As a nation, we value our sports greatly. Us Americans spend countless amounts of time and money on athletics at every level, and with five major American sport leagues, car racing, poker games, horse racing, NCAA events, and even professional bowling there is never a shortage of American sporting viewing opportunities on television. EVER. Like there are literally a hundred channels designated solely to sports. Professional athletes are revered by the American public and watched nearly everyday of the week… So naturally, we have developed an industry that is devoted to analyzing these athletes and the sports in which they play. Certain analysts, sport show hosts, and color-commentators have become nearly as popular as the athletes they cover. For example, Lee Corso’s habit of predicting his pick to win the game by donning that team’s mascot attire on the widely popular show ESPN College Game Day has earned him many fans. Yet one of the most perplexing roles involved in the American sport culture is that of the sideline reporter. In a field dominated by men, both as athletes and media figures, the sideline reporter has become synonymous with all things female. Women such as Erin Andrews, Samantha Ponder, and Pam Oliver have infiltrated the male domain of athletics and established themselves as mainstays. Yet, is the sideline reporter seen as a valued and necessary position to sports reporting or are these women just viewed and employed as another object of the all-important and sought after “male-gaze”?
Many of the most popular sporting events on television focus on male athletes, male commentators, and commercials that are made to appeal to the male viewer. But with nearly every aspect of sports programming focused on men and the capabilities of the male body, producers recognized they needed at least one element of sexualized femininity to attract its widest possible audience. This need stems from the idea of capturing the “male gaze”. The concept of the male gaze comes from the perception that heterosexual males are the assumed viewers of television content (in this case sporting content), so the camera photographs women as objects of sexual desire (Mittell 2009). By appealing to the male gaze it creates an even greater incentive to watch that program (as if sports alone aren’t enough?!?!). Therefore, the perception of the female sideline reporter is that her job has been cultivated solely to be “eye-candy” for the assumed male audience. Her job is regarded as largely dispensable, rarely does she add much to the athletic conversation other than her looks, and viewers and athletes alike often do not take her talents or her knowledge of sport seriously. At a time in history where female athletic participation is at an all time high, it makes sense that females should be featured prominently as sports reporters. However, because of the restrictions of the male gaze, it is difficult for smart and accomplished female journalists to feel confident and important in their roles as sideline reporters
When one types in “female sideline reporter” into a Google Search, of the 10 results, seven of them are ranking lists or pages devoted to the “hotness” of these women. Clearly, one of the most important aspects of being a successful or noteworthy female sideline reporter is to be physically attractive. In this sense, the reporters are objects of the male gaze. Reporters such as Lisa Guererro are known mostly for their overly feminine appearance, short pastel dresses, lavish scarves, and long flowing hair, that contrast starkly with the sweat, mud, and blood that characterize the football field on which she stands (Walsh, 2005). It’s no coincidence, that today, often times the prerequisites for female sideline reporters are not that they’re are extremely polished in their craft, but that they look good in front of the camera. “Television executives attempt to boost ratings by throwing an inexperienced but good-looking woman on air to do TV sports” (Walsh, 2005). Clearly those in power within the television industry have made the decision to place more value on the superficial physical traits of their female hires than on their knowledge base of the sport they will cover. Because of this, male viewers often consider these females as lacking the ability to effectively “talk sports” and view their worth and what they bring to the program solely through their bodies.
“In theory, the sideline reporter provides a perspective only attainable by someone standing adjacent the action. In practice, it’s a job encapsulated by rules, both physical and cultural” (Dreier, 2010). Because most professional sports enterprises are extremely tight-lipped regarding their players, coaches, and game plans, it is often extremely difficult for sideline reporters to gather information that is even worth reporting. Many consider the job of the sideline reporter to be redundant and sideline reporters as “masters of the obvious.” Because so many sideline reporters are female, there is often the perception that these women merely spew out the same overused clichés and know little about what they are actually reporting. While in actuality it is the structure of their job that creates for such superfluous and boring reports. Consider what Frank Deford, a SportsIllustrated.com columnist, had to say about the assignments sideline reporters are given:
“The most asinine task sideliners are required to carry out is to ask coaches, before the second half, what plans they have for the rest of the game. The answers are always the same: the coach who's ahead says he wants to keep up the intensity and avoid turnovers, while the coach who's behind says he wants to get more physical and avoid turnovers. Back to the booth. And all the guys watching with their buddies at home laugh at the ditzy babes who ask such obvious, stupid questions” – Frank Deford 2011
Because the flow of information is so restricted and there are strict guidelines that each professional league develops that govern “where a reporter can go, whom she can interview and even what she can say on camera” (Dreier, 2010), sideline reporters are often relegated to asking the same questions over and over that are safe, boring, and that most viewers already know the answer to. Due to the fact that these women are rarely able to report about anything exceptionally newsworthy, the focus is taken away from their abilities as journalists and placed on their bodies and feminine attributes.
Male athletes also seem to view female sideline reporters as objects of the male gaze and often refer to them as such. See, for example, the videos of former football player, Joe Namath and his interaction with Suzy Kolber and current football player, Jacoby Jones, and his interaction with Michele Tafoya.
No adult, man or woman, should have to deal with such comments at their place of work, let alone on national television. Yet instances such as these happen more frequently than one might expect. In the spirit of being a professional, both women refrain from creating a scene, and downplay each incident. It would be interesting to see how male reporters would react to being called “sexy” by a female athlete… More than likely there would be media uproar. How are female sideline reporters expected to feel as though they are an integral part of the broadcast team when the people they interact with patronize them?
Females in sports recognize the barriers they face created by their sex, and often feel the need to prove their worth more than males in the same position. There are many women who understand athletics just as well as their male counterparts, but their knowledge of the game often takes a backseat to their looks. Reporters such as Tafoya recognize that in order to be a successful female sports caster, she has to work much harder than men, but also have to be pretty while doing it (Walsh, 2005). Extremely candid professional basketball analyst and former NBA great, Charles Barkley, echoes Tafoya’s statements. Never afraid to speak his mind, or cause a stir, Barkley remarked, “They have hot, great looking women on TV now. But if you are an ugly woman, you ain’t got no chance of getting a TV job “(Deitsch, 2012). Though this may in fact be true, this double standard is extremely unfair to the women who are more than qualified to become a successful sport reporter, but who may not pass “the eye test”. Even more damning, is the effect it has on the women who are both knowledgeable of their craft and “good-looking”, because the default thought, engrained in our brains since the dawn of “Blonde Jokes,” is that a woman cannot be both pretty and smart.
Because of the fixation on the male gaze, female sport reporters are valued more for their bodies than for their brains. Due to the monotony and redundancy of sideline reporters’ job, there is little opportunity for these females to display their skills as learned and hard-working journalists, so oftentimes they are perceived as being ill equipped to cover such a masculine topic. It is extremely hard for these women to be taken seriously and evolve towards more respected positions such as play-by-play analysts or color commentators. Right now, the female sports reporter is relegated to the supporting role, it has been determined by producers that female sports reporters belong on the sideline, with the cheerleaders, not in “the booth” with the men, such as the “winner” down below, who actually know what they are talking about…
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