It is important to acknowledge the advances that have been made in the acceptance of women in sports journalism. It is reported that it has been about forty years since the first female reporter was allowed into a professional sports locker room Today, most media houses have multiple female reporters and anchors on their roster. It is fair to say that there have been cracks in the sports journalism glass ceiling: In 1981, Rhonda Glenn was the first woman to anchor ESPN’s famous SportsCenter franchise. Lesley Visser, although the only woman there, was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Progress?
Notwithstanding these important gains, women are still overwhelmingly in the minority in this male dominated field (no pun intended). Although women are now generally allowed to conduct locker room interviews, frequent the clubhouse and write convincingly on sport, sexism still rears its ugly head often enough to warrant women remaining on their guard. Obviously, this is not a call to manufacture outrage, become militant or search for controversy. However, it does mean that women must be willing and able to speak out against inappropriate and sexist conduct when necessary.
Erin Andrews, an American sportscaster, has been vocal about the gender specific challenges and sexism women covering men’s sports universally face during their careers. Andrews became a sports journalist at approximately the time when the sports blogs started. In an interview conducted a couple of years ago, she remarked that she had been baptized into a world where the sports blogs dubbed her the “Sideline Barbie” or the “Sideline Princess.” Sexist double entendre?
Writing for The Daily Beast about two years ago, Isobel Markham critiqued sport’s journalism’s ‘beauty curse’ and highlighted that for sports reporters, sexist comments about their looks – and ‘plum jobs for pretty girls’ – are as common as timeouts. It is no coincidence that women in sports journalism are predominantly dolled up ‘Barbie-style’, with focus often diverted from the content of their work to their physical appearance.
In addition to the demands of interviewing athletes in male-dominated sports, Andrews had to contend with male bloggers critiquing what she was wearing. “The sidelines aren’t as glamorous as everyone thinks” she said. “When halftime happens, you do the interview, and then you’ve got to grab a coach or a player. You don’t even have time to go to the bathroom. So I’m having a hot dog on the sideline, and people are taking photos and submitting them to the sports blogs. And it’s like, ‘How does she look eating a hot dog?’ It wasn’t about my reporting, it was, ‘What is she wearing, who is she dating?'”
Andrews is not alone. In 2010, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson had to apologize personally to TV Azteca reporter Inés Sainz after his players and staff directed lewd comments toward her in the locker room. Similarly, a Bills fan looked up a photograph of Jennifer Gish online after she had written a piece in the sports column for the Albany Times-Union back in September 2011. Instead of responding to the substance of her article as would have been expected, he scathingly wrote “You may want to consider plastic surgery or something, you are one god awful ugly looking female.”
Unacceptable? Yes. Uncommon? No.
When a professional woman goes about her daily work, she has every right to be taken seriously. The focus ought not to be her looks but her ability. Whether in the courtroom, the boardroom, the hospital or the pitch, she must be shown professional respect.
Imagine if in the middle of a political interview with a female journalist on an issue of national importance, Barack Obama ignored the question and asked the journalist out for a drink after remarking that she had beautiful eyes, on air. The world would be outraged. Obama would be accused of inappropriate, sexist conduct.
Imagine if during a board meeting, a male director ignored a question put to him by a fellow female director and instead asked the co-director out for a drink after remarking that she had beautiful eyes. He would be accused of inappropriate, sexist conduct.
Imagine if a female lawyer was delivering a court address and mid-sentence her male opponent ignored her submission and instead asked the female lawyer out for a drink after remarking that she had beautiful eyes. He would be accused of inappropriate, sexist conduct.
Rest assured, none of the men in any of the above scenarios would have been able to get away with calling the comments ‘a simple joke.’
I come now to Chris Gayle.
After his innings during a Twenty20 Melbourne Renegades match earlier this week, reputed West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle was approached by Mel McLaughlin, a journalist for Australian broadcaster Network Ten for an interview. Gayle ignored McLaughlin’s questions about the match and chose instead to comment about her eyes, ask her out for a drink say, “Don’t blush, baby.”
McLaughlin, visibly uncomfortable, opted to continue with the interview. Upon its conclusion, she walked away as he attempted to touch her. McLaughlin later described Gayle’s conduct as “disappointing”. She went on to say, “I don’t really want to be the subject of such conversations, I like just going about my business and doing my job.” She said female sports presenters “want equality, we always want equality”.
The unacceptable and sexist nature of Gayle’s conduct ought to be immediately clear. Most regrettably, a strong reaction by viewers and certain commentators has been that ‘it was evidently a joke.’ Against the context of sexism against women in sports journalism set out above, of which Gayle would have been no doubt aware, his behaviour is nothing less than sexist and deplorable. It is improper to ignore the questions asked and make a pass on a woman on live television as she is conducting an interview about the game. It’s akin to saying, ‘oh shut up pretty face. I won’t talk sport with you but I will buy you a drink. Talking about the game is too technical let me concentrate rather on your eyes.’
If he was genuine about his intentions with her (which is doubtful given his reported marital status – a discussion for another day), then he ought to have been respectful enough to respond seriously to her questions, as he would have done a male interviewer, and reserved the approach for an opportune moment off-air.
Gayle would not have been able to get away with such conduct in the courtroom or the boardroom. It should not be tolerated on the sidelines of a cricket pitch: the location of sexism does not alter its nature. His explanation that it was a joke or that it was blown out of proportion would not be entertained in other professional settings. In the same vein, McLaughlin should not be made to feel as though speaking out against Gayle’s conduct during a sideline interview of a cricket pitch is an overreaction.
Society cannot accept that it was just ‘a joke.’ If anything, his conduct perpetuates the sideline Barbie syndrome which focuses on the beauty of a female sports journalist at the expense of her professional ability – and insists that she remains on the fringes of this male-dominated industry.