“When I was growing up,” says Tara VanDerveer, “the only female athlete I remember reading about was Billie Jean King, but I kind of always felt that there would be something more, eventually, for women.”
VanDerveer, 41, has been a basketball coach at Stanford for 10 years (winning two national championships), and before that she was at Ohio State. She coached the United States national team to a gold medal this summer at the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, and many expect her to be selected to coach at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In the Game, an hour-long documentary about women’s athletics that focused on VanDerveer’s Stanford basketball team, aired on PBS‘s Frontline in March, about the same time that figure skater Tonya Harding emerged as 1994’s most visible female athlete.
Exactly why the best and brightest women athletes are relegated to media obscurity (while Harding commanded a full-fledged media circus) may be better explained by “sociologists and psychologists,” suggests VanDerveer. But there is obvious irony in her voice. She follows up by saying that the reason the media keep women’s sports out of the news is because when the “old guard” sees women running free on the playing fields, they bristle at the fact that women aren’t “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.”
Q: With more women playing sports than ever before, why do you think they aren’t covered?
A: People in the media say to me, “We don’t have the space, we don’t have the resources,” but those explanations just sound like excuses to me. People who make decisions about sports coverage simply want to hold on tightly to the status quo. People in charge at newspapers, television stations, at magazines, for the most part didn’t grow up playing sports with females, or playing against them, or cheering for them. The only view of women they have in relation to sports is as cheerleaders.
Q: From the 1993 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to the 1994 swimsuit issue, there were three women athletes who made the cover of the weekly magazine: Monica Seles after being stabbed; Mary Pierce, who allegedly was abused by her father; and Nancy Kerrigan after being clubbed on the knee. Do you think there were other worthy stories about women athletes that may have merited a cover?
A: We’re looking at 52 chances to be on the cover. The choices they made about the women they put on the cover– either victims or sex symbols–are closely related to the perception of women in our society. It’s really frustrating to me. To me they are missing what is really good about athletics, and a lot of those really good stories are about women athletes.
Q: You’ve said that you have trouble with the phrase “women’s sports.” What’s the problem?
A: We have to somehow get beyond always referring to women playing sports as “women’s sports” while men playing sports is simply “sports.” I’d like to see sports covered as sports. Sports coverage should be about who is playing, what the score was and how it happened. People assume that there is just one kind of sports going on, and that’s men’s sports.
Q: How do you think we will get beyond this problem?
A: I think when a new wave of men and women come into decision-making positions, things will change. People who have grown up watching their sisters play soccer or basketball will begin to expect information about female athletes in the same way that they get information about male athletes. It’s already happening, but slowly.
Q: In your 16 years of coaching, has coverage changed?
A: Yes. I think a lot of that has to do with the integrity of the reporters. My team at Stanford had to win national championships (’90 and ’92) to get the press to really come out to our games. Stories still don’t get written early in the season, but I think newspapers are further along than television. I mean, what is hard about ESPN doing a Top 25 for women’s college basketball teams? Why do men hold on so tightly and refuse to share–newspaper space, television time, practice facilities?
It is really frustrating to have a championship team and get two-inch stories in the paper, while some average men’s team gets pages written about them. I try not to let it totally consume me, because then I get so angry and so frustrated that I can’t do my job. I try to let it get me a little bit mad, so I’ll work on it and still be able to do my job, which is to coach.
Q: Do you think that the level of women’s athletics suffers because of the lack of coverage?
A: In basketball, the women’s game has improved technically, and that is related to girls watching the NBA and modeling their game after male athletes. But I see a lot of ridiculous things, like chest-butting. It’s better, I think, for girls to identify with someone more like themselves so they can say, “That could be me out there.”
I get a lot of letters, from older women, from girls and from boys. They are enthusiastic about the game. I think boys like watching women play because they learn things. In a lot of ways, guys are not supposed to express any emotion, they are supposed to be cool, and when they do express emotion it’s in inappropriate ways. I think they like watching women’s sports because women can be more natural. They can learn about being people from watching women compete.
Sharing is what this is all about. The reason people don’t want to have more coverage of women athletes is because they don’t want to see women doing things. The coverage we have now supports an outdated status quo. When you see women who are out there on the playing field being athletic and aggressive, it’s clear that they are not home barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen.
See also “Gender Bias in Televised Sports.”