” – and then asks that we the viewing public demand better of our media outlets.

Accompanying this initiative is a video that shows males athletes being asked ‘ridiculous’ questions –real questions that have been asked of female athletes in the past. The reactions of shock and disbelief from the male athletes, when female athletes put up with this all the time, shows very clearly the disparity in media coverage.

It is worth noting that in the majority of cases highlighted by #covertheathlete, it is male commentators or journalists who have asked the inappropriate questions. For example, it was Ian Cohen of Channel 7 who asked Eugenie Bouchard “give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit” after she won her Australian Open match.

Serena William has repeatedly had sexist (and racist) comments about her body, including when Matthew Norman wrote, “generally, I’m all for chunky sports stars, but tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in different US states from the rest of her.” Clearly, for Norman to suggest that Williams is not mobile enough for tennis in the face of her staggering success shows his poor understanding of the sport; however, his choice of words in expressing his opinion is outrageously offensive.

Another example that #covertheathlete uses is Stephan A. Smith suggesting that a women’s soccer team didn’t want to “mess up their hair”; this came after Smith had already been suspended for inappropriate comments where he blamed victims of domestic violence for provoking their attackers.

John Inverdale suggested that Marion Bartoli “was never going to be a looker” so had to compensate with her game. Generously, we may understand that what Inverdale (presumably) meant is that one has to use one’s natural assets to the best of one’s ability. Lleyton Hewitt is another tennis player for whom this has been often discussed – for example his height has been compared to other first class tennis players – however Hewitt’s looks have never been discussed in such a manner.

Of course, it is not always men acting inappropriately (for example, Samantha Smith asked Eugenie Bouchard who she would most like to date – though Smith has suggested she was required to ask this question by the network). Similarly, not all male commentators have such problems relating to or covering women’s sport; there are many men who are advocates for women in sport, and who report on it and commentate with the same professionalism they would take to men’s sport.

However, these examples from #covertheathlete highlight the way in which many men in the media often fail to understand women’s sport and perpetuate sexist perspectives. There is a need for more scrutiny by broadcasters, and more training of commentators themselves. What these examples also show, with mainly men commentating on women’s sport, is the dearth of female commentators and sports journalists more generally.

Recent studies suggest that women make up somewhere between just 3 and 10 per cent of all sports journalists. Even in sporting events where coverage of men and women is relatively even, we can see that the commentary box is imbalanced. For example, in the most recent Olympics, ABC Grandstand’s commentary team consisted of 8 men and just 1 woman. Even in tennis, a sport with relatively equal crowds and prizemoney at Grandslams for men and women, the Channel 7 commentary team comprises 8 men compared to just 4 women.

For those women that do take up a career in a male dominated industry, they face their own challenges (see articles such as “40 Hottest Female Sports Reporters” and other comments directed towards female reporters for examples). In Australia, the AFL’s first female commentator Kelli Underwood did not last long, as she was not ‘liked’ by the fans – many of whom insisted it wasn’t because she was a woman, it was because they didn’t like her voice. Her female voice, perhaps? She was booted from the team relatively quickly due to fans’ dislike, whereas we are still subjected to the likes of Wayne Carey (who, despite being dropped in the past when he was found guilty of indecent assault and allegedly glassed his female partner, has found his way back in) and Brian Taylor (who has made homophobic comments on air).

However, there is a real opportunity for women to increase their participation in sports media. There are some success stories to lead the way, such as former Australian players Lisa Sthaleker and Mel Jones covering the IPL, as well as locally with ABC Grandstand. Mel McLaughlin has been making a foray into the men’s Big Bash League in Australia. In the women’s AFL match that was shown nationally, female commentators including Julia Price showed that they could speak with knowledge and authority about the game.

If men can commentate on women’s sport, the reverse should also be true. It may just help to shift the culture, and we can finally stop talking about women’s uniforms or boyfriends, and ask them instead about their sport.

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