Gender, Sexism, Sports Reporting

I have a growing interest in gender, sexism, and sports and follow some pretty cool folks who write about these issues. This week I went to my usual blogs and was taken aback by a blog by Jeff Pearlman. His blogs are spot on and entertaining and fun to follow. At the same time, he has a voice in sports journalism, and folks listen to what he has to say so is his latest blog about Erin Andrews and and the Richard Sherman interview unnerved me (see )

Okay, here I go…to Jeff Pearlman:

I understand and appreciate your wanting to point out sexism in sports journalism with your piece. And that is particularly why I’m appealing to you to think about some things about gender that might not have consciously entered your mind. You have a voice out there in sports, and I think gender is an important topic in sports to address. Not many of you do it, so when it comes up it’s a great opportunity to discuss issues like sexism. I want to point out some things to think about in addressing sexism by arguing that a woman is unqualified for her job and only got it because of her looks.

You state that Erin Andrews performed poorly – lets’ agree that that is a matter of opinion. But let’s take the perspective for a moment that she messed up and performed poorly (again, I’m not agreeing that she messed up): A) Okay, has a male sports reporter ever messed up a sideline interview? I’m going to assume yes. What might the conversation around that look like? Is it taken as a sign of incompetence over HIS whole career? (Or is it seen as “dude, you messed up…funny…next subject”?) (Sidenote: thank god I’ve never flubbed a research talk because people might brand me as unqualified to be researcher. I think you get what I’m saying here. We are all fallible, even in the BIG moments. For those who’ve never experienced that, it’s a shame because it’s an important part of personal and career growth). Another question: Is the conversation around how HE IS incompetent (versus performed that one time incompetently), and how HE only got the job because he is attractive (appealing to the 45% of NFL fans who are women)? I’m not asking if that convo has EVER happened, but whether it is routinized. That is a big difference because often the response to these kinds of inquiries is, “it happens to men too.” Imagine this being a routinized and normalized discourse around a male reporter on the sidelines. If we are honest, it wouldn’t be: “Mike messed that interview up. See, it goes to show he just isn’t qualified for the job. They only hired him because he’s cute.” (please don’t say Tim Tebow, I know…I’m talking about how it’s routinely done to women to diminish)

The thing is that women are constantly scrutinized for how we look, whether it is because we are perceived as being unattractive or attractive. The point is that when women are scrutinized for being unattractive OR attractive, both are problematic. For women, the dialogue around attractiveness exists in ways that it doesn’t for men. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exits too, btw.). Is it wrong for women who are perceived as unattractive to not be hired because it’s assumed she will negatively affect ratings and the bottom line dollar? A resounding YES! Is it wrong to assume that a woman is incompetent and unqualified for a job because she is attractive? A resounding YES! Women should not be presumed incompetent because of their looks.

Now let’s take another scenario…one that I’m sure you’re asking now: Is it wrong to hire a woman for a job ONLY because she is attractive? Let’s deconstruct this a bit because it’s a point you made central in your piece. You were concerned with women being objectified and treated as eye-candy. The thing is that there was a subtext and dichotomy created that was a taken-for-granted assumption: women can’t be both attractive and competent. We can probably agree that we can’t really KNOW whether she was hired for being attractive. What I’m really interested in getting at is the perception. I’m assuming she has some qualifications: prior work experience, a degree, etc. You yourself also mentioned that she used to work in sports at another network. So, it’s not as if an attractive woman was pulled off the street and given a job in sports reporting. Yet, the framing of the Andrews/Sherman interview in your piece, unwittingly, takes the lens that attractiveness and competence don’t go together. Why is that? It could have been framed a number of ways. The focus in your blog was linking her attractiveness with incompetence. And let’s remember that viewing the interview as incompetence is simply an opinion. A number of sports writers have said that she did a fine job, also a matter of opinion. The crux here, though, is linking the opinion of incompetence to attractiveness and ultimately to the conclusion that she is unqualified for her job.

Having said that, what if her attractiveness was part of the equation in being hired? Why is this such a big concern when things that routinely land men jobs—other than qualifications—are not? Let’s take the “old boys network” and nepotism. Why isn’t the public discourse around competence dominated by questions about white men who got where they are because they had the connections? Sure, this comes up now and again, mostly by people of color, but the reason it isn’t mainstream is telling. And the reason the combination of women’s looks and competence (scrutinizing attractiveness and unattractiveness) is a mainstream convo is also telling. Sure, the “old boys network” is brought up now and again, but let’s be real, it is firmly entrenched and there is no real concern that white men all over the U.S. are getting access to positions that they are unqualified for (cue George Bush)…Let’s dwell on that a while. And, okay, before I get a “well, that doesn’t mean we should be hiring unqualified women” quip…let me deal with that right now too. Sure, let’s all of sudden get a mainstream concern over competence by focusing on attractive women. Really? C’mon now. Y’all need to know better than that. Sure, errybody concerned over competence when it involves attractive women. Why is that? And if anyone is interested in the Megyn Kelly example because progressives do make fun of her being hired just because she is an attractive woman…THIS: how many unintelligent-speaking men are at Fox News that no one cares about critiquing based on appearance? (oh god, I’m in some way defending Megyn Kelly. How did this happen?)

Now let me shift a bit and engage in an exercise that I use in class…what if we substitute race and ethnicity for gender?: “You know he only got the job because he’s black; he’s not qualified for the job (yeah, that superficial exterior marker…ya know…his looks…his black looks). Does that feel just a bit uncomfortable? Good. Yes, I’ve been told I only got into school and earned a Ph.D. because of my skin color…ya know affirmative action..that external skin color thing. But how come, again, is there no mainstream conversation about legacy admittance into college? Are there national mainstream conversations demanding that universities stop legacy admittances (ya know, the dim folks that get into college because they’re rich…and largely white?) Are there legal suits around this resulting in the dismantling of this practice? (cue affirmative action lawsuits in California and Texas with resulting decrease in African Americans and Latinos on college campuses). I’ve heard these mainstream convos: “don’t you want to get into college based on your intelligence and not your skin color?” (cue Clarence Thomas) and “shouldn’t the BEST person be hired for the job without attention to skin color?” No, not about gender, as in Pearlman’s blog, but about race and ethnicity. The BEST person for the job is complicated by race, class, gender….why do we tend not to worry about the BEST person for the job when it comes to white men?: “That white man fucked up that interview. I wish we’d quit hiring based on the old boys network and legacy.” The point I’m making is that “competence” is fraught. Is it likely that attractive women have to prove themselves in ways that attractive men don’t? Yeah, likely. Will an attractive woman’s PERCEIVED messed up interview be judged more harshly than an attractive male’s? Yeah, likely. Again, let us all dwell on that a while… (Side note: And I’m trying to hold intersectionality in my head at the same time…being aware of the complexities of intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.)

Switching gears again..might it be that the producer cut the interview because he wanted to cut the adrenaline rushed Sherman off as quickly as possible? Maybe they were afraid he was going to start cursing (Okay, crazy black man cursing may be playing in their heads?…another blog post) Has it ever happened in sports reporting history that an interview is cut short? What if it had happened to a man? Would the automatic assumption be that he was unqualified and couldn’t handle the interview? Or that he looked scared? (thanks Dave Zirin @edgeofsports for your insight). Or might the assumption be that producers wanted to cut the player off in the middle of an adrenaline moment that could escalate to cursing? (again, “crazy black man” rearing his head) Why might one interpretation be chosen over another? It is so difficult to recognize our unconscious biases. For example, when I give students examples of when I’ve been hetero-normative in my analyses, it’s painful. At the same time it allows growth. I will mess up again…of this I’m certain. But what I’m also pretty sure of is that I’ll be able to recognize it because I try to practice self-reflexivity. And then the moments where my bias happens will be less and less. AGAIN…WHY IS ONE INTERPRETATION CHOSEN OVER ANOTHER?…THIS IS IMPORTANT.

Conversations around sports, gender, and sexism are extremely important. I think there needs to be more cross-disciplinary work, where those interested in these topics can bring their expertise to bear, learn from each other, and help change the dominant discourses that exclude and marginalize.

On a personal note, Pearlman, I really like your work and hope that you can take something from my observations. We need you out there in social media talking about gender issues in sports the way I’ve seen you do it before…it’s important. You’ve got a big voice in sports, and I appreciate that. Because you have been an ally in discussions of race and gender in sports I care about what you say, and I hope that in some way you can use my observations to move the discourse further. In peace–and gender in sports–solidarity!