Sport media and culture: Who's calling the shots?
Sport media and culture: Who's calling the shots?

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Sport media and culture: Who's calling the shots?

1 Sporting moments

1.1 They think it's all over

They think it's all over … it is now!

(Kenneth Wolstenholme, 1966)

This is one of those iconic sporting media moments. It happened a long time ago, when Geoff Hurst's third goal in the dying seconds of extra time clinched England's 4–2 win over Germany in the 1966 football World Cup final. People who were not even born, let alone at Wembley or watching the game on television, still recognise the phrase. The expression may have become a cliché, but it is the media transmission of the moment that makes it so memorable and iconic in the history of football. It is moments like these that create media–sport relationships and illustrate their importance.

Much of our experience of sport as a spectacle is mediated – most of the time, most of us cannot actually be there. Media coverage has been central to extending the reach of sport across time and space. However, what we see, hear and read through the media is not the same as being there; the technologies of the media and the choices made by journalists, producers and directors stage and structure what we experience.

In this course we are going to explore the close relationship between sport and the media. To become an iconic moment in the history of sport, like the 1966 World Cup final, there has to be media coverage. Those sports that are not covered suffer, while others have been staged specifically for television. How do the media frame sport? What stories do the media tell?

We start by exploring the links between sport and the media in the modern world. In Section 2, we look at two of the dominant modes in which the press has traditionally reported on sport, namely celebrity and sensationalism, and ask how social ideas and debates stage what is reported and how. In Section 3 we turn to two key features of sport that generate core pleasures of watching, following, reading and writing about sport – the creation of narratives and heroes.

The media are strongly implicated in how people understand the meaning of sport and thus have a part to play in changing understandings of sport. The sporting conversation associated with this course is an interview with Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), focusing on the role of women in sport and its representation. The WSF plays a big part in promoting the participation of women and in ensuring that they are central to sport and not on the sidelines. Listen to this conversation now.

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David Goldblatt
Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, imagined the games as ‘the solemn and periodic exultation of male athleticism with the applause of women as a reward’. Some years later, still fighting to exclude women from athletic events at the Games, he argued, “If a woman wishes to pilot an airplane, no policeman has a right to stop her but when it comes to public sports competitions, women’s participation should be absolutely prohibited.” He was not alone and though attitudes at the International Olympic Committee might have changed, sport remains a predominantly male world, shaped by masculine culture. Today I’m joined by Sue Tibbals, Chief Executive of the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation which campaigns to change that culture and to open the world of sport up to women. Hello, Sue.
Sue Tibbals
Hi.
David
Sue, the pictures don’t lie, turn on a sports channel and 19 times out of 20 it’s men and it’s men watching men play sport. Is sport inevitably or intrinsically a, a male domain?
Sue
No, not at all and it isn’t in other countries so we know that this isn’t a, a natural state of affairs. This is a culture that’s quite specific to this country actually. We know that only 5 per cent of all media coverage shows women playing sport which is why it’s maybe not so surprising that when you talk to young kids today and my son aged four, I cannot persuade him that women play football which is embarrassing but, of course, he doesn’t see them play football so perhaps it isn’t so surprising. It’s really endemic.
David
I’m intrigued by the idea that Britain is a peculiarly masculine sports culture. Where if we wanted to see a more feminised sports culture should we go and look?
Sue
As is often the case, the Nordic countries are leading the field and sport means something quite different, but also in Australia and New Zealand. It’s not just that sport includes women but that the activities that constitute what sport is would include running and aerobics, anything that’s about being active is about sport, whereas here it’s so tied up with highly competitive team sports and obviously mainly football.
David
Though it’s funny isn’t it with football because that’s one of the areas where women seem to be participating a lot more than they were in the past. There’s been quite a big expansion of girl’s and women’s football in this country.
Sue
It is growing very fast. In fact it’s the fastest growing sport but overall only one per cent of women play football compared to 13 per cent of men so it’s level with Pilates for women. But it is growing and, of course, that’s exciting, it shows that there is the interest there. If girls are encouraged, if they’re given the opportunity they’ll play and that goes back to the point about this. It’s not a natural state of affairs. This is a culture that we raise our, our girls into. It’s not just that it’s not fair, which it isn’t, but actually reputationally it’s a huge own goal because it puts sport at odds with a society which in so many other ways is now equalising. It makes sport look like an anomaly.
David
Let’s take a slightly closer look now at what sport actually women do. We know they’re doing less than men in this country but they’re also doing different stuff.
Sue
Yeah, I mean it is a very, very different profile so of the top 10 things that women and men do, 6 out of those 10 are sports, what most people would recognise as sports, for men and only 2 for women and those 2 are tennis and badminton. So the top 5 things, swimming, running, aerobics, gym-based activities, not team sports. I think tennis and badminton are sort of 6 or 7 in the list and that’s why football, even though it’s fast growing, isn’t on that list at all, so women tend to prefer to exercise than play sport. Only 3 per cent of all women take part in any team-based sport. Often the motivation for playing will be different so it will be for health and fitness rather than for socialising and pleasure – which seems a shame. I think it’s all linked into diet cultures that women are part of too and you’ve got half the population here who are basically doing sport in a very different way and that’s not understood by the sector.
David
I’m interested in the instrumentalism. You go running because you want to stay fit. You want to be healthy, you know, there are all sorts of body issues as well. Why is it women are not attracted by the kind of play dimension, the kind of sheer pointlessness actually of most sports, the idea that we do ’em not for any instrumental reason but just because it’s fun?
Sue
Well, I think that women would do and are doing more team-based sport for fun and, actually, if you think about sort of softball leagues, or even five-aside football actually, there are many more mixed leagues. I think that’s appealing nowadays that women and men are happy to play sport together and they can do it after work or in the lunch break so that stuff is growing. I think maybe the problem comes in more that at school it was about team sport and it was about competition, so you had to be good at it. So those that were good obviously did well and perhaps have gone on to do sport in their lives. Those that weren’t, were terrified (possibly), humiliated (quite likely), cold (certainly), all of which often meant you had to do it in a pair of navy PE knickers which again humiliating and in a changing-room where there’s no showers or shower curtains and girls are quite demanding and vociferous these days and I think they’re just saying, “No, I’m not doing it”.
David
But, apart from the navy blue knickers, isn’t that the same for men?
Sue
Well, I guess you then have to look at the, the gender differences more broadly and I think there are a whole host of things, particularly as girls reach puberty, around self-image and body image and we just have to recognise that again culturally girls are raised in a completely different environment with this huge emphasis on appearance and conforming to a beauty ideal. So girls inevitably care hugely what they look like and, maybe, you know, it’s interesting to ask isn’t it, are there actually sort of deeper differences here in terms of desire to be competitive, readiness to take part in quite rough sports and so on and I think it’s quite hard to deconstruct because generally with equality issues you have to, in the end, say until we are in a completely equal society, it’s impossible to know what’s nature or nurture but what we do know is at the moment there’s a huge amount of nurture going on that could explain all of this. I just look though at those girls who are now playing football and really enjoying it, actually if you create the environment and the opportunity girls want to do it.
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David
Let’s take nature out of the equation then and focus in on nurture, you’ve talked about the importance of school and school sports culture in dissuading many girls from participating. You’ve touched on questions of wider body image in our society, are there other kinds of barriers that are preventing or dissuading girls and women from participating in sport?
Sue
Somehow girls are being put off very, very young and actually in terms of just gendered identity it’s quite interesting that the Equal Opportunities Commission which has now been wrapped up in the Commission on Equality and Human Rights but they looked at what forms gendered identity and found that sport is one of the things that you talk about to denote whether you’re a boy or a girl, at four, five years old – very, very young. So it’s recognising that the cultural barrier sets in very young. What can help girls, looking at the range of activities available and recognising that actually going onto the hockey pitch and playing hockey is asking quite a lot of a girl who (a) has very little confidence or possibly even the literacy, physical literacy, skills and maybe it does need to start with dance, yoga, table tennis, mountaineering. There are so many other sports that aren’t gendered in the same way. Sport Scotland have trialled an approach in Scotland where, rather than have sports clubs that are based on a particular sport, say with a football club, they just have a club for girls and what they’ve done is started with stuff like dance and aerobics but found that as the confidence has grown in those activities the girls have then wanted to go on and do the team sport stuff.
David
Schools, in a way, are one of the easier points of intervention for anyone who’s campaigning on these issues but there’s also a great plethora of informal and formal sports organisations in this country, athletics clubs, football leagues, etc., etc. What kind of culture is out there in those organisations? How good are they at encouraging girls and women to come into sport?
Sue
On a scale of 1 to 10?
David
Yeah.
Sue
Point 5, perhaps.
David
Point 5 is low. How did we end up with sports clubs and a kind of amateur sports participatory culture that, by the sounds of it, is pretty exclusionary?
Sue
First of all the points made about the people that run them tend to be people that have participated in and excelled at that sport and so it’s still a huge emphasis on competition and success so the ‘keen but crap’, if I’m allowed to talk about these folks, the people that really love doing something but don’t actually do it very well, often are left on the side lines. I mean there are some great campaigns like ‘give us back our game’ in football which is trying to get parents to calm down about the competitive elements of sport, but you see that really in focus in sports governing bodies and I think what I would say is that they‘re very poor at understanding their potential audience. There is pressure being applied because the Government, quite correctly, is saying public money can’t be added in to the huge amount of money in sport that comes from commercial revenues and saying public money needs to be driven at actually increasing participation and making sure people get a good quality experience. But I think that there’s still a huge amount of culture shift that needs to happen in sports governing bodies. There are some notable exceptions.
David
Give us the good news story. Tell us about the notable exceptions.
Sue
Well I, I think cycling’s quite interesting in that it has obviously been doing very, very well at the elite level and yet, of course, they’re taking advantage of all the wider policy genders around cycling because of concerns about the environment and health and fitness and have managed to evolve the governing body to be quite responsive to all of those agendas and I know that there are still people that would say, even for cycling, there’s too much emphasis on the medals and you can see why ’cause, of course, that’s where they get all the plaudits and attention but actually a very few people want to cycle in that way but they have managed to diversify.
David
Let me ask you a question then about cycling and its presentation to the world. I picked up a magazine called Observer Sports Monthly recently and there was Victoria Pendleton who is, er, a gold medallist in cycling for Britain, a leading role model for young women and girls to come into cycling and there she is naked on a bicycle on the front page of the magazine. How do you respond to that?
Sue
Well actually there was, I think it was the fiftieth Anniversary Edition of the Observer Sport magazine and they published all the covers and it was fascinating to look through them all and see that on the occasions that they did show women, they were highly stylised and often sexualised images which, of course, generally isn’t the case with the guys. I know David Beckham always gets raised as the exception as a sports star who seems particularly interested in being seen as a sexual object but he is the exception. So Victoria Pendleton, I mean, she was obviously doing the Lance Armstrong shot that had been done previously and I think, in some ways, you think well why shouldn’t an athlete be pictured naked? The difference in her case is that it is in a culture in which women are always depicted or often depicted as a sexual being, not predominantly as an athlete and I think that’s the difference with the shot but also recognising that it’s very hard for female athletes to break through and they’re in a really difficult place aren’t they ’cause they either play the game, give the sports editors what they want and get their kit off and get the profile and get the promotion and get the money and actually have a successful career or they don’t. Our job is to point these things out and say we need to start actually championing women athletes because of their athletic achievement and the fact that they happen to be pretty or not is really not the point, really not the point and as an organisation one of our goals is to make being active, attractive which is difficult because you’re not going to stop this being a beauty obsessed culture but we need to shift our conception of beauty so it’s no longer about being passive and decorative which is actually what women have been primarily valued for, for hundreds of years.
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David
It’s very easy, in a way, to sort of pick off the media for its forms of representation of women in sport. Are there any positive stories? Are there areas in the British media where there has been some genuine innovation in the current coverage of women’s sport?
Sue
In terms of the mainstream media I’m not sure that there’s been a radical shift and we measure media coverage year on year and it’s actually gone down over the last year.
David
What about the coverage of netball by Sky? They seem to have made quite an effort to, first of all just televise the sport and find ways of televising the sport that is appealing to the viewer and it is unquestionably of all team games, this is the game most closely identified with women and, you know, they’ve put it out there on Sky1 and Sky2.
Sue
Absolutely true a good example and we want to see much more of that. Setanta have bought the rights for women’s football off of the BBC so that is now a big question as to whether they will continue to promote that because women’s football was drawing in much, much bigger audiences
David
What about non-traditional media? Is there any more room in that area for a different kind of coverage of women’s sport?
Sue
There is and there’s some interesting stuff coming through so there’s a new on line magazine called Sport Sister that’s aimed exclusively at the women’s market and it is for women who love sport, love playing sport, watching sport, also carries brands of clothing and so on and, as an organisation with Nike, actually we’ve just had a lunch with the editors of some of the big women’s magazines which was fascinating and a really big breakthrough for us would be to get the Marie Claires and the Grazias and so on, seeing that actually there could be a place for women in sport in their magazine and it isn’t all about well-being and therapy and spa pampering treatments and I think 2012 is a powerful driver because it is the time actually when you do see women do sport because it isn’t football and Kelly Holmes is, of course, the face of the last Olympics and the fact that she’s a woman and a black woman is amazing because you just generally don’t get either of those groups coming through very much.
David
It’s interesting that you brought the issue of ethnicity and race up because it seems to me there are interesting parallels between the struggle for equality on grounds of gender in sport and on grounds of race. Black athletes have been struggling for over 100 years now to be fully accepted within, er, sports culture and they’ve battled many of the same problems to do with negative stereotypes, practices of exclusion and so on. What strikes me about the struggles around issues of race is that it has its 1968 moment when Tommy Smith, 200-metre gold medallist, and John Carlos, the bronze medallist, stood on the podium at Mexico City and during the playing of the American National Anthem raised their fists in what became interpreted as a black power salute, an iconic moment that blew open the issue of race and sport and inequality and it’s never been forgotten. It remains a kind of cry and a plea for freedom. Has women’s sport yet to find its Tommy Smith?
Sue
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that that hasn’t happened and you do wonder why because it is really quite scandalous that women are given such short shrift in, in sport. I mean, I wonder whether it’s a sort of reflection on feminism in society more widely and I think it has been going through a period where an awful lot of people have either just assumed everything is going to be all right or, if things aren’t, just then think well this is just how things are, it’s just a natural state of affairs and you see that in the commentary, you know, people will just say “But women are rubbish at sport” as if that’s just a matter of fact and it’s not challenged. All too often when the media does talk about women’s sport it’s because someone has said something that is just so outrageously sexist. It happens all the time. I think it was my first week in this job that Mike Newell blamed losing a game on the female lineswoman, deeply irrational kind of thought process, but that hit the press and we actually went and gave him a bunch of flowers because the FA had more calls from women wanting to be referees and lineswomen because of that, because they didn’t know they could be, so he actually did the women a service. But as an organisation we’re trying to pull the thing into focus a bit more. It’s not quite the thing you’re talking about. I think an athlete would need to do that. I think Billie- Jean King is the one that is most associated with the fight for women’s equality in sport but we’re trying to bring some political pressure. We’re convening a commission on the future of women’s sport that’s going to bring some senior people to come and look at some of the big barriers and one is around leadership.
David
What is the state of the gender breakdown of the leadership of sports organisations in this country?
Sue
Well, there are only four governing bodies that have a female chief executive out of the hundreds that there are so it’s, it’s tiny. FA, cricket, cycling – no women on any of its boards or executives.
David
Final question, you mentioned that you have a, a vision for an active society and active women in that society, let’s imagine ten years from now, things go as you would like them to do, how different will our sports culture look like at all levels?
Sue
I’d like sport in this country to be about more than league sports so it, it remembers that it was about recreation and about socialising and about community and people having fun together, a society that actually raises girls to aspire to be active and to see being active and fit as being beautiful so that they don’t stop literally, stop and atrophy when they hit puberty. I’d love to see women’s football on the telly on a Saturday afternoon alongside men’s football and for those football players to be paid and have women, sports women as household names in the way that so many of the male sports people are, so it becomes a completely normal and natural state of affairs, so that if you are a sporty girl you don’t feel like you’re the odd girl in the group, it’s completely normal.
David
Thank you very much, Sue.
Sue
My pleasure. Thank you.
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