When CBS and ESPN covered the 1989 college basketball championships, commentators and graphics referred to the men’s events as “The Final Four” and “The NCAA National Championship Game,” while viewers were constantly reminded that they were watching the “Women’s Final Four” and the “NCAA Women’s National Championship Game.”
This presentation of women’s games as derivative of a male standard signaled a consistent presentation of female athletics as inferior, according to a study of sports journalism sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles that examined these basketball and tennis events. (The study was conducted by Margaret Carlisle Duncan, Michael Messner, Linda Williams and Kerry Jensen.)
The way commentators referred to men and women athletes contrasted dramatically. In the tennis and basketball games studied, women were referred to as “girls,” as well as “young ladies” or “women.” Men, however, were never referred to as “boys,” but as “men,” “young men” or “young fellas.”
When commentators identified an athlete by first name alone, the athlete was far more likely to be female than male, particularly in tennis (e.g. “Martina” [Navratilova], “Zena” [Garrison], “Steffi” [Graf]). When men were referred to by first names only, the players were always men of color (“Rumeal” [Robinson], “Ramon” [Ramos]). White male basketball players were never referred to by just their first names. (See chart.)
Linguists have often found that members of dominant social groups are called by their last names and refer to others by first names. In sports, the practice reduces female athletes and athletes of color to the role of children, while giving adult status to white male athletes.
The descriptions of athletes in the events studied also varied by gender. Commentators often used words like “big,” “strong,” “brilliant,” “gutsy” and “aggressive” to describe men, while tending to save “weary,” “fatigued,” “frustrated,” “panicked,” “vulnerable” and “choking” for women. Words that communicated strength were used four times as often as those that connoted weakness to describe male tennis players, while female tennis players were slightly more likely to be described as weak.
When women were described as strong, it was often done in ambivalent language: “big girl,” “she’s tiny, she’s small, but so effective,” “her little jump hook,” etc. There was little ambivalence in the descriptions of men: These were “big” guys with “big” forehands who played “big games.”
Descriptions of men’s play was filled with martial imagery–words and phrases like “bangs in,” “ambushed,” “explode,” “battles,” “attack,” “firepower,” “duel,” “shootout” and so on. Commentators used such language twice as often in men’s as in women’s tennis, and three times as much in men’s as in women’s basketball. Descriptions of women’s sports were less evocative of power: Where a male basketball player might “crash through” the defense, a woman would be “moving against” the defense. While a man “attacks” the hoop, a woman might “go to” the hoop. Where men “misfire,” women simply “miss.”
Women were more likely to be framed as failures due to some combination of nervousness, lack of confidence, lack of “being comfortable,” lack of aggression and lack of stamina. Men were far less often described as failures–men appeared to miss shots and lose matches not so much because of their individual shortcomings, but because of the power, strength and intelligence of their male opponents.
Margaret Carlisle Duncan is a professor of human kinetics at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She was an investigator for the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles’ study, “Gender Stereotyping in Televised Sports.” The study is available from the foundation at 2141 W. Adams Blvd., L.A., CA 90018.
Names Used in Tennis Commentary (1989 U.S. Open finals)
First Name Only: Men, 44 (8%); Women, 304 (53%)
Last Name Only: Men, 395 (70%); Women, 166 (29%)
First and Last Name: Men, 127 (22%); Women, 107 (19%)