Sport has become an international podium for spectators and players to share stereotypical views about sexuality and gender.
In 2013, NBA player Jason Collins came out to the media. His brave actions influenced NFL player Michael Sam and Los Angeles Galaxy footballer Robbie Rogers to also come out.
These positive actions trigged follow-up stories, TV interviews, and a considerable amount of media attention.
Coincidently, US basketballer Brittney Griner, Australian Southern Stars cricketer Alex Blackwell, Olympian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, and footballer Michelle Heyman also came out.
Advocate for women in sport and blogger Danielle Warby says, “Alex was open within the team anyway, just not out to the media and after her interview with the ABC, where she came out, nothing happened, no one noticed.”
Tom Lutz, a journalist for The Guardian sport wrote an email on the issue.
There is definitely more attention on gay male athletes coming out at the moment. I think that until recently, there were far fewer out gay male athletes than out lesbian athletes so in a way it is more of a novelty. There is a factor, unfortunately, involved where gay men are still regarded as un-masculine so a gay sportsman is seen as a curiosity. Again, I think this will change as athletes such as Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers become more common.
The underlying reason for this issue is the lack of coverage women sport receives. According to the 2009 Federal Government report entitled “Towards a Level Playing Field: sport and gender in Australian media”, nine per cent of sport reporting is focused on women, while 81 per cent of coverage is about male sports.
Evidently, male sport attracts a larger readership, has more endorsement deals, and ultimately generates more profit when compared to women’s sport.
An average soccer story on our website will get readership numbers in the tens of thousands. Towards the end of the (UK) women’s Premier League season a report on the deciding match of the competition that we displayed got 800 views. There is less money in journalism than there used to be and unfortunately, when cuts are made it’s quite often to subjects that get less interest. When women’s sport does attract attention – such as at the Olympics or the Australian Open the coverage rises. I don’t think it’s that sports journalism is sexist per se, maybe it’s governed a bit too much by money.
Female athletes use the short amount of airtime they receive to discuss the game, and promote the team.
Warby says, “Female athletes are worried to opening themselves to criticism because they don’t get that much media exposure anyway, so when they do get it they want it to be good exposure.”
Coming out for men enables ideas of hegemonic masculinity to be somewhat broken down. The actions push back against the idea of ‘only straight men are good at sport’.
But when women come out to the media it is encouraging the pre-existing stereotype of ‘every female athlete is a lesbian’, which influences women to sexualise themselves, thus reinforcing their femininity.
“You’ll notice in sports like softball, particularly in the States, some young women and girls wear ribbons in their hair. That’s to show they’re straight,” says Warby.
The stereotype is one of the reasons certain lesbian athletes do not come out to the media.
“One of the women I spoke to didn’t want to be buying into that stereotype. Not because she thought there was anything wrong with being gay but it was more out of respect for her teammates,” says Warby.
“What will breakdown stereotypes surrounding female athletes is when a variety of female athletes come out. There also needs to be more straight athletes supporting gay athletes. Sport is the perfect vehicle for social change.”
Brian Healey is the Program Coordinator for Athlete Ally, a US-based organisation aiming to end homophobia and transphobia in sports by educating allies in the athletic community.
Healey writes in an email, “as more and more women come out in sports, people are beginning to see that gay people in general – and lesbians in particular – do not fit into any one mold or stereotype.”
Ultimately, lesbian athletes stay silent because “the media doesn’t ask,” says Warby.
“The Canberra Times are really great with covering female athletes, it’s pretty equal in terms of the exposure and those guys know the athletes really well. They know who the gay and straight ones are. It’s a pretty small community but yet none of them ask the question. Maybe they feel it’s a respect thing.”
Healey also discussed LGBT athletes receiving positive media attention.
There has certainly been more media attention paid to lesbian athletes, as there has been more media attention paid to LGBT athletes in general. And the attention has been overwhelmingly positive. The 2011 women’s World Cup generated an extraordinary amount of press, and we are fortunate to work with several of the women on that team – including out lesbians Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, and Lori Lindsey.
Evidently, both funding and exposure need to simultaneously work together for women sport teams to progress.
Warby says, “Sports organisations getting funding need to have a certain percentage of women on their board. They have to meet certain criteria to keep getting their funding. I think that’s one aspect that needs looking at.
“But then you also need to look at the Football Federation of Australia because they also get money from the Australian Sports Commission and the government, and I would like to see a bit more accountability with how that money gets spent.
“Just look at those big stadiums around the country, do women get to use those grounds? No, they don’t.”
Newcastle University hooker Margaret Watson will be representing Australia at the Women’s Rugby World Cup held in France. This is her second World Cup and ninth rugby season. Currently in pre-season training, the players are getting ready for their first game in June against New Zealand.
“I think the positives for women’s rugby is that it is generally cost covered in terms of travel, at a national level. And negatives is that obviously you’re secondary to your male counterpart,” says Watson.
“We’ve been offered games before but there’s not enough in the budget to divvy out to the women’s side to let those opportunities happen.”
The problem doesn’t just lie with the media, but also with sport organisations and the government. Lutz says, “It’s not just journalism’s job to promote women’s sport, I think sporting bodies need to do that too.”
“Funding and exposure needs to improve,” says Watson. “Going into the World Cup in 2014 we haven’t played an international game since 2010, whereas other countries have. Development’s should be made to have an actual international program available so there are pathways to playing at an elite level.”
In relation to discrimination, Watson says, “I wouldn’t know at a higher level, but just the stereotypes and men within the game that kind of say ‘it’s not a place for a woman.’
“It’s kind of standard really. But the University rugby club is generally very supportive of the women.”
Women athletes need to make a living from their chosen career, but instead, they continue to balance training, work and representing their country.
Cricketer Alex Blackwell also works at Sydney Ultrasound for Women as a genetics counsellor and Watson works as a casual teacher, enabling flexibility to suit training.
“I think that’s a constraint of most women sport. I’m grateful that rugby has the infrastructure that when we do tour it’s all covered,” says Watson.
“Anyone that represents Australia should be getting a hundred thousand dollars a year. No brainer” says Warby.