Vonn Watch: Part II

9 02 2010

Ok, so if you didn’t agree with my critique (and many didn’t!) of the February 8, 2010 Sports Illustrated cover of Olympian Lindsey Vonn that can be interpreted as sexualized, the photographs of Vonn and other female athletes in the 2010 SI Swimsuit Issue being released today (shown here below) might help illustrate some of my original points.

Sports Illustrated 2010 Swimsuit Issue

I became aware of these pictures, from a news story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that ran today which stated, “Minnesota skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn is among a quartet of Olympic athletes featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that is out today in print and online.”  The online version of the SI Swimsuit Issue includes video clips of the Olympic Stars doing their photo shoots.

The critique here is the same, when we DO see female athletes (some of the best in the world at their respective sports!) which happens in only 6-8% of all sport media, they are more often than not in poses that highlight physical attractiveness, femininity, and can be interpreted as sexualized. Is it coincidental that the four female Olympians portrayed here are all blond, attractive, feminine looking, and sexy according to societal norms?Arguably, the Vonn SI cover can be interpreted (or not) as sexualized, but these images are clearly sexualizing in nature and tone.

The obvious target market for the Swimsuit Issue is men.  Therefore, the idea that “sex sells” is viable and research does support that sex sells. What I want to argue however, and some emerging research is supporting, that sex sells sex…but sex does not sell women’s sport.

The point being, by seeing Vonn on the cover of SI, these images of female Olympians, or any other female athlete… does it make the male demographic more likely to attend and pay for a ticket to an event where these women are competing, buy merchandise, or read a story about them? Researchers say it is unlikely. So yes, sex sells sex but it likely does not promote women’s sport or female athletes in a way that helps to grow women’s sport in a meaningful and sustainable way.

The last point I want to highlight is these type of images also reinforce to consumers what is most important and valued in terms of female athletes and females in general, and meaning is constructed from what is chosen to be included and not included. If you want to read more about  how the sexualization of females affects everyone, particularly young girls, go to the American Psychological Foundation’s Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The report can be downloaded for free, and in short states, “The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development. This report explores the cognitive and emotional consequences, consequences for mental and physical health, and impact on development of a healthy sexual self-image.”

Therefore,  I hope to see many more images like the one below in the weeks to follow, as Vonn (who I really hope is healthy enough to race given her shin injury) and other female Olympians have great potential to be positive role models, not only for girls, but for us all.

To see a video segment of me talking with KARE11 reporter Jana Shortal about why sexualized images of female athletes are problematic,  click here.

Lindsey Vonn, Great Athlete..in action, in uniform, on the slope.





Vonn Watch: Sports Illustrated Cover is Predictable

2 02 2010

Sports Illustrated February 8, 2010 Cover

I’ve thought to myself and predicted out loud that leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that we would see a LOT of Lindsey Vonn in the media.

Vonn is first a GREAT athlete, but she also represents the norm of feminine attractiveness. The combination of athleticism and attractiveness make Vonn the likely poster girl of the US Olympic Team, and the media hasn’t disappointed in constructing her as such.

Not to be left out, Sports Illustrated is featuring Vonn on their February 8,2010 cover (pictured here). For those of you who follow SI Covers, know that female athletes are RARELY featured on the cover.

2007 Sports Illustrated Covers Featuring Women

Over the last 60 years researchers have shown that about 4% of all SI covers have portrayed women.

When females are featured on the cover of SI, they are more likely than not to be in sexualized poses and not in action–and the most recent Vonn cover is no exception.

NOTE: Please read my follow up post below in the comments section, in response to blog readers differing opinions about this post.

Follow up response:

I’ve been getting a lot of comments in this particular blog. It seems I’ve touched a nerve and many disagree with my interpretation of Vonn on the cover of SI. And many of the comments provide alternative perspectives, which is good for discussion. First, let me say I am a fan of Vonn. I have nothing against her and am proud she is a Minnesotan. I am also not saying that Vonn thrives on the attention of the sport media, or seeks it out. I believe she is being covered so frequently because of the combination of the skill, accomplishment, AND her appearance. I have to disagree that this pose is “in action”. In sport media research, we would code this Vonn cover as a passive shot. She is not actually ON the slope skiing, with her helmet on. She IS in a posed tuck position in an attempt to simulate what actually skiing would look like. Yes she is “in uniform” but not her complete uniform and she appears to be on the slope. Picture this as a way to frame what I’m trying to get at: Picture a male ski racer in a similar pose on the cover of SI, smiling at the camera. Would we see that? How would you react to that picture, verses the picture of Vonn? As one blog commenter seemed to hint at, this pose is “ok” because she is hot and sexy, so she is nice to look at. How would “we” feel if the female skier did not meet normative standards of feminine attractiveness (i.e., she was “ugly”) and was in the same pose? I appreciate everyone’s willingness to share their opinions.

Some have brought up a good point that male athletes have been photographed in similar poses, and I do not deny this fact. However, the argument is that because female athletes only receive 6-8% of all sport media coverage regardless of the medium, that when we DO see them it is MORE LIKELY in poses that highlight traditional gender norms, femininity and framed in a way that can be interpreted as sexualized. So yes, Ohno or Kitt have been on the cover in similar ways but we will more likely see male athletes in action, on the court/ice/mat, and in their uniform that we will female athletes, this is a proven fact over the last 25 years of sport media research. -nml

Follow up Part 2 (2/6/10): Thank you to everyone who has submitted a comment. I have approved a sampling of the hundreds of comments that are representative of the varying opinions about this cover and issue. As you can read in the “About This Blog” tab, my goal with this blog is “help readers see the issues I write about with a different perspective (not necessarily one that you agree with)”. It is clear not everyone agreed with the critique of the Vonn SI cover and that is the point, to stimulate dialogue about an issue.  If you are interested in one explanation as to why this post generated so much discussion and attacks on me personally , click here.

Follow up Part 3 (2/8/10): This blog got so much exposure due to the fact it was picked up by USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and more recently CoCo Perez, among other media outlets.





What Do Fans of Women’s Sport Want to See?

25 01 2010

Leading up to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver the US Women’s National Hockey Team has been training here in Blaine, MN and going on tour to play exhibition games to prepare. I had the opportunity to support the team and watch two games over the winter break. While at the game I saw the program (Thanks to The Good Dr.!) and immediately felt my blood pressure rising. This program, which was being sold at both the games I attended, looks nothing like the team’s online media guide. The program starts out appropriately as you can see with the Team Roster picture. As you flip through the program, you see pictures of the team in “street clothes” and get a synopsis about “The Player” and “The Person” in the “Get To Know ‘Em” centerfold section (scroll down to see pictures of program pages). Why is this problematic?

For decades sport media researchers have demonstrated that female athletes (compared to their male counterparts) are much more likely to be pictured out of uniform, off the ice/court, and in poses that depict femininity and/or sexiness. Where are the pictures of the team IN THEIR UNIFORMS and IN ACTION? These women are some of the best female hockey players in the world!

Marketing the athlete-person duality of female athletes has become the default strategy for a majority of sport marketers in the last five years. Where did this strategy come from? Who decided this was the status quo? Is it based on research pertaining to what is effective in marketing female athletes and women’s sport? Is this what fans of women’s sport want to  see? I want to to see the evidence! Some of the evidence that I and colleagues have collected indicates that fans of women’s sports and female athletes attend because of the athleticism, not because the athletes are cute “girls next door” or look good in a sundress.

So here is my question: Are the “Get To Know ‘Em” pictures, what fans want to see or have fans been sold these images so they do not know any different?

My logic: If marketers continually pitch the athlete-person duality, this is what fans see and expect, and it becomes the norm, so fans think they like this approach. But what if consumers only saw images of female athletes IN ACTION, IN UNIFORM, DOING WHAT THEY DO BEST? Would that become the expected and the norm? I really want to know when and who decided that to successfully market elite female athletes that a “personal”/ human interest component has to be included. It is also not coincidental that a good portion of the “Team Tidbits” in the bottom picture below reinforce very feminine, traditional roles for women.

NOTE: In the Qwest Tour program, in which these 3 images were taken from,  I counted only 4 action shots in the entire 37 pages program.

RELATED NOTE: Do fans really want to see pictures of tennis player Venus Williams’ flesh-colored underwear? I would argue they do not, but when the media covers and makes it “newsworthy” then fans and general sport consumers are told this is important and begin to pay attention. I am wagering that more people know about V. Williams’ underwear than how she is playing in the Australian Open. Newsflash: female tennis players have been wearing “flesh colored” underwear for years. However, when the “flesh” color matches that of an African American skin tone it becomes international news.

US Women's National Hockey Team Roster page

US Women's National Hockey Team "Get to Know 'Em"

US National Women's Hockey Team Tidbits





A Whole Lot of Head-Shaking Sport News

9 12 2009

I’ve purposely stayed out of commenting about Tiger Woods. It’s just low hanging fruit. What is left to say? But I will say the most interesting thing to me is that everyone is shocked that a golfer could behave so badly–especially Tiger Woods.  Sadly, Woods is yet another example of elite male athletes behaving badly and thinking they are above acting in responsible or moral ways. When one constructs his squeaky clean, family man image on a house of cards, it will eventually fall down.

Speaking of men behaving badly….In youth sport, some Canadian hockey dads were arrested in a hotel bar for “disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration” during which one pulled down his pants. They were there for youth hockey tournament in which their sons were playing. And we question if professional athletes should be role models?

On another note, I found NBA commissioner David Stern’s comments about the likelihood of women eventually playing in the NBA within 10 years paternalistic. Many females in the basketball world have long believed women would and can play with men at the highest levels, but when a male validates this fact…then it must be true! Many of the NBA players have also commented, including LeBron James who referred to the WNBA players as “girls”. Given WNBA franchise Sacramento Monarchs will no longer exist, perhaps the NBA will be one of the only viable options of employment for players and coaches.

To round out sport news this week, Danica Patrick will race in the NASCAR series. Evidently this is good for NASCAR as Patrick’s sex appeal (not skill) will likely boost sagging attendance.





Things I learned today about ESPN…

24 11 2009

Today I had Rick Abbott as a guest speaker in my Sport in a Diverse Society class (can I say guest speakers on the eve of Thanksgiving  are the best!). Abbott is the VP of Global Security and Facilities Operations for ESPN where he oversees 4,000 ESPN events worldwide, and most importantly he is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. As someone who usually is critiquing ESPN for one reason or another, I found Abbott fascinating and I learned a great deal.  I’ll give you my Top 5 “plays of the day” (i.e., take homes).

1. Every summer ESPN hires 120 interns. Only 5 are offered jobs!The ESPN Campus in Bristol, CT houses 3,500 employees.

2. ESPN pays $1.1 billion to the NFL to be able to use any footage of the NFL they want in their broadcasts.

3. Poker gets a higher viewership (.5) than the WNBA (.3).

4. More women watch the NFL and Men’s College Basketball than the WNBA. Abbott wasn’t sure many males watch the WNBA, which is what research audience reception tells us.

5. ESPN will launch an “ESPN W” to try and capture the high school girls market. I can’t wait to see what this looks like! It will come out of the ESPN Rise brand.

He also had three great pieces of advice for the students. First, don’t gossip it is a career killer. Second, you never know who you’ll meet that will lead to a job…you are always interviewing for a job. Third, sometimes you have to take risks, go backwards, and make hard choices in your career to get where you want to be…don’t play it safe.





Social Media for Female Athletes as Contested Terrain

6 11 2009

imblanced scaleCurrently I’m at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) in Ottawa. I’ve heard A LOT of great research and ideas that much head is spinning a bit.  I was in a session today that crystallized some thoughts about social media and women’s sports, and the dialogue that is occuring. Social media is a contested terrain-meaning that it is a site where struggle is occurring on many levels. Some of the issues that have arisen during the dialogue happening in many places (like here, here, and here) encompasses such questions as:  Who will control social media? Who decides? Is social media good or bad for women’s sports? I have some additional thoughts, albeit jumbled, I’ll add here to add to the conversation.

Social media is both good and bad, both positive and negative. It challenges and reproduces gender stereotypes. It allows female athletes and advocates of women’s sport to control the message and it is also a residual of traditional media (meaning social media has converged with traditional sport media…like ESPN channel and its social media correlate ESPN.com so therefore it really is not different). Social media is a space to promote women’s sport in the abasence of traditional media coverage and it is a site of unedited and unmediated backlash towards women’s sports. It is a powerful tool to promte women’s sports and also a tool that can hinder its progress.

Discussing social media in binary terms of good/bad erases the fact that women’s sports are forced to turn to and use social media as a way to promote themselves and their sport because of the lack of coverage in mainstream media. I think that is the bigger issue.  How can we tap into more progressive notions and mobilize ourselves to create social change–both in mainstream and social media.

However, this notion is predicated on the idea that everyone involved in women’s sports is on the same page. This is just not true. Diverse viewpoints  fosters rich dialogue and how issues are taken up varies,  for example: “Serena on the cover of ESPN magazine is beautiful” to “Serena is setting back women’s sport”.

Here is my question: Is it possible to create social change and challenge the system if we’re not all on the same page? Who’s page counts? Who decides?

What do you think?





Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…More on Social Media & Women’s Sport

30 10 2009

Following the  Tucker Center lecture and new blog about the impact of social media and women’s sport, it didn’t take too long for me to be in the middle of a real life example. Life works in ironic ways sometimes, doesn’t it? This example is meant to continue the conversation about this emerging and important topic.

9uwom0322w.lOn Tuesday I was at my computer and looked over the TweetDeck and saw that WNBA player Janel McCarville was live on her UStream channel JMACTV. I’d heard about Candace Parker using UStream but hadn’t checked it out yet, so clicked on the link and….ta dah!…there was Janel. As a Minnesotan, two-time Gopher Alum and now Gopher faculty, huge fan of women’s basketball, and advocate/scholar of women’s sport, I’ve been a long time fan of Janel McCarville (no hate Janel, only love!). Who can forget the Whalen/McCarville dynasty in The Barn!

Janel !I thought, “This is really cool… instant access to an elite female athlete“, as I watched her looking at and responding to the comments and questions from the 60+ fans watching her. I shouted through my office door to my two graduate students to “check this out”. Then I took a harder look and wrinkled my brow, “Is she in the bathroom?” I asked them, “and is she really cutting her own hair?” (see screen shot)  Somehow I was a bit disturbed by this. I immediately wasn’t so sure this was cool anymore—or good for women’s sports. So given this subject has been top of mind, I tweeted about it—twice (see screen shot below).mccarville tweets

I continued to watch for about 10mns, and then shut down for the day. I continued to think about it over the next day or so.  In the course of “doing my warm up activities” for the day (aka surfing), I looked at my @ replies on Twitter and saw that my tweets had incited quite a bit of outrage, and a direct response from Janel herself! (see screen shot right, it will enlarge if you click on it).mccarville tweet responses The tone of the responses was “lighten up, this is just silly and fun and everyone but YOU thinks this is great”. Fair enough. I responded to Janel via Twitter:  “@JanelMcCarville No anger, just continuing conversation re: women’s sport & social media, both pro/con. See http://bit.ly/352s8T“. But I felt badly for criticizing her and it bothered me.

I learned a few valuable lessons which may be instructive as we all move forward and think about how to use social media effectively to positively promote women’s sports.

First, if social media is truly a two-way conversation, then I should of phrased my tweet “What is your opinion about @JanelMcCarville’s UStream videocast?”

Second, attacking people on Twitter is just in poor taste and not classy. My apologies Janel. This has played out for KC Chiefs NFL player Larry Johnson this week, as he is paying the price literally and in the media and  for using a homophobic slur. It will continue to occur with increased frequency as social media becomes part of the way we communicate.

Third, shortly thereafter I read a great piece by Q McCall of www.swishappeal.com on Feministing.com titled,  Is there a “feminist responsibility” to support women’s sports? It put into context some of the guilt I felt. Why was I attacking a female athlete?  I’m supposed to support women’s sport. But on the other hand, as a feminist, scholar, and advocate of women’s sport  I often feel I have the responsibility to wave the red flag and point out when I see something that may not be a “good thing”.  Perhaps my role is to raise the issue, provide an alternative viewpoint, and promote respectful discussion.

It also got me thinking about where female athletes and women’s sport might be headed in terms of social media. If everyone  “loves it” (all 66 viewers)—is this our new model of promoting women’s sport? Is that what fans really want to see? Is this how fans want to interact with athletes? Where is the line between “good access” and access that, to borrow from C + C Music Factory,  “Makes You go Hmmmm”? As was pointed out to me,  Ron Artest of the LA Lakers, got his hair cut that same day…which garnered media attention. But if the men do it, should the women follow? Should we always be trying to emulate our male counterparts? (I’m not suggesting that is why Janel chose to UStream, she’d have to tell us the inspiration). Is it possible male athletes use social media differently because of disparate patterns of traditional media coverage? What are the similar and different ways elite male and female athletes use social media? How can female athletes take control and use social media in positive ways to combat sexism, inequalities, and disparities that are well documented in sport contexts? Is this a responsibility they should bear? In conclusion, I highlight Janel not to criticize or judge, but to provide an exemplar real-life issue to promote discussion about social media and women’s sports.

I don’t have the answer, only a lot of questions. What do you think?





Stereotypical Media Representations of Female Athletes Starts Early

23 10 2009

boy & girlToday I was preparing for a WeCoach workshop and was looking for some images on IStock.com. Pictured here is a classic example of how the (re)production of gender stereotypes starts early and in ways we might not even notice because they seem so innocuous. Ironically, shortly after I found these images I read the AAUW blog on Why Media Representation Matters which touched upon the newly released The Shriver Report-A Woman’s Nation. So far, I’ve read the Executive Summary of A Woman’s Nation, and in light of the Tucker Center’s Distinguished Lecture on the potential impact  of social media on women’s sport and the story released today by the New York Post suggesting that ESPN encourages “sexual insensitivity”,  I was struck by the assertion that outdated gender stereotypes will only change if women rise within the ranks and launch new media of their own. So what are we waiting for?





Top 5 Take Aways: Social Media & Women’s Sports

20 10 2009

Social Media Pic_iStock_000009648196XSmall

On Monday, October 19 I took part in the Tucker Center Distinguished Lecture Series on The Impact of Social Media on Women’s Sports-which you can view in its entirety here. There were so many great ideas  and critical thinking from so many perspectives that I’m still processing, but here are my Top 5 as of now.

1. Women’s sport marketing & promotions have always been viral and no one is really sure how to measure return on investment. Social media should be about building relationships and you can’t always measure the impact of relationship building.  (@DigitalMaxwell, Dr. Heather Maxwell)

2. The success of female sports journalists depends on the success of women’s sports, but half of female sport journalists surveyed don’t feel a responsibility to cover women’s sports. They don’t want to be pigeon-holed.(@mariahardinpsu, Dr. Marie Hardin)

3. Is it fair to place the burden of marketing & promoting women’s sports on the shoulders of the female athletes-especially those in “non-traditional” sports like ice hockey? Is this the new model we are left with as social media envelops traditional sport media (where female athletes get 6-8% of the coverage)? (@angelaruggiero, Angela Ruggiero, US Women’s National Ice Hockey Team)

4. Interest in women’s sport is being measured by “click throughs” in online editions of newspapers & websites. So if people don’t click on women’s sport stories, it is interpreted as “non interest”. Those who support women’s sports have to CLICK the stories that we can find!  (Rachel Blount, Sports Columnist, Star Tribune)

5. Time remains to take control of social media and use it effectively to grow women’s sports, but time is running out (Rachel Blount, Sports Columnist, Star Tribune)

If you watched it what were your thoughts?





What do Online College Coach Biographies Tell Us About Inclusivity?

15 10 2009

See a guest column I wrote with graduate student Austin Stair Calhoun for the Women’s Sports Foundation, It Takes a Team newsletter titled: What Can Online Intercollegiate Coach Biographies Tell Us About Inclusivity and Tolerance of Diverse Sexual Orientations?

In a previous blog I posted our pilot study poster and results about this project. We’re currently finishing the data collection and analysis (with undergraduate Alicia Johnson, Minnesota State) for a full-scale national study which replicates the pilot. Stay tuned!