On Friday, October 7, 2011, the Minnesota LYNX sealed the WNBA championship after an impressive season with 27 wins out of 34 games played. Indeed, they are the most successful Minnesota team right now and one of the best in the nation. Their dynamic
journey was capped by a well-fought victory over the Atlanta Dream.
Unlike their male championship counterparts in basketball, their season was not mired in scandals. There are no allegations of rapes filed against members of the team, no rumored sex scandals involving restaurant or hotel staff, no brawling on or off the courts, no driving under the influence of alcohol, no public spats about pay, no ego puffery, etc. They were model athletes on and off the court, throughout the entire season. So, why no NY Times coverage on their national victory?
Some see the omission as confirmation of women’s second-class citizenship in sports. One of the LYNX’s early supporters, Cheryl Burrell, a retired 3M Executive who is president of a leadership development firm, said that she has noticed over the years how “women who play professional basketball are treated like second-class citizens.” She has a point. Their pay—at the high end is about 100k per year, not the huge multi-million dollar salaries of their male counterparts. These women play for the love of the game, and supplement their incomes by playing in Europe and Asia in the off season. They are remarkable athletes who don’t get a break.
Perhaps it is unfair to single out the NY Times; it’s nationally read—not a Minnesota paper. Its editors are focused on serious news in the sports section. Could that be why only articles about men’s teams made the Saturday, October 8, 2011 edition? Of course the half-page fold on the Yankees and their “struggling offense” was to be expected; they lost to the Detroit Tigers. Yes, Minnesota was mentioned—the loss of the University of Minnesota football team to Michigan. Tiger Woods and the hot dog incident made the paper, so did Ryan Hall—a top marathoner returning to Chicago, and there was a sizable article about the standoff between the N.B.A. players and owners. But, nothing reported on women or the WNBA Championship.
I should confess. I single out the NY Times because it’s the paper delivered at my door every morning. But, a troubling message is conveyed when coverage of women’s teams is neglected by the national press.
Figuring that perhaps the editors would find a women’s national championship team fitting for a bigger story than a small Saturday column, I combed through the Sunday, October 9, 2011 publication. You should look too. In the 12 page section, the only mention of any woman was a high school home-coming queen (page 11). There was the front-page story about the Winnipeg hockey team, photos and stories on the packers, Raiders, Chargers, Bears, Eagles, Seahawks, Cardinals, and even coverage of the US versus Honduras soccer match (men’s team). College teams were covered too, such as Oklahoma’s football victory over Texas and LSU’s defeat of Florida.
Another confession: I don’t play basketball. My preferred sports are tennis and volleyball. But, sports matter and maybe basketball more so (more women play college basketball than any other university sport). Sports are transformative for all kids, but especially girls. According to a 2009, NY Times article, Left Behind: Using Teamwork to Bring Girls Into The Game, “despite the heightened level of awareness and the extra effort, girls’ participation [in sports] lags behind boys.” The author, Katie Thomas, reported on the importance of bringing girls into sports, but noted the difficulties. She pointed to a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control, which “found that in New York City, 35 percent of girls played sports, compared with 51 percent of boys.” She noted that in 2006, New York City’s public advocate criticized the Public Schools Athletic League, which coordinates high school sports, for not doing enough to increase participation for girls.
My concern is about more than the LYNX. Sports make a long term difference in the lives of girls and women. A United Nations report explains in detail that girls involved in sports are more likely to rise above illiteracy, health problems, early sexual behavior, and disempowerment. In the U.S., female athletes are more likely to earn higher grades, go on to college, avoid teen pregnancy, and have a better psychological outlook. The Wall Street Journal has taken note. But, that’s not all, a study conducted by Betsey Stevenson, an economist, found that “increasing girls’ sports participation had a direct effect on women’s education and employment.” The study credited Title IX and sports with a 20% increase in higher education attainment, and a 40% “rise in employment for 25-to-34 year-old women.” The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King, corroborates these findings in their collection of over 2000 empirical, peer-reviewed studies that confirm the benefits of sports in girls’ lives.
One way of encouraging girls into sports is through role modeling and conveying images of success, which is how newspapers play a role. Whether kids see newspapers on the kitchen table, at school, or elsewhere–images capture their attention and it would have been a boost for girls and boys to see images of women athletes celebrating their victory.
Covering women’s sports is about more than news and information—although even on that point the LYNX deserved mentioning—it is about a respect for the game and respect for the athletes.