Twice a year, after I write my annual "year in sports" piece and during the NCAA basketball tournament, I get letters complaining that women's sports don't get enough coverage, not just in Salon but in the media generally. I can't argue with that observation, and yet I go on not writing about women's sports very much.
One of the better notes I've received on this subject came this week from reader Kellie Carter. I'll reproduce it here, followed by my reply to her, and then you can weigh in on the subject if you'd like.
Carter starts out with some general praise for the column that I'll spare you, and then points out that in the year-in-sports piece -- which was headlined "The Year of Behaving Badly" -- "a few things were missed that are typical to all sports reporting: women's sports."
She goes on: "Want to talk about an amazing year? How about the Detroit Shock of the WNBA going from worst to best in just a year? Want to talk sportsmanship and good behavior? What about the players during the Women's World Cup? They, like David Robinson, are exemplars of sportsmanship year in and year out, although they don't stand out as much against the background since their colleagues aren't being arrested and sentenced all the time.
"And even though Annika Sorenstam was mentioned, it was only in relation to Vijay Singh's attitude toward her participation, and not in regard to her ability and her gracious handling of a very difficult (to say the least) situation.
"What these kinds of absences point out are two things: First, women's sports are discussed only when they are current and happening, which is a very different discursive method from most men's sports. And this lack of mainstream sports reporting interest in women's sports hurts the viability of women's sports in America.
"Title IX has worked in college sports because it can be regulated. The same people who wrote a mournful column about the end of the WUSA and who pointed out this women's soccer league had difficulty attracting sponsors and commercial interest were the same ones who didn't write a column about the WUSA or the players when the league was running.
"Which brings us to the second point about sports reporting: Bad behavior makes headlines. Perhaps if female players weren't such exemplars on and off the field, then maybe they could get more reporting in a mediascape dominated by the latest stupid touchdown celebration or how much LeBron James' Hummer cost.
"If, perhaps, sports reporters really do want to discuss good behavior, I have a suggestion. Every time some overpaid yet gifted athlete makes a cellphone call from the end zone as a childish look-at-me strategy to get press, sports reporters might go interview and report on someone -- say, a female basketball player -- who has something to say about teamwork and good conduct, instead of printing or discussing the laughable justifications Player X has for his bad behavior.
"Perhaps this kind of reporting might make a league like the WUSA more visible, and therefore more viable, to supporters and sponsors. Because the fans who went to the games and watched them on TV are done a disservice by being told about the 'niche market' and competition in the media market. Journalists, broadcasters and advertisers use this as an excuse for their own 'bad behavior' and ignorance all too often."
I understand what Carter is saying and I sympathize with her point of view, but I don't agree with it.
I covered women's basketball in my college days, when it was far less popular than it is now. I liked it and still do. I wish women's sports were more prominent and popular generally. Except for Muhammad Ali, I can't think of an athlete I've admired and been thrilled by more in my life than Jackie Joyner-Kersee. My pick for Sports Person of the Year in 2002 was Serena Williams.
I also wish women would drop that awful bowdlerized version of baseball and play the real thing. But that's another story. My point here is that I'm not a knuckle-dragger, or at least not a typical one.
But here's the thing: What is my role? What's my job? It's certainly possible to disagree about this, but I think my job is to comment on sports-related issues that people want to read about. In fact, when I took this job, I was told to write about "water-cooler issues" -- the things people are talking about.
I don't think it's my job to help popularize sports that aren't as popular as the ones that get talked about the most, and I'm afraid women's sports fall into that category most of the time. I understand there's a chicken and egg thing going on here, or maybe it's a Catch-22 -- how can women's sports get more popular if the media refuses to write about them because they're not more popular? My answer to that is a simple and unfortunately brutal one: That is a problem for the muckety-mucks of women's sports to tackle. It's not my problem.
You might have noticed that I rarely write about hockey, a sport of which I'm very fond, notwithstanding the current dull state of the NHL. It's for the same reason: Hardly anyone reads the column when I do write about it. Here in Weblandia, we're able to see circulation figures every day. I try, as I think we all do at Salon, not to let the focus of my coverage be dictated by page views, otherwise I'd be on Day 956 of the Anna Kournikova watch. But my readers do vote with their browsers, and to a certain extent, I listen.
The unfortunate fact is that women's sports are, at the moment, a "niche market," just as the NHL is. Another (arguably) unfortunate fact is that, as Carter suggests, a Dennis Rodman-type figure would probably do wonders for the WNBA's popularity. After all, that sort of thing did wonders for the manly sport of baseball, which benefited greatly from the shenanigans of Babe Ruth. Where would women's figure skating be if Tonya Harding had never come along? (So why do I so rarely write about women's figure skating, which is very popular? Because it's not really a sport. I don't write much about golf either.)
I'll admit that Carter's right that bad behavior is more interesting to me than good citizenship. I wrote about Pete Rose again Tuesday, and I've written far more about him than about his friend and former teammate Mike Schmidt, who was a better baseball player and is as far as I know a good citizen. But women behaving badly, by itself, wouldn't warrant comment in my column unless it did lead to women's sports increasing in popularity. And in that case I'd be writing more about women's sports generally.
If there's a conspiracy to keep women's sports down, out of the limelight, I'm not a part of it. But I'm also not someone whose responsibility it is to "make a league like the WUSA more visible, and therefore more viable, to supporters and sponsors." And I don't feel it's bad behavior on my part not to take on that responsibility.
Do you agree? What's the role of the media in covering women's sports? What's the role of this column? Should women's sports be covered more even if they aren't as popular, because they need a boost? Am I underestimating their popularity in the first place? Send me your thoughts on these and any related questions you can think of, and I'll compile them for a future column.
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