The final match of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup shattered U.S. viewership records, becoming the most-watched football/soccer match in U.S. history. Canadians tuned in en masse to watch the host team, and set records for FIFA Women’s World Cup viewership in Canada as well.
Despite these exciting advances in women’s sports, much of the media coverage did not get the memo. For example, FIFA found itself mired in controversy (a state that is hardly new for them) when a FIFA online feature on U.S. striker Alex Morgan described her as possessing "a style that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match."
Not only is it is tough to imagine FIFA writing a similar feature about a male football/soccer star, but it caused people to compare coverage today to 1999 (the last time the U.S. won), when the most important news item appeared to be Brandi Chastain taking off her shirt.
Why is coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team so fraught? Sadly, it’s the tip of an iceberg of problematic coverage of women athletes.
Just before Serena Williams’ Wimbledon victory on Saturday (one that marked her 21st tennis Grand Slam singles title) the New York Times published "Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition." This article discussed the difficulties female tennis stars face as they try to reconcile the body type that will help them win tennis tournaments with the body type that is considered "feminine and attractive."
The article began with a backhanded compliment. "[Williams’] rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to," and quickly spiraled into a comparison of Williams’ body with her rivals: "Andrea Petkovic, a German ranked 14th, said she particularly loathed seeing pictures of herself hitting two-handed backhands, when her arm muscles appear the most bulging. ‘I just feel unfeminine,’ she said."
While the article raised an important issue that has long been holding women back as athletes, there was obvious concern about the ways this article addressed it. Critics pointed out that the article amounted to a discussion of Williams’ appearance and physicality as compared to those of her smaller white (and presumably more feminine) competitors.
But instead of just talking about it, we thought it would be more fun if we invoked Rule 63. What would happen if we talked about NHL players in the same way that some media talks about female athletes? We’ll provide a handy list of ideas, and we invite you to imagine the rest.
Please note that just like the problematic coverage of women’s sports where the intended audience is generally assumed to be heterosexual men, the inversion of this coverage is an imaginary world where the intended audience for sports articles about men is cisgender heterosexual women, even though we know this is hardly true. In short: we're intentionally being absurd and exclusionary.
"Hockey’s Top Men Must Balance Body With Ambition"
This article will lead with a dissection of "hockey butt." While NHL players are typically tall and muscular -- a physique that is often considered masculine -- the enlarged butts that result from a lifestyle of skating and squats could cause women to see NHL players' bodies as more feminine and therefore potentially less attractive.
A subset of women will be interviewed who find the more rounded butts attractive (just like the men in the New York Times article who shockingly find a more athletic women’s body attractive). Coaches, however, might explain that they encourage their trainees to not put on too much butt muscle because they’re still men, after all.
The article really needs to hammer home that men’s bodies exist to be viewed.
Star NHLers will be asked to comment on their own butts, the butts of other stars, and how they manage to cover up their butts so they aren’t as noticeable (in much the same way in which the New York Times article about Serena Williams discussed how she covers her muscular arms).
There will be a lot of pictures. Maybe even a slideshow. Or a Buzzfeed-style list of the best and worst hockey butts, with gifs. Incidentally, we checked to see if there is indeed a Buzzfeed ranked list of hockey butts -- there isn’t, but there was a ranking of butts in sports uniforms and hockey was ranked 16th in a list of 18 -- more about that in a moment.
"Men’s Sports Uniforms Ranked from Most to Least Revealing"
This will be a Bleacher Report-style click-through gallery that ranks the NHL last as "most modest."
The article will open with a side-by-side comparison of a woman in a competitive one-piece swimsuit next to a man in Speedos, pointing out that "real" athletes should properly cover themselves for a sport.
What if there’s a wardrobe malfunction, after all?! Men just need to be more practical! (Of course there will be a related story highlighting all of these male athlete wardrobe malfunctions in loving detail.)
The article will highlight the horrifyingly difficult double standard of uniforms that are mocked for being too tight and revealing while yet shaming the uniforms that are too modest. Hockey will be heckled for being the ‘most modest’ sport outside of basketball, and the piece will end with "-- And good luck ever getting a girlfriend in those diapers!"
"Best Hockey Wives"
This video clip will take the perspective that it must be strange to be the wife of a male athlete, because what if the woman doesn’t feel like the more powerful or athletic member of the relationship? Despite the obvious downsides, a few noble women deign to take on these partnerships. Usually these women are very solid in their self-esteem because they’re more famous than their mate, or, of course, athletes themselves. The men must go to great lengths to assure their wives that despite their hockey prowess, they are still just supporting actors in their relationships.
Tweet: "Most depressing fact @ America I've read since O's election: A men’s hockey match was watched by more people in U.S. than Kentucky Derby."
This Tweet should by rights be written by a well-known yet controversial male media figure about men’s sports, because (just as the original tweet was full of internalized misogyny, in addition to the casual xenopobia that Coulter is known for when it comes to FIFA World Cups) there’s no hate like self-hate, right?
Tweet: "Chicago Blackhawks can go back to being fathers, partners and sons today, but they have taken on another title -- heroes"
Reporters will continually ask NHL players how they manage to be professional athletes as well as fathers and husbands. What anarchy might result if people start seeing men as capable of achieving things beyond the family? The most important part of this tweet has to be the tone of thinly veiled patronization, so that everyone knows what these athletes’ "real" jobs are, and it’s not being athletes.
These NHL athletes will be judged for not taking enough time off when their children are born, or for not giving up their playing careers all together -- and simultaneously, not taken seriously because they do have children, which means that they can't devote enough time to their sport. What a conundrum! (Enjoy reading the original tweet, by the way.)
Reporters must ask NHL players a barrage of non-hockey related questions about their clothes, their crushes, and their beauty routines. It’s important to note that the revealed crush must be heteronormative. If it isn’t, it must just be because they’re really good friends!
For example: He may have just won the Olympic gold medal, but we need to take a moment to ask Duncan Keith to "give us a little twirl" to show off that Canada sweater to the world. Oh, and we also need to find out who his celebrity crush is. [I’m hoping it’s me ♥ - PK13]
Every time someone decides to write an article about the NHL, or how it might be nice if the NHL received respectful coverage, the comments will be… colourful.
Commenters will be angry that the article is written at all, because men’s hockey is obviously just so boring compared to other sports, and it doesn’t deserve media coverage, let alone respectful coverage. This will very likely be accompanied by some speculation about how biological differences between NHL players and athletes of other sports lead to hockey being innately inferior.
Any inequalities that exist between hockey and other sports are solely due to biology and boringness, and the author will be called unneccessarily outraged (or worse!) and needing to stick to writing about relevant sports topics.
What’s men’s hockey?
Your daily internet search for NHL coverage comes up blank. If NHL players are treated by the media in the same way as female athletes are, they won’t receive much of any coverage at all.
A recent study by Cheryl Cooky, Michael Messner and Michaela Musto found that despite the considerable gains that women have achieved as athletes in recent decades, you probably wouldn’t notice if you were watching sports news.
The researchers found that network news sports coverage discussed women’s sports 3.2% of the time, while ESPN SportsCenter discussed women’s sports 2.0% of the time. This is lower than the proportion of coverage that women’s sports received when this longitudinal study began in 1989 -- although even more depressingly, it’s higher than was found in the last iteration of the study, which was conducted in 2010.
This is the very heart of the issue. While it would be easy to find examples of male athletes being treated in sexualizing or trivializing ways by sports media, these examples amount to drops in an ocean of respectful men’s sports coverage. Conversely, when women’s sports are covered poorly, that’s often the only coverage they receive.
This matters. This impacts women’s sports, as interest in women’s sports will not be generated through poor or disrespectful coverage.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that sexualizing female athletes makes anyone more likely to watch a game on television or in a stadium. "Sex sells sex -- not women’s sports," as Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, put it so succinctly.
But even further, how women and men are portrayed as athletes has a profound impact on our understandings of societal gender roles. As Cooky pointed out when discussing the latest report on gender in televised sports, "Seeing women’s sports through the same lens as we see men’s would go a long way in shifting the cultural perceptions of gender roles and expectations."
We are in the midst of a shift in perceptions of women as athletes and beyond, and media should reflect this.