A Steep Slope

by Emily Schwartz, Editor in Chief
graphic by Emily Cheng, photos courtesy of The New York Times,  The New Yorker, Wikipedia, The Japan Times, Wallpaper Safari, and YardBarker 

On March 28, the Boston Pride won the national championship. 

Until a day before the game, I didn’t know that Boston even had a professional women’s hockey team, let alone that it was strong. The victory secured the team their third Isobel Cup title, the league championship of the Premier Hockey Federation, North America’s only professional women’s hockey league.

 The championship win went relatively unnoticed by our home state, aside from a few short articles in the back of the Boston Globe’s sports section. Nobody seemed to know about our local team’s feat.

A limited public awareness of women’s sports is not new, helped by a severe lack of media coverage, compared with that received by men. According to a study by the University of Southern California and Purdue University, only 5 percent of television airtime is dedicated to female sports, a figure similar to rates from over 30 years ago. The effects of such little media coverage extend far beyond just an absence of articles, leaving young people everywhere with few role models and a warped and artificial sense of success and failure.

Last May, when Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open,  media coverage broke open. In the following days, news outlets from all over the world picked up the story, reporting on Osaka’s decision to skip her press conferences, a move she said she took to prioritize her mental health. 

Otherwise absent news coverage ascended on this story, and the sheer number of reports blew it out of proportion. The media’s power to shift the narrative only intensified, as it does once every four years, at the Summer Olympics, a month later.

This past year, two Olympic Games took place. Otherwise abysmal women’s sports coverage skyrocketed during the Games as the world prepared for sensational storylines. 

Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from events in which she was heavily favored to medal became the Olympics’ biggest story.

Both Osaka and Biles’ decisions drew a slew of media coverage and social media response as the world paused to weigh in. This media madness, zeroing in on the women’s failures to meet expectations, continued for weeks. 

Just six months later, I watched Mikaela Shiffrin compete in the Beijing Winter Games. Winning just one medal would make her the winningest American female alpine skier. She crashed out of three slalom runs, missing a chance to medal in five events she’d been heavily favored to win. 

After Shiffrin’s second straight failed race, NBC aired 20 minutes of her crying on the side of the ski slopes, head in her hands. Shiffrin had not missed back-to-back runs in over a decade, but perhaps such high expectations, with the whole world watching, contributed to her rare mistake. 

The biggest women’s sports stories of the past year focused on failure. The world watched and pity-tweeted, using these women as examples of the importance of mental health, of how to graciously fail, as a reminder that we all make mistakes.

From a newspaper’s perspective, it makes sense to cover defeats and controversies —  failures and mistakes garner the most views and the most interest from readers. Like a crash on the side of the road, readers are enticed by their drama and excitement.

But because women’s sports receive such little media coverage to begin with, news of upset and failure becomes the dominant narrative. It becomes next to impossible to look past the many stories focused on mistakes or missteps when there are next to none about their triumphs. 

If you could see past the controversy, you’d remember the immense success these women have had. Biles is widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time; Osaka is a four-time Grand Slam champion and the first Asian player to hold the number one ranking; Shiffrin is the most decorated American athlete in Alpine World Ski Championships history.

With great success comes a steeper, more public fall. A media that only focuses on a few most successful athletes determines a class of role models with little room for failure.

Limited media coverage recognizes only a few female athletes’ fame. When so much emphasis is placed on those athletes’ failure, that’s all young girls and boys see — only exceptionally successful athletes cracking under pressure. 

It is the media’s role to cover not only the highest of successes or the lowest of failures. There is so much potential in the power of women’s sports coverage; imagine all of the young girls and boys in the area who would be so inspired by the Boston Pride, if only they knew.