How the Absence of National Coverage of Female Athletes and Sports Teams Devalues Women

Photo by Getty Images.

Domestic violence is an outrage. But if the video recording of Ray Rice’s misdeed – a left cross to the face of his then-fiancé, knocking her out cold in an elevator – brings the issue into the national debate, we can consider some coverage of this sad affair to be meaningful. Who knows? A battered woman watching the grainy video from the outside looking in may become inspired to pack her bags and leave her batterer so she never again experiences what Janay Rice did. But when the coverage becomes sensationalized to the point where the networks covering the story become the story, without the awareness that this is happening, there's a problem.

In terms of networks that perpetuate violence against women – essentially punching women in the face, too – ESPN is the worst offender.

Case in point: The Phoenix Mercury swept the Chicago Sky to win the 2014 WNBA title, on Chicago’s floor, and the story at the top of the sports ticker was the arrest warrant issued for Minnesota Vikings Running Back Adrian Peterson. Never mind that this is the Mercury’s third title in seven years, won with forward Candice Dupree shooting 74% for the series, guard Diana Taurasi becoming the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer in WNBA Finals history, and center Brittney Griner blocking a WNBA-record eight shots in one quarter of Game 1, punctuating her Defensive Player of the Year season.

Did you like how I threw those stats down?

Newsflash: Girls know about sports.

And this girl had time to write this article during the 40 minutes it took ESPN to add the story of the Mercury winning the 2014 WNBA title to the SportsCenter ticker. When it did, Adrian Peterson’s legal situation remained the "Developing Story" at the top of the ticker, while the WNBA champs received "Griner-less Game 3," on a line following Major League Baseball coverage. The "story" ESPN saw fit to tell amounted to a montage of the WNBA Finals – no longer than a minute in length – that did not include a single post-game interview.

By contrast, the team that wins the NBA title is listed at the top of the ticker immediately and regular programming is halted in favor of footage of champagne baths in the locker room and post-game interviews. An hour after the game, Phoenix’s win was included as the tenth story on ESPN’s website. Beyond disrespectful to the Phoenix Mercury team, led by WNBA Coach of the Year Sandy Brondello (do you see the trend here?), these decisions by ESPN programmers – no doubt, men – amount to an uppercut to the jaw of women everywhere, or half the population of the planet.

When women are so systemically discriminated against in this way – completely removed from view unless they fulfill the role of sexual object to men, like the "babes" in the beer and Hooters commercials shown during halftime – it sends the message that a woman’s worth starts and ends with the degree to which men find her sexually attractive. Yeah, it’s an old argument. Sadly, it’s also a current one, and ESPN’s coverage shows just how little has changed.

When women are not recognized for their hard work – in this case, not filmed while getting their ankles taped before games or soaking their feet in ice buckets after – everyone gets the message that women do not have value. The average viewer may not recognize that he or she is getting this message, but the evidence is clear in the young girl who struggles with confidence or the young boy who thinks it is okay to touch his classmate inappropriately because, after all, "boys will be boys." If that girl does not see other women throwing and dunking – like girls – she will doubt that her dreams matter, let alone that they are attainable. When the young boy watches ESPN and all the women he sees are scantily clad and serving beer, he will believe on a deep and fundamental level that this is all women are. The outrageous pay inequity between WNBA players and NBA players – thousands to millions – speaks loudest of all.

Before the Ravens-Steelers game on Thursday, CBS’s James Brown said during the pre-game show: "And it starts with how we view women. Our language is important. For instance, when a guy says, ‘you throw the ball like a girl’ or ‘you're a little sissy,’ it reflects an attitude that devalues women and attitudes will eventually manifest in some fashion." And ESPN’s persistent failure to show girls throwing, hitting, and dunking – taping up, icing down, and talking game – amounts to culpability.

I am, after all, "just a girl." So if you don’t take my word for it, take James Browns’.