Gender in Broadcasting, by Lesley Higgins, note by Larry Eder

Hastings_Amy-Houston11.JPG Amy Hastings, 2011 USA Half Marathon champs, photo by

Lesley Higgins, a former runner at the University of Colorado, and currently, a steeplechaser running for the New York Athletic Club, had a conversation with me about this issue early in 2011. This is a column that we asked Ms. Higgins to write for RBR. Lesley has written several pieces for us in the past and can be seen daily on the NYAC web site.
Updated September 22, 2011

Gender in Broadcasting, by Lesley Higgins

Back in the 1980s and 90s, research was conducted on the equality of gender in broadcasting. The research showed a discrepancy between the way men and women's events were covered. They found that men were routinely referred to as "men," yet women were often referred to as "girls." They also found that men were routinely referred to by their last names, while women were often referred to by their first. Their reasoning for this was that the hierarchy in our society results in those of higher rank being addressed more by their last name, and the lesser members by their first.

The sport of track and field offers a unique opportunity for to observe a gender-split broadcast, where the same announcers cover both men and women in the same time slot. So, I sat down and watched archived video of track and field from this millennium and paid attention to the same gender issues.

The broadcasters had almost a perfect record of referring to women as "women," and men as "men." Athlete's first and last names, or last names only were uniformly used. There were two instances of the word "girls," but not so much that it was an issue.

Hastings-Rhines-USout11.JPG Amy Hastings, Jenn Rhines, 2011 USA 5,000m, photo by

There was one glaring difference, though, between the college coverage and the post-collegiate coverage. The college coverage was very to the point, very on the topic of the sport for both genders. The coverage of the 2008 Olympic Trials, however, was peppered with a lot of human-interest stories that had absolutely nothing to do with the sport of running. The stories covered during the 3000m steeplechase, for example, were Anna Willard's engagement, Anna Willard's hair and Delilah Decrescenzo attending the Grammy's.

DiCriscenzo_Deliah1-USout11.JPGSarah Hall, Delilah Decrescenzo, 2011 USA steeplechase, photo by

On the men's side, there were much fewer human-interest stories and the most common had to do with naturalized citizenship, which is a relevant topic, especially at the Olympic Trials. There were no discussions about engagements, and rarely of children. The dialogue was consistent with the sport of track and field.

Human-interest stories play an interesting role in coverage of all sports. The point is to humanize the athletes. The goal is to attract new fans, create loyal followings for certain well-marketed athletes and inspire future generations of runners to follow role models.

If this is the goal, then we need to look at the way the men and women are being talked about and what topics are appropriate to discuss. I would argue that what is appropriate is not even necessarily the same for both genders. For example, the implications of discussing the body weight, height and structure of the different genders differ wildly.

It may seem balanced that a discussion about the height and weight of Chris Solinsky in comparison to his often-smaller 10,000m competitors is equivalent to the same observations about a female athlete being larger than her competitors. It is not.

It's a fact that young girls are the most susceptible subset to eating disorders. It's also a fact that distance runners are some of the most susceptible of any sport. If the goal of humanizing athletes is to create loyal fans and a devoted following, discussions about a female runner's weight need to be left out of the discussion, especially when it's tied to performance.

The fact that I can recall specific quotes about female athlete's bodies years after they were spoken is a testament to the power of making such associations. I remember being shocked during a broadcast of the 2006 NYC Marathon when one of the announcers make the statement that a local athlete was clearly not built like a marathoner. This athlete was one of the biggest talents to come out of the state, and the suggestion that the one thing keeping her from competing with 2:30 marathoners was her size is something that our future generations of runners do not need to hear.

Maybe an athlete's weight is relevant to the sport, but there are so many more relevant things to talk about during a broadcast. For example: the race. The conversation can be completely devoted to the race that is going on, the tactics being employed and some interesting tidbits about the athletes as it relates to the sport.

There is still a place for human-interest stories, especially during marathon coverage where the announcers have over two hours of airtime to fill. During track, where often several hours of events are condensed down to an hour or two, perhaps the conversation should stay more on point.

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