(Image retrieved  Kate Beirness’ Twitter account , 2018, Edited by: Sierra Schumann)

Exploring the Culture of Silence Embedded Within Sports Journalism

The momentum of the #MeToo movement has encouraged women in various industries to speak up and share their stories of sexual misconduct. This movement has revealed a devastating, and largely unspoken truth: that most women have been a victim of sexual assault and/or harassment in their lifetime. This issue continues to gain media traction with the number of sexual misconduct stories being brought into the public spotlight rapidly multiplying.  There was a significant increase in #MeToo stories shared on social media platforms following the allegations against famous director Harvey Weinstein last October. As influential women in the entertainment industry begin to speak out about their personal experiences, the culture of silence that has been so heavily embedded in this industry begins to crumble. It is empowering to watch the international dialogue concerning sexual violence unfold after centuries of silence, but I can’t help but notice the lack thereof in sports journalism. Why is it that women in sports journalism remain relatively silent despite the rest of the entertainment industry’s significant contributions to the movement?

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Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse and their supporters protest during a #MeToo march in Hollywood, California. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The current narrative surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace has largely been bound to entertainment and political industries. However sports media, just as the rest of the entertainment industry, is entangled in a system that turns a blind eye to sexual harassment.  In Hardin and Shains article “ The Fragmented Professional Identity of Female Sports Journalists” they highlight that discrimination and harassment have been happening for decades (Hardin & Shain, 2005). I seek to determine the root of behaviours that still persist today.  When considering sports journalists, why have female sports reports been absent from the #MeToo movement?  Is it simply the nature of the industry or are there actions actively being taken to suppress allegations of such misbehaviour?

Sexual assault and harassment are persistent forms of gender-based violence that are rooted in gender inequality. Louise Fitzgerald,  professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois, states that the more men relative to female employees, the more harassment there tends to be (Fitzgerald, 1993). Sports, being one of the most masculinized industries, has thus become a playground for gender discrimination.  Sports journalism has fostered an environment in which gender based discrimination has come to be both expected and accepted by females.   Ultimately this reflects the belief that being a female reporter in a male-dominated field provides justifications for these behaviours to take place. 

Revealing the Realities 

The uniqueness of being a female sport enthusiast is only magnified further as one attempts to climb the corporate ladder. Career opportunities become increasingly limited as societal expectations perpetuate sport as a male domain. The average career span for women in sports is 10 years, and most never reach management ranks (Hardin & Shain, 2005).  Female sports journalists who may be considered more qualified than male rivals still find themselves locked into limiting roles  (Chambers et al., 2004). If a women happens to successfully reach a position of management,  it often requires the adoption of a “thick skinned approach” (Chambers et al., 2004). This includes looking past inappropriate behaviours and not reporting them to authority figures.  

Former sports journalist Amelia Rayno elaborates on her personal experiences in this male dominated field: 

One of the most frustrating things about my job is knowing that there’s information to be had—for the right price. In our industry, male reporters swap information left and right: Give a nugget to this agent, he’ll tell you a tidbit about this GM; share a rumour with this head coach over here, and he might give you a scoop about his team. But that bartering system can often be a slippery slope for us, as women. “What’s in it for me?”  That’s the response I’ve gotten from certain players, coaches, agents, execs, etc., when I’m simply trying to do my job.” (Sports Illustrated, 2017)

It is clear that the position of women within the sports journalism industry will not change without an ideological shift in these authoritarian power structures (Kian, 2005).  It has become widely accepted by female journalist that there are some scoops and some professional relationships they won’t have because they don’t want to deal with certain people’s inappropriate behaviour. However, by women not acknowledge these behaviours and speaking out, it is preserving the misogynistic norms ingrained in the industry itself. A grassroots approach can be taken in tackling this issue, rather than change being imposed from the top down, particularly because of the patriarchal power that still remains. Hargreaves highlights the “strength” of male hegemony in sports in comparison to other industries.  He mentions “they [the individuals in dominant positions] are even more resistant to change” (Hargreaves, 1994). This change beginning with giving women an equal opportunity to climb the ranks without facing the threat of sexual offences. 

Speaking Out 

The broad #MeToo movement has generated this feeling among women that it is finally OK to talk about experiences of sexual misconduct. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, scholar at Harvard School of Business,  argues that the greatest revelations from the stories that women have shared is that enduring sexual assault or harassment is not an individual experience (Kanter, 1993). Rather, it is part of a phenomenon that affects women in every country, industry and income class.  The #MeToo movement goes far beyond celebrities speaking out, but has encompassed stories of both men and women from a variety different of backgrounds.  Kanter goes on to highlight that offences are often bigger than one individual; they’re part of an elaborate “machinery” that protects men and silences women (Kanter, 1993).  This is evident in the sports industry considering the misogynistic culture highlighted above. Kanter’s notion of sexual harassment and assault as a collective problem brings to light a serious and significant issue. This cultural awakening on the unspoken truth of sexual violence are not afforded to women in positions of insecurity. Given the work environment female sports reporters endure,  they are at a disadvantage when entering the #MeToo conversation. 

Erin Andrews

Erin Andrews at Court House. (Photography: Mark Humphrey from People.com)

Following the trial of former ESPN sports reporter, Erin Andrews, the conversation arose on what responsibility media entities have for creating a safe workplace for female reports, including when the harassment comes from an outside source. Amelia Rayno stated that “Reactions of some people to this story [Erin Andrews’s allegations] is that the media entities should protect female reporters in ways we don’t worry about when it comes to male reporters.” (Sports Illustrated, 2017).  This is fostering the gender inequality that (most) of society, is fighting to eradicate (Miller et al,1995).   Consequently, the media coverage on sexual misconduct in the sports journalism  began focusing predominately on external threats.  It veered away from instances such as the the locker room fiasco and began to place blame on “stalker” fans.  Ultimately this is shifting the attention away from the misogyny occurring  within the industry itself. The risk of outside harassment is used as a vehicle to limit women’s opportunities in the field.  Women faced restriction when covering men’s sports as this “could potentially expose them to men who might act in sexually provocative ways” (Sports Illustrated, 2017).  This was yet another mechanism used to justify the suppression of women in sports journalism.

Female sports journalists face the reality that speaking out could possibly jeopardize their career. The repercussions could extend out to colleagues, employers and with the teams they cover. Amelia Rayno elaborated on the intimidation one faces to speak out when stating:

“My fear is the backlash that would follow any female sportswriter who called out a player, head coach or GM for his behaviour. Because the minute you do, you would become a pariah in the locker room. The sad thing is, you’d have to weigh the cost of speaking up. Will it do more damage to my career? Will anyone believe me anyway? The shame of it is, sometimes it’s just easier for us to try to ignore the person or the behaviour and go on with our lives. Our jobs are hard enough as it is.”

(Sports Illustrated, 2017)

Another fear women face, as mentioned by Rayno, is believability.  Female sports reporter Dana O’Neil highlights an assumptions made toward many female sports when she stated, “that we [female sports journalist] all sleep with high-level execs, work our way around locker rooms and clubhouses and send nude pics to players” (Sports Illustrated, 2017), causing even more intimidation around the narrative of “Who will believe me?”. Not only do these women fear losing their job from speaking out, these also must consider if anyone will even believe their word in the end.

Given the fear’s mentioned above, women involved in sports generally may resist taking a political stance on women’s issues. Consequently,  instead of speaking out to external authority figures, female reports share their stories with other female reports within the field. This acts as a form of warning.  USA Today reporter, Nicole Auerbach, mentioned that  “Having other women in the industry to rely on and reach out to about various experiences is vital” ( (Sports Illustrated, 2017).  If you cannot take down the patriatchy, you can at least form a  “safe” community  within it, right?

Why is this?  What does this say about sports journalism and the pervasive fear of speaking out?

The excuse that no other industry is so thoroughly dominated by men, from the athletes to the people in power of hiring and firing, is bogus. Sports and sports media are unscathed by the scandal’s of sexual misconduct not because harassment doesn’t exist but because women who work in this business are terrified to talk.

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Photo: New York Magazine

Solution? 

The current #MeToo and #Timesup movements contain similar attributes to the 1996 movement that Heywood deems “Stealth Feminism” (Heywood, 2013). During this time there was a female empowerment rhetoric led most prominently by Nike. Stealth feminism created a public discourse surrounding female involvement in the Olympics. As a result of this movement, the number of female olympic athletes increased exponentially.  This demonstrates the persuasive power that the advertisement industry holds both historically and today.  It is the individuals in key social institutions that actively, often subconsciously,  participate in preserving the social norms (Hargreaves, 1994). So what if sponsors pullout from the leading sports journalist corporations until an active change was made towards the way women are treated within the industry? 

Yes, the conversation surrounding sexual harassment and assault is complicated and fractured and the solution is not so simple. Nonetheless, the #MeToo movement has made clear the insidiousness and prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, with an entire industry missing from that narrative.

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment should not be the status quo. How many more #MeToo stories need to come to light before we agree that #TimesUp in sportscasting too?

 

 

References:

Chambers, D., Steiner, L., & Fleming, C. (2004). Women and journalism. London: Routledge

Fitzgerald, L.F. (1993). Sexual harassment: Violence against women in the workplace. American Psychologist, 48 (10).
Hargreaves, J. (1994). Sporting females: Critical issues in the history and sociology of women’s sports. London: Routledge.

Hardin, M., & Shain, S. (2005). Female Sports Journalists: Are We There Yet?No’. Newspaper Research Journal, 26(4), 22.

Hardin, M & Stacie Shain (2007) “Feeling Much Smaller than You Know You Are”: The Fragmented Professional Identity of Female Sports Journalists, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 23:4, 322-338,

Heywood, L., Dworkin, S. L., & Foudy, J. (2003). Built to win : the female athlete as culturalcon. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca

John M. Sloop (2012) “This is Not Natural:” Caster Semenya’s Gender Threats, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 29:2, 81-96
Kanter, R. M (1993)  Men and Women of the Corporation. NY: Basic Books

Kian, T. (2005). Gender in sports writing: A phenomenological look at writers’ experiences. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Winston-Salem, NC.
Miller, P., & Miller, R. (1995). The invisible woman: Female sports journalists in the workplace. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 72, 883889.

 

 

 

 

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