The 2016 Rio Olympics are in full swing, and that makes me super happy. Every two-ish years, whether it’s summer or winter, I get SO into sports that I spend little to no time paying attention to during the rest of my life. I don’t have the wherewithal to follow beach volleyball and indoor volleyball and swimming and diving and gymnastics and cycling and rugby and track most of the time, but I can devote sixteen days to those sports once a quadrennium. I love the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics, the national pride and the stories of amazing athletes and the showmanship of the host country.
One thing I don’t love, though, is sexist media coverage of women in sports.
It’s only the fifth day of the Olympics, and we’ve already got several egregious examples to examine. When Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú won gold in the 400-meter individual relay (and set a world record while she was at it), NBC showed her husband and coach celebrating at the edge of the pool, and commentator Dan Hicks called him “the man responsible” for his wife’s success. The Chicago Tribune tweeted a link to an article about American Corey Cogdell-Unrein winning bronze in trap shooting, but the tweet didn’t actually include her name or sport, instead describing her as “wife of a Bears’ lineman.” The headline of the article at least mentioned her name but also still mentioned her husband, and then two full paragraphs were devoted to her husband’s practice schedule, they didn’t get any quotes from her but did get one from her husband, and they gave details of Corey and her husband’s relationship but no more information about her achievements or the sport of trap shooting. While they were standing on the sidelines after a fabulous qualifying round, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team were said by a commentator to look as if they “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall.” It has been said many times by many people that Katie Ledecky “swims like a man,” and after she won the 400-meter freestyle (and broke her own world record by almost a full body length), the U.K.’s Daily Mail could only see fit to describe her as “the female Michael Phelps.” And somewhere along the way, someone decided to call Simone Biles “the Kobe Bryant” of gymnastics.
And of course, as soon as people start pointing out this rampant sexism, fun, lovely people come out of the woodwork to explain to us why it shouldn’t be viewed as sexist:
“Coaches are always credited with helping their athletes!” Well, yes, Shane Tusup deserves credit for helping his wife improve her abilities. But was he in the pool, lungs burning as he broke a world record by two seconds? No way. Hosszú put in years of grueling training, and she certainly did the work that day, so SHE’S THE ONE RESPONSIBLE. Dan Hicks later said that he regretted his phrasing and wished he could go back and say things differently, and I honestly doubt that he meant to say something that came off as so sexist. But the word “responsible” carries a lot of weight. I expect commentators from here on out to be a lot more thoughtful and intentional in their phrasing, even in the heat of the moment.
“The Tribune was trying to highlight Chicago pride!” I don’t buy this for a second. Can’t Chicago be proud of Corey Cogdell-Unrein, a three-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist, for her own accomplishments? Why couldn’t the headline and tweet read “Chicagoan Corey Cogdell-Unrein wins second bronze in trap shooting” (that’s less than 70 characters, by the way), and then discuss the interesting fact that her husband is also a prominent athlete in a sentence or two? Now, to its credit, the Tribune has issued a statement apologizing for their poor choice, saying “She’s awesome on her own” and “Your feedback has been noted and appreciated, and we will keep it in mind in the future,” but then they also gave the excuse that they were trying to emphasize Cogdell-Unrein’s connection to Chicago.
“They just meant the gymnasts looked happy and carefree, not like they were at the biggest competition of their lives!” Then why didn’t they just say that? Or at least use some other element of “normal” life that doesn’t sound so negative? (There is absolutely nothing wrong with women who love to shop, of course. But in general use, going to the mall/loving to shop are often considered negative female attributes.) Here’s an alternative: “They might as well be standing around the school cafeteria.” Again with the thought and intention behind commentators’ words.
“But Katie’s strength and power are more like a man’s than a woman’s!” Umm, no. Katie Ledecky is a woman, so her strength and power are like a woman’s. Now, if you want to actually discuss stats and times and compare and contrast male and female swimmers, that’s something I’d be interested in listening to or reading. But have you heard of the men’s U.S. soccer team being discussed in the context of the U.S. women’s team, since they’ve been doing so much better for the last several years? “Wow, the men played really well today! They were playing like the girls!” No, you’ve probably never heard that. Because even in 2016, sports are considered a domain for men, and all women who do well enough to merit recognition are discussed within the context of men’s accomplishments.
“But Michael Phelps and Kobe Bryant are outstanding in their sports! It was a compliment!” Have you ever heard an up-and-coming male tennis player described as “the male Serena Williams”? What about a man who is “the Mia Hamm of baseball”? No? I wonder why. If you’re still wondering why, please re-read the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Again, I doubt the people who made those objectionable comparisons meant any harm. They were probably trying to be complimentary. But to me and many other women, those words are not complimentary, and no amount of mansplaining will make us see differently. It all goes back to thoughtfulness and intention.
Why are we, in 2016, still having to discuss the importance of thoughtfulness and intention behind the words we choose? We still seem to have a long road ahead of us as far as getting to a place where all people (especially people in the public eye, since their comments are more widely heard and read) are able to thoughtfully, intentionally choose words that don’t diminish minority or marginalized groups. But we, you and I, can make an effort to choose our words carefully and think about their impact, and we can encourage others to do the same.