French tennis player Marion Bartoli shocked the sports world by winning Wimbledon last Saturday. But the accomplishment has been partly overshadowed by the comments of one radio host and hundreds of Twitter users who called her “fat,” “manly,” and “too ugly to win.” We asked Charles Fountain, an associate professor of journalism in the College of Arts, Media, and Design and an expert in sports media and journalism, to discuss the backlash and the evolution of the media’s coverage of women’s sports.
What does this story say about the state of modern journalism?
A story like this brings out the best and the worst in contemporary journalism. The worst is the Twitter noise, the unfiltered rantings of cretins who are given more credence and traction than they deserved. This is largely because of the enormously ignorant comments of BBC Radio host John Inverdale, who suggested that Bartoli learned how to be “scrappy and fight” because she was “never going to be a looker.”
So briefly, we had a story about Marion Bartoli’s physical appearance. A significant portion of the audience for these high-profile women’s sports events is the casual women’s sports follower, the Deadspin-reading, sports-talk-radio guy, who is interested in athletic excellence in women only secondarily. But very quickly we saw the story turn, in places like The Guardian and The Telegraph in Britain, and in places like Mary Curtis’s column in The Washington Post here at home. These organizations seized on this opportunity to get Bartoli’s real story out. It’s a wonderful story, when you consider her complicated relationship with her father, who served as her coach for many years; the fact that she lost in the final to Venus Williams in her first Wimbledon back in 2007; and the fact that it took her all this time to get back to a Grand Slam final.
In the end, the story turned into one not about Bartoli’s physical appearance, but her tennis. And the secondary story was not her physical appearance, but the stupidity and ignorance of a BBC commentator, and whether or not he should be fired for what he said. I think that’s great. That’s pretty much getting the story right.
How has the sports media’s view of star female athletes changed over the last several decades?
We actually started out in a pretty good place. Nobody ever wrote about the sexuality of the country’s female athletes of the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s, like Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm Jarrett, or Babe Didrikson, an Olympic track and field gold medalist in 1932, who later became the first star of women’s golf. In the ’60s and ’70s, you did see journalists make a lot of references, not so much to the sexuality of female athletes, but to their “beauty.” See how many times Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming, or the young Chris Evert, were called “pretty” in stories about their triumphs. Still, most of the reporting remained focused on their achievements on the ice and the tennis court. In the ’80 and ’90s, you see more progress; there are fewer references to Chris Evert’s beauty as her career moves along, and the reporting on later generation figure skaters like Nancy Kerrigan or Michelle Kwan is nowhere near as chauvinistic as what Peggy Fleming saw. By 1998, when the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup, the reporting that didn’t concern their on-field play was concentrated on how they had become role models for young girls the world over.
When you think about it, we have maybe always been a little better than we think we are with regard to our characterization of the female athlete. Of course, that applies to the serious, principled journalists who believe in substantive, thoughtful reporting, not the people who are trying to be funny, shocking, or both.
Female sports reporters are often relegated to the sidelines rather than the broadcast booth. How would an influx in qualified, female sports analysts and play-by-play announcers change the public’s perception of female athletes?
I would rather get to a place in our culture where it doesn’t matter whether an athlete or commentator is male or female. We should be able to recognize good reporting and athletic wherewithal irrespective of gender. I’m encouraged that there are so many more women in sports reporting now than there were 20 years ago. But I’m also discouraged that we’re still talking about it 40 years after Title IX and 40 years after women first made inroads into the sports writing game.