The recent news surrounding the Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito has, for obvious reasons, brought issues of bullying and racism to the forefront of sports talk. In America, where the NFL (66.3% black) and NBA (76.3% black) dominate our television screens and many of our most celebrated athletes are people of color; it is sometimes easy to forget that racist sentiments permeate sports—but they do. Unfortunately, racism often becomes clear when sports are played on an international level, like the Olympics and World Cup. Remember the Lithuanians who threw racist taunts at the Nigerian basketball players in the London games? And have you been keeping up with the debate about the 2018 World Cup in Russia? While most of the discussions about racism and sports typically involve male athletes, female women of color are not insulated from racism in sports. While there are overt instances of racism, like the ones that typically make headlines, it appears that female athletes of color more frequently suffer from the more covert, institutional form of racism. And that form of racism may be more difficult to overcome.
Out in the Open
We have all heard of the overt instances of racism in women’s sports. For instance, remember the Greek athlete who was dismissed from her team in the London games for her racist tweet? Remember learning about the racism in Australian through the Aboriginal runner, Cathy Freeman? Overt racism shocks fans, causes uproars and encourages conversations about race, tolerance and justice. While thankfully these instances of overt racism in female sports do not happen frequently, their occurrences often have the ability to promote discussions that change the way people view the world and educate others about cultural and ethnic differences. They show that while this world has come a long way since the times where overt racism was acceptable, there is still room for improvement. When athletes bring public attention to racism they and the greater public have the opportunity to turn someone’s hatred into good. The positive discourse that comes from a vile place can really change the world. The other form of racism that female athletes suffer tends to be more insidious. Consumers are fed stereotypical ideals and images and never realize that they are being subjected to a systemic racism that is more difficult to fight than the overt displays.
In the Media
In a study1 published in 2005, entitled Listening to the Voices: The Experiences of African American Female Student Athletes, researchers showed that the American media significantly mis- and under-represented African American female athletes; showing them in limited capacities as mainly basketball players and track and field athletes when they choose to show them at all.2 While there are exceptions to the norm, like Venus and Serena Williams, the vast majority of female athletes who are promoted through the media in America are phenotypically Caucasian. Outside of the Williams sisters and basketball and track and field, most Americans cannot name three female athletes of color. Does that mean that only Caucasian women play golf, tennis, soccer, volleyball, softball, gymnastics, etc? Or that only Caucasian women are good at those sports? Of course not. It suggests that the media has promoted a select group of athletes and foregone the serious promotion of athletes who do not fit the mold.3
Even when you consider the female athletes of color who are promoted in the media, the endorsements, sponsorship and general spotlight is placed on them in a different way than on their Caucasian counterparts. Let’s look at a couple of examples. In the world of tennis, consider how the Williams sisters have been promoted when compared to Maria Sharapova. Typically, the Williams sisters are promoted for their strength and their athletic abilities, never for their looks. Sharapova, on the other hand, is promoted as both a world class athlete and world class beauty. If we look to golf, you’ll see more of the same. Natalie Gulbis with her one LPGA tournament win has had endorsement deals with Adidas, Canon, Michelob Ultra, and EA Sports (for example); and has been featured in Sports Illustrated, FHM, and various television shows as a sex symbol. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows who Chie Arimura, with her 13 LPGA wins, is let alone any ad suggesting that she’s beautiful. The only endorsement deal I could find for her was with Colantotte, Inc. (Who, you ask. Google it.) While on the surface the lack of diversity in the media for female athletes seems like no big deal, in reality it affects current athletes, young girls who aspire to be athletes, and society as a whole.
The 2005 Bruening report discussed above further revealed that the media’s failure to promote African-American female athletes in any substantial way outside of basketball and track and field had the effect of silencing the African American female athletes. The lack of exposure developed or reinforced beliefs within African American female athletes that they reside on the outer edges of the female athlete community; that they are marginalized. Marginalized persons (or those who believe they are marginalized) often react to their position in society by being less vocal and staying in the “accepted” roles, thereby reinforcing their positions in society. The idea is that if African American athletes only see themselves promoted in basketball and track and field, then they will be less inclined to try other sports and those who play other sports will be less inclined to speak out about their presence. If the lack of exposure marginalizes African American female athletes, undoubtedly, it has the same affect on other nonwhite female athletes. The media’s refusal to promote a diverse pool of female athletes has essentially created an environment where very few female athletes of color feel compelled or justified to make their voices heard in the marketplace because they believe that their voices simply are not marketable. While it’s bad enough that the media’s one-sided portrayal of female athletes has silenced a large portion of the population, what is worse are the effects on young girls.
The Next Generation
If the media’s portrayal of female athletes has the power to influence current athletes, I am certain that it has the potential to influence how young girls choose which sports they would like to participate in. I am sure that if young Asian American girls watch television and only see women who look like them playing golf, or young Latin American girls rarely see women who look like them playing sports at all; the chances of these ladies picking up a basketball are probably significantly smaller than the chance of a young Caucasian girl doing the same. The media creates images and those images create beliefs in those who consume those images. For young impressionable minds, those images can create long lasting beliefs that define what young girls aspire to become as adults. The lack of diversity in the media promotes a lack of diversity in the minds of young girls, perpetuating stereotypes that women of color are confined to participating in a limited number of sports. As young girls cling to a select group of sports, or no sports at all, the overall all talent pool in sports suffers. We’ll never know just how fast Asian Americans can run and African American women can swim if these little girls are not shown that they can step out of the false comfort zone that the media has created4.
What we Consider
Just as the media influences current athletes and young girls, it also influences society as a whole. The media’s generally whitewashed portrayal of female athletes suggests two things: 1) that female athletes of color have talents and affinities skewed towards particular sports and 2) there are no limits for Caucasian female athletes. In his book, The Sports Gene, David Epstein tackles the very touchy subject of race and athletic superiority. Epstein shows that athletic abilities are tied to genetics/physical build (which are sometimes influenced by geographic location), and practice. Those genetic/physical characteristics are found in people of all racial backgrounds so that if a woman of Asian descent had the right height and wingspan and IQ and work ethic, she could be just as successful at basketball as a woman of African descent with those same characteristics. So it’s not race that defines athletic abilities, but genetics and hard work. Instead of showing this by promoting women in sports from various racial backgrounds, the media promotes stereotypes about sports and racial groups: African Americans run and play basketball, Asian Americans play golf, and Caucasian Americans do it all, skiing, swimming, soccer, gymnastics, etc.; leaving viewers to believe that such are facts. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, like gold medalist Gabby Douglas. But those exceptions require women of color do something extraordinary, like be the first woman of color to win the all-around competition, before they are promoted on the same level as their Caucasian counterparts who are often widely promoted having accomplished less extraordinary feats. Until the media diversifies its portrayal of female athletes, what we consider acceptable sports for women of color may not change.
Racism, overt or otherwise, is never ok. It is especially important that racism not find its place in sports because sports are universal. They can and are enjoyed by all, and all should feel free to participate without being hampered by sentiments that are based on fear and ignorance. For overt racism, the challenge is to counter the negative acts with positive speech that educates and encourages tolerance. For systematic racism, the challenge is to encourage the promotion of women from all backgrounds. Of course this may be difficult, considering the fact that the market for the promotion of female athletes is relatively small when compared to the market for male athletes. But difficult does not an excuse make. Executives and representatives have to be willing to challenge the status quo by promoting what is different, and society has to be willing to demand that the athletes they see look more like the real population of athletes who exist. So who’s up for the challenge?
1. Bruening, J. E., Armstrong, K. L., & Pastore, D. L. (2005). Listening to the voices: The experiences of African American female student athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport,76(1), 82-100.
2. While the study did not touch on women of other races, I’m willing to bet that a similar study on the representation of other non-white female athletes would produce similar results.
3. In my article entitled Media Darlings, I briefly touched on the idea that the media purposefully chooses who to promote based on how well they fit the stereotypical definition of beauty: fair skin, straight hair and thin.
4. I am not suggesting that things like socioeconomic background and geography do not play a role in girls’ choices in sports, because they do. However, pushing other factors aside, the media plays a key role in promoting sports.