By Kevin Blackistone
Merrill College of Journalism
This article is a reprint of a column written by Kevin Blackistone, Professor of the Practice in the Merrill School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for the Washington Post, and a commentator on ESPN. The column originally ran in the Washington Post on June 29, 2016, on the occasion of the death of Pat Summitt, longtime coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team.
A year ago this month, Purdue professor Cheryl Cooky released an update to her study of television news coverage of women’s sports. She found, not surprisingly, that women’s sports still received a mouse’s share of coverage compared to a lion’s share for men.
But the time period she examined just happened to cover the quarter century, 1989 to 2014, in which Pat Summitt coached Tennessee’s women’s basketball team to seven of her eight championships and, on March 22, 2005, her 880th win, which made her the most-victorious coach in major college basketball history.
Many of those among whom I work wrote and said wonderful things about Summitt in the wake of her death Tuesday morning. But most of us, I’d wager, never covered one of the 22 Final Fours to which she led the Lady Vols, or ever covered so many women’s college basketball games that more than one hand was needed to tally the number.
Whether intended or accidental, the fight Summitt wound up waging for respect for women’s sports is still a struggle. That’s because most of us in the sports journalism business — roughly nine out of every 10, at least at newspapers and websites — are males who are, also not surprising, chauvinistic about sports.
No matter Summitt’s historic accomplishments that we acknowledged in countless considerate tributes the past day or two, we still don’t view or cover women’s sports as we do men’s. As a result, we never as an industry brought ourselves to view her, or the women who followed the swath she cut, with the same enthusiasm or seriousness like we did, say, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils or Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans.
Coverage of women’s sports by most of us media continues to pale. Indeed, ESPN earlier this year spent two hours broadcasting live from Hampton University to celebrate the Pirates as the first historically black college or university to play college lacrosse at the Division I men’s level. It all but ignored that women at Howard University, Washington’s famous black college, had been playing Division I women’s lacrosse since 1998. Washington television reporter Meagan Fitzgerald starred for the Bison.
It isn’t that we don’t have ample opportunity. Summitt, for example, coached 38 seasons in Knoxville before Alzheimer’s forced her retirement in 2012.
I was lucky to see her at work shortly after she passed North Carolina’s Dean Smith for the most wins by a college basketball coach. It was in Indianapolis in 2005 at the women’s Final Four. The men’s Final Four that April was in St. Louis, a short three and a half hour drive from Indy. I asked my employer then, the Dallas Morning News, to let me drive between each city to cover both tournament finales. It relented.
But if that year’s March Madness was like all before it, only a few other writers made the trip on Interstate 70 that connects St. Louis and Indy. A 2006 master’s thesis by Cindy Marie Allen at Georgia State found that news stories of women’s March Madness during a period in which Summitt’s teams appeared in six national championship games between 1996 and 2004 accounted for only about 30 percent of the number of stories on the men’s tournament.
There is no doubt that women like Summitt and Title IX, the law passed in 1972 demanding that federally funded educational institutions provide men and women equal opportunity, forced media and their audience to consider women in athletics differently than before. Coverage did increase. Female athletes transcended the women’s section of newspapers.
Still, women in athletics struggled to escape stereotyping by a male-dominated sporting press and gain critique mostly for their athletic performance like their male counterparts.
The tributes pouring over Summitt this week from those of us in sports media would make believe she became immune to such simplemindedness. But she wasn’t.
Summitt’s achievements were sometimes diminished by observations that she got the best talent of a small pool of extremely talented girl basketball players and, as a result, couldn’t help but win. By comparison, the same was never said of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who for a decade got much of the nation’s best schoolboy basketball talent while a nefarious UCLA fan named Sam Gilbert showered those players with all manner of gifts.
As Allen’s thesis reminded, for much of Summitt’s reign the interest about her from many of us in the media was of her personal life, or whatever our societal notions are of what makes for a traditional woman. It was the same sort of slight Babe Didrikson went through in the first half of the last century as one of the greatest athletes no matter her gender or sexual preference. It was the same thing Althea Gibson suffered during the Civil Rights Era as a tennis star.
A wife? It was often pointed out that Summitt’s ex-husband, R.B. Summitt, was a banker. Have you ever heard of what the wife of her nemesis, Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, does for a living?
A mother? Summitt’s son, Tyler, became a fixture in TV coverage as if to remind everyone that his mother was a heterosexual woman and not what so many whispered about women in masculine sports like basketball.
One of the most-oft-recounted tales about Summitt revolved around her uniqueness as a woman in the high-pressured job of big-time college coach. Even years after she went into labor on a recruiting trip, stories about her recounted the event and the fact she had the plane turn back so that her baby could be born, as she and her husband were, a Tennessean.
That the coverage of even a legend like Summitt over nearly two generations has remnants of the stereotypical reporting on women in athletics is something those who study it like Cooky continue to note with disappointment. As Cooky noted in 2010: “Despite attempts to educate the U.S. mainstream news media regarding stereotypical coverage of women’s sport, there are consistent patterns that persist over time. . . . Televised news media coverage demonstrates [that] women’s sport is consistently ignored. . . .
“Even when the media do cover women’s sport, the coverage often trivializes women’s athleticism and hetero-sexualizes female athletes. Research on newspaper coverage of the Wimbledon championships in 2000 found that while the amount of coverage of the men’s and women’s events was relatively equal, the quality of coverage differed: the mostly male journalists who covered the tournaments devalued the athletic accomplishments of female tennis players by using cultural and racial stereotypes, trivialization, and sexual innuendo.”
So let us not forget as Summitt is remembered and about to be memorialized that her ultimate legacy has yet to be fulfilled.