Olympics provides equal coverage of male, female sports, but female athletes noticed more for beauty than skill

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- The June 2012 issue of Vogue and a recent story in The New York Times style section is one of the few times that a male Olympic athlete -- swimmer Ryan Lochte -- has been featured less for his athletic ability than his appearance, according to University of North Texas faculty member Tracy Everbach.

Everbach, associate professor in UNT's Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism, has researched media coverage of female athletes since 2005. She plans to compare the coverage of male and female athletes at this year's  Summer Olympics, which will air on NBC and NBC Sports Network July 27-Aug. 12. She previously researched newspaper coverage of the 1908 Summer Olympics, which also were in London. The U.S. was then a great rival to Great Britain, with British athletes winning the most medals, she says.  

She notes that the description of Lochte having "twinkling blue eyes," a "dimpled smile" and "sculptured abs" in The New York Times is rare for male athletes, but not for female Olympic athletes, who have traditionally received more attention for sexuality and attractiveness than the male athletes. However, the female athletes also receive much more media coverage during the two weeks that the Olympics are televised than many college or professional female athletes, Everbach says.

"In both the Winter and the Summer Games, women get as much as 50 percent of the coverage. That's partially because sports like ice skating and gymnastics are considered to be more ‘female' sports and attract female viewers, and other sports, like swimming, track and field, skiing, ice hockey and basketball, have both male and female teams and events," Everbach says. "Most of the sports coverage outside of the Olympics is of the big four men's sports -- football, basketball, baseball and hockey -- and most sports media organizations are dominated by men, who plan the coverage according to what men like."

Even sports media outlets that are led by female editors and publishers are heavily dominated by men's sports coverage outside of the Olympics, she says. Everbach compared sports coverage in the Seattle Times and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which both had female sports editors, to the newspapers' competitors, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Dallas Morning News, which both had male sports editors. In the study, which was published in the Southwestern Mass Communication Journal, Everbach discovered that sports coverage in the sections edited by women did not differ significantly from the coverage in sections edited by men.

"There's still the perception that women's sports are boring and not competitive, which is not true, but the stereotypes have been so driven into people's heads, and sports editors respond to that," she says.

In a more recent study, Everbach interviewed female athletes, ages 18 to 22, about their thoughts on the media's focus on the sexuality of professional female athletes, and pressure on those athletes to post for sexualized photographs. She showed images of nude and scantily-clad professional athletes to the college-age athletes, and found conflicting opinions.

"Most were not too happy with the images, but they are aware that ‘sex sells' and understand the commodification of women's bodies in American society," Everbach says. "Some rejected socially constructed concepts of femininity and others criticized the athletes for posing, but a few said it was empowering."

And although male athletes aren't usually as sexualized as the female athletes, Everbach says she doesn't advocate more articles in the media like those in The New York Times and Vogue about Ryan Lochte.

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