Sports on TV: Where the girls aren't


Dan Baron

A lifetime as a sports fan didn't prepare me for the question my 4-year-old daughter Dina fired at me as we watched a basketball game together.

"Daddy," she asked, "why aren't there more girls playing sports on TV?"

Until I had daughters I didn't give this subject much thought.

Now it makes me sad and angry.

I buy into the common wisdom that sports can help make kids healthier, stronger and more confident people.

I have shared the basics with my daughter many times: Do your best. Have fun. Play fair. Learn how to be a good teammate.

Then what?

What kind of value do these messages have for a little girl when she sees that a televised sporting event is far more likely to feature 25-year-old guys drinking beer, and lusting after women during commercials than female athletes competing in sports?

That's not an easy thing for this sports fan to say, since I've spent countless hours watching televised sports, bonding with friends at games, playing ball,

and now, trying to impart my passion for sports to my daughters.

In one quick moment, Dina's question suggested to me something that would trouble any parent I know. My daughter senses that she's not included in something. She feels left out. It's not fair.

My first response to my daughter was to come up with a quick solution; I found a women's basketball game on television that Dina and I could watch together. I knew this was a temporary fix, though, and I was still bothered by her question.

The evidence that girls are interested in playing sports is overwhelming-the numbers alone are truly staggering.

Because of Title IX, girls in this country are 10 times more likely to participate in high school varsity sports now than they were 30 years ago, according to research compiled by the Women's Sports Foundation, an educational organization founded by Billie Jean King. When Title IX passed in 1972, only 1 in 27 girls participated in high school varsity sports; now, 1 in 2.5 girls participates.

In my home, Dina already has shown me she loves to run, jump rope, play catch and ride her tricycle.

When I explained T-ball to her, she wanted to play it that day. We play makeshift soccer matches against each other in our living room: She shoots the ball; I'm the goalie.

Still, all the soccer matches in the country clearly have not led to equity between men's and women's sports on television, according to Michael Messner, who teaches sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California.

"The lesson to be learned from Title IX, of course, is that when you give girls the opportunity, they will play sports," he says.

"There's no sex-linked trait that predisposes men to play sports and women not to play-it's really a matter of encouraging girls and women.

"People in TV know that women participate in all kinds of sports," says Messner. "In many cases, though, TV executives are just not taking the chances to create and develop markets for women's sports as they do for men's sports."

On a national level, data indicates women now make up about 40 percent of all sport and physical activity participants, but women who play sports receive only about 7 percent of the total sports coverage, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.

While there are few options for girls and families who want to watch female athletes compete on TV, many signs suggest the potential audience is sizable. Last spring, for example, the women's college basketball title game between Connecticut and Tennessee was the most-watched men's or women's basketball game ever telecast by ESPN.

What bothers me even more than the scarcity of coverage, though, are some of the messages girls receive about what's important in the world. While girls compete in sports, they still live in a world where they are openly objectified.

Earlier this year, for instance, Sepp Blatter, head of the World Soccer Federation, said that female players should wear "tighter shorts" and "more feminine" uniforms to help attract sponsors.

The message to female athletes that they should focus on their appearance is also all too common even when they're not playing, according to one researcher who has studied girls, sports and culture for two decades.

"What we know from research is that female athletes are more likely to be portrayed off the court in highly sexualized poses," says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "The emphasis is not on their dedication and accomplishments."

Kane suggests that sports can help change some tired old notions about what girls and women can and cannot do.

"Sports helps shatter stereotypes about the weaknesses and limitations of girls," she says. "If young boys see anyone participating in sports at a high level, they understand it and respect it. There are few things in the world that boys and men have more respect for and cheer more passionately about than sports."

As a dad with a 4-year-old daughter, I've learned that girls are every bit as physically active as boys.

You are strong and tough, I tell my daughter Dina. In my head, I hope that maybe someday girls and women playing sports will get as much attention as they deserve.

Right now, though, I'm not focusing on the latest exciting sports highlight or ballgame or talented athlete on TV.

My daughter is about to kick a soccer ball at me. She is ready for action.




Dan Baron is a Chicago writer. You can reach him at [email protected]


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