Is Sports Coverage Sexist
A recent BBC campaign under the title of 100 Women asked the question – “Does sport have a problem with women?” After pointing out that, of the 100 highest paid global sports stars, 99 are men – Serena Williams comes in at no.51 – it complained that women’s sport obtains far less air time in the media than equivalent men’s events and continues to attract much lower audiences. It also revealed that two thirds of the TV audience who watched the last women’s football World Cup were male. And it concluded that the better question was: “Do women have a problem with sport?”
The short answer of course is that it is men who have a problem with sport, the same as heavy drinkers have a problem with alcohol. They play sport, they watch it, live and on TV, they talk endlessly about it, they bet on it, they indulge in fantasy leagues to re-enact it, all in hugely greater numbers than women. Feminists of a certain hue will explain that there is no biological basis to this propensity which is all to do with cultural conditioning; that women would be just as interested in playing, watching, discussing, betting on and fantasising about competitive sport if as young girls they were brought up to have the same aspirations as their brothers. Well, so far, on average, they’re not.
The complaint of sexism on this count is almost as nonsensical as wondering why top male models earn only a fraction of the sums paid to female supermodels. In our culture the average female of the species has much greater interest in clothing fashion than the average male. Yes, there are lots of men who do have an interest in fashion, and so there are fashion magazines aimed at male readers. But in aggregate circulation these are dwarfed by what is on offer to, and lapped up by, women. From the fashion industry’s point of view there may well be a feeling that fashion “has a problem with men”. But, speaking as a man who pays as little attention to the cut of garments being displayed on this season’s couturier catwalk as my wife to Manchester City’s 3-5-2 system, I don’t feel I have a “problem” with fashion. Nor does it concern me that Sean O’Pry, apparently the world’s top-earning male model in 2016, earned around a thirtieth of his female equivalent. Equal pay for equal work? Baloney. The pay rates of models, like elite sports stars and other professional entertainers, are determined by the market-place: supply and demand.
There are two further problems in applying precepts of gender equality to the world of elite sport.
First, it’s not equal work, because sport isn’t work: it’s play! Maybe some professional sportsmen would choose not to do it if they weren’t paid – I’m thinking of ageing boxers, for instance, preparing for a fight in which they are likely to get beaten up, or precociously talented kids who don’t really like playing tennis or golf or whatever the sport is but persuade themselves (or get persuaded by their parents) that it’s worth it for the money. And the superior “work-rate” of successful players or teams is a familiar concept on Talksport. But most sportsmen and women of whatever talent, and most of us with no discernible talent at all, play because we enjoy playing, and play competitively because we prefer to win. It is true that money might enable us to play more, to train physically and improve technically, to do it better and win bigger. Hence the sports sector lobbies government to provide financial support to Olympian competitors of both sexes (on a reasonably even basis between them) so that they can hoover up more medals for Britain every four years, which raises the profiles of the sports concerned, and thus supposedly participation levels.
But, secondly, if it’s outcomes at elite levels we’re concerned with, the problem for women is that, for reasons of basic biology, they can’t compete directly against men in mainstream sports that reward greater muscular power. The complaint of sexism in most walks of life is that women are just as capable as men (or more so), but have not historically been given the same opportunities or rewards – in the boardroom, in politics, in the arts. Feminists have been looking to break down the barriers to equal participation, the supposed glass ceilings.
In these sports it’s different. At pre-pubertal levels girls can and do compete alongside boys if they want to. And armed with the tool of a tennis racket or golf club, a talented female performer can certainly go on to outgun a second-class male counterpart. But at the very top? John McEnroe pronounced last year that Serena Williams was the greatest female player of all time but that “if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world”. And in contact sports like football and rugby there’s really no meeting point. In 2016 the Australian national women’s football team preparing for the Rio Olympics (where they drew in the group stages with eventual winners Germany) had a match against a local under-16s boys team, the Newcastle Jets, and lost 7-0.
Does it matter that in judging female sport we have to set a different, objectively lower standard? Not at all for purposes of amateur participation. The more and the wider the range of sport that women play, the healthier. What is more, some sports manage to accommodate the differences in comparative strength: mixed doubles in tennis may require tactical adjustments but doesn’t need to sacrifice competitive edge; in golf, women play off advanced tees with a view to the equalisation of drive distances after which muscular strength has little bearing.
But at pro level – setting aside the artificial stimulus of patriotism, local or national, in supporting our representative side (male or female) at some prestige event like the Olympics or World Cups – there is bound to be a reversion to the market. Which sports and sporting protagonists do people choose to watch and pay for the privilege? Whose celebrity endorsements sell the most products?
When the choice is left to men they will on the whole favour the greater speed, power and athleticism of men’s events and identify with the men that exhibit them. As to women’s competition they tend to opt for those in which women appear glamorous and “fit” (no surprise that Maria Sharapova was, until her fall from grace, the highest-earning sportswoman globally). Are those sexist attitudes? Maybe. But they are not likely to be changed by the BBC or any other media outlet giving more equal airtime, only in the long run by girls and women obsessing about sport in the same numbers as boys and men. Is that really a sensible feminist objective?