March Madness is that time of the year when we collectively relearn that, even more than four decades after Title IX, there’s still “college basketball” and then there’s “women’s college basketball.” It’s startling how easily we associate phrases like “fill out your bracket” with men’s—and not women’s—basketball, despite the fact that both are currently competing in championship tournaments. This suggests a perception of women’s sports as irrelevant, a perception that’s reflected in uneven media coverage of these two contests.
However, it’s not simply the amount of coverage that’s unequal. When reporters do discuss women’s basketball, they present the institutions and individuals involved differently than how they present those involved in men’s basketball.
My research looking at over 5000 articles published on NCAA.com over the past 10 years is one illustration of this. Not only are there more articles discussing men’s basketball (3451) than women’s (1825) in NCAA.com’s archives, when we look at the words these articles tend to use when writing about either men’s or women’s basketball (but not both), we can see differences in what reporters write about and how they portray each. The graphic above gives a sample of the words that are most characteristic of reporting on men’s or women’s basketball.
Looking at how these words are used in NCAA.com articles suggests that there are two important differences between coverage of men’s and women’s basketball.
The first difference is that NCAA.com articles tend to treat men’s basketball as serious business. They report on the hiring and firing of personnel (hired, suspended, suspension), the striking of deals (agreement), and the exchanging of money (million), all happening behind the scenes. Reporting on men’s basketball also pores over past performances, not only analyzing the statistics of individual players (stats) but also discussing their infractions (violations). It also speculates about upcoming contests, presenting opinions about competitors’ chances at victory (opinion). All of these things—personnel changes, deals, statistics, suspensions, and opinions—occur in women’s basketball, but they aren’t treated as equally newsworthy.
The second difference is the way individual players are described. The best example of this is the word at the top of the men’s chart, “pound” used to describe male athletes in terms of their weight. In descriptions like “a 6-foot-10, 245-pound power forward,” or “his 170-pound frame,” writers report players’ weights to provide readers with a sense of their physical power. Female athletes’ weights, however, are systematically omitted, and this omission is part of a larger tendency that results in female athletes being portrayed as unpowerful or undynamic.
Of course, sports writers don’t operate in a vacuum. They did not create biased perceptions about women or female athletes. Such perceptions contribute to the unequal amount of attention and resources afforded to women’s basketball. Basketball reporting largely caters to public interest which clearly favors men’s basketball. Likewise, sports writers did not create social taboos about women’s weight. Undoubtedly, writers do not omit women’s weight because they set out to portray women as weak. They likely do so because they want to shield female athletes from undue criticism and negative perceptions of their bodies.
Nonetheless, female athletes have the potential to challenge our stereotypes about women, but they can’t do it simply by being tough, powerful, and all of the other positive things they undoubtedly are. They need the attention of the media to accomplish that, and they need reporters to be willing to challenge popular perception about what is interesting or newsworthy in sports, not simply cater to it. This is especially important for a website bearing the name and logo of the NCAA, which has committed itself and the collegiate athletics programs it oversees to a position of gender equity.
And basketball fans can do their part too. Check out the NCAA.com’s coverage of all the strong, powerful, tough, dynamic women playing in this year’s tournament.