In a recent interview with Howard Kurtz on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Christine Brennan gave her two cents on how female athletes were covered in this year’s Olympics, as well as the much-debated New York Times article on Lolo Jones released last week. As one of few popular female sports writers, it’s somewhat surprising that Brennan defended the Times piece, but she made a good case. What far more disappointing was her failure to really call out the media’s problem with women athletes: Rather than making a real call for change, she seemed to simply pass off sexist sports coverage as part of the game, however disappointing it may be.
Much of her conversation was dominated by questions about whether fellow sports writer Jere Longman had been too harsh in his criticism of Lolo Jones, which turned out to be one of the biggest controversies of the London Olympics this year. Brennan stood by Longman’s piece, refuting Lolo’s argument that the U.S. media should be supporting U.S. athletes, instead of ripping her to shreds:
We’re not there to support her, we’re there to cover her. We’re not the PR people. [...] We do have to cover athletes the way we cover other news, it’s journalism and sometimes it’s not always easy but it’s what we do.
Brennan also acknowledged that it’s Jones’ right to garner media coverage however she wants to, and that it’s understandable why she would, given that many U.S. athletes are stuck with a narrow window of time to establish their careers.
When asked whether she thought Longman’s critique was too harsh, she turned to the topic of equality in sports:
To me, it was a fair commentary, it was tough, but I’ll make this point: If women athletes want equality and if women athletes want to be in the same sphere as male athletes–and I think that’s something certainly that most of them want, then sometimes there’s going to be some tough criticism. and I hope the criticism of Jere Longman’s piece isn’t because ‘Oh, he was being tough on a woman,’ because again, Jere has done incredible work and has a right, I believe, to say what he said.
Which is fair, but when Kurtz asks her whether the media are guilty of playing up female athletes based on their sexual attractiveness, her response is unsettling:
Yeah, I think there is. Although I will say this, Howie: This has been Team Title IX for the United States. More U.S. women winning gold medals and medals overall than U.S. men–by a lot. And around the world, again, I think we can call these the ‘Women’s Olympics.’ I think it’s a jumping off point for so many things for women in sports in the future.
…There are so many positives that I hate to focus on the negative. But certainly: I think that as long as it’s a male-dominated sports media and a male-dominated sports audience, and it still is, then you are going to have some of these reporters, some of these broadcasters talking about the looks of female athletes.
I’m on board with her effort to focus on the positive and move forward, but blaming sexist sports coverage solely on men just seems like a cop-out, and one that definitely won’t move us beyond the kind of body-shaming and misdirected focus that happened in places during this year’s Olympic Games.
The subtext of her comments are that we can improve the situation by getting more women involved; certainly, that’s true to an extent. But take a look at a fashion magazine and it’s plain to see that a female-dominated media world and media audience doesn’t solve these problems at all. I’d also like to believe that, while we’re waiting for more women to get involved in sports, there are male athletes and male sports reporters who are smart enough to realize that calling women fat or commenting on their beauty isn’t really their job.