Sports  Time to bench discrimination

The distorted coverage of Mo’ne Davis and of other female athletes and athletes of colour

On August 15, 13-year-old Little League Baseball pitcher Mo’ne Davis made history as the first girl to ever pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. This feat caught the eye of the mainstream media, which resulted in many press ops. In one of them, Mo’ne Davis appeared on Fox & Friends, where co-host Eric Bolling seized the opportunity to ask why she doesn’t play a “more female-friendly sport, like soccer.”

Bolling’s sexist remark was one of the few outwardly offensive comments in the media about Davis since she pitched the shutout. However, once you dig a little deeper into the headlines and articles on Davis, you will notice that most coverage of her has been as discriminatory, if not more so, than Bolling’s comment.

Largely white male journalists and sports commentators, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and other sports programs and publications have deemed Davis ‘media-worthy’ in recent weeks; this is more in part to her gender and her race. Instead of recognizing her impressive 70 miles-per-hour pitch and her shutout achievement on their own terms, the media have repeatedly emphasized the fact that she is a woman who has ‘outdone herself’ in a male-dominated professional sport, and that she is an African-American from inner-city Philadelphia who has escaped poverty through her athleticism.

Fox News Insider, the Australian, the New York Times (to name a few publications) are also riddled with gendered expressions that are unrelated to Davis’ athletic accomplishments.

It should come as no surprise that Davis or any other female athlete is athletically talented, and stating otherwise and acting shocked at her athletic abilities upholds the popular yet erroneous assumption that women are not as athletically capable as men. Calling Davis the best female pitcher implies that there is a better a male pitcher. In reality, Davis is the most dominant pitcher in the league.

Additionally, their surprise at her talent reveals that if it were not for Davis’ participation in a team and a league exclusively for men, she would have gone unnoticed. This is not an isolated incident; the has happened to many other professional female athletes. Take Billie Jean King, for example, the female tennis player who made headlines when she won Wimbledon in 1973 upon defeating her male opponent, Bobby Riggs, in a tennis match dubbed “Battles of the Sexes.” Or notice how Manon Rhéaume captured the attention of sports commentators only once she entered the male-dominated National Hockey League (NHL) in 1992 as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goaltender. Davis, King, and Rhéaume commanded the media’s attention because they played against men in a mens league rather than against women. Their athletic abilities were evaluated in comparison to those of men, rather than on their own merits.

McGill Martlets hockey player and Canadian Interuniversity Sport player of the year for women’s hockey in 2013-2014, Katia Clement-Heydra, expressed concern over the amount of attention given to men’s sports in the media in general: “In the mainstream media, you hear about tennis players [and] you hear about golf players that get a lot of attention. […] It’s all about men’s sports, right? Just look at the morning news on Sportsnet. It’s [men’s] baseball, NHL, and there’s the [men’s] tennis, and that’s about it.”

“And I think that stems from past history. You know, males have always dominated the sporting world. […] We have to build a name for ourselves, and we have to kind of prove that we deserve the same attention, the same audience,” added her teammate Adrienne Crampton.

The media has not only chosen to identify Davis by her gender but also by her race. By identifying her as such, these media outlets are perpetuating the commonly held racial stereotype of the black American athlete who has escaped poverty through their individual athletic achievements, despite racism. According to this stereotype, lower-class African-Americans who cannot succeed economically and socially remain poor of their own doing. This thinking places the fault of one’s social and economic situation on the individual, instead of on systemic racism.

The media has shown a complete lack of respect to Davis and has done the same in the past with other female athletes, especially female athletes of colour. By doing this, sports coverage also downplays their athletic abilities. No matter how talented an athlete they are, they will be met with sexist and racist sports coverage. These athletes deserve the same attention and dignity given to white male athletes, and it seems that this will only happen once sports networks and newspapers begin to hire more people of colour and women as commentators, anchors, and journalists. As it currently stands, white men make up a large portion of the mainstream media, and so the coverage is tailored to what they deem to be ‘legitimate’ sports. Unfortunately, female athletes are seen as less legitimate.

A recent study entitled Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2009 revealed that in 2009, coverage of women’s sports by three Los Angeles affiliate sports networks comprised only 1.6 per cent of all sports coverage. However, even when female athletes and female athletes of colour are included in that 1.6 per cent margin, the emphasis is usually placed on their appearance rather than on their athletic prowess, which tends to downplay their athletic achievements.

Female athletes of colour have also come under the scrutiny of sports commentators for failing to meet white Eurocentric beauty standards, though this was not largly the case for Davis, particularly. For example, Gabby Douglas, a young two-time Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, was criticized for her allegedly “unkempt” hair during the 2012 Olympics, overshadowing her gold medal awards. Sports journalists have also detracted from tennis players Serena Williams and Taylor Townsend’s athletic abilities by obsessively scrutinizing their weight.

Even though Davis was not subject to racist criticism of her appearance in the media, it should not go unnoticed that some white sports journalists have been racist against Davis in other ways. They have consistently praised her as “the urban African-American girl from inner-city Philadelphia” who has achieved suddenly greatness. Davis did not ‘suddenly’ achieve greatness, her 70 miles-per-hour pitch did not appear out of thin air; she worked for it. In contrast, whenever a man achieves athletic prowess, his ‘work ethic’ is usually a main talking point.

Coverage on Davis is the most recent incident in a long history of institutionalized sexism and racism within the world of sports media. The failure to recognize female athletes’ ability rather than their gender or race is still a problem that must be addressed. Every athlete worked hard to get to where they are; to take that hard work and tokenize it is a disservice to all athletes. The sooner we recognize athletes for their achievements, the sooner sports will become more inclusive.