The Elephant in the Room: Sports and Sexism

After the Harvard soccer scandal, a campus panel discussion on women and sports proves unexpectedly timely.

The panelists, from left: Janet Rich-Edwards, Jessica Gelman, Daniel Peterson, and Shira Springer.Photograph by Tony Rinaldo/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Last Friday afternoon in Radcliffe Yard, an alumni panel discussion on women in sports—long-planned, and yet suddenly of the moment—opened with what moderator Janet Rich-Edwards ’84 called “the elephant in the room”: the recent revelations that the Harvard men’s soccer team had been producing documents assessing Harvard’s female soccer players in sexually explicit terms, and, further, that these “scouting reports” were a yearly tradition that had continued through 2016. As audience members began trickling into the Knafel Center, more news had broken: Harvard’s athletic director had canceled the rest of the men’s season. (The team would later formally apologize; meanwhile, The Harvard Crimson would reveal that the men’s cross-country team had been writing similarly crude comments about Harvard’s female cross-country runners.)

In her welcoming remarks for “Hits and Misses: Sports Marketing, Gender, and Society,” a breakout session of the Harvard Alumni Association’s Women’s Weekend, Radcliffe Institute dean Lizabeth Cohen told listeners that the room where they sat was once the Radcliffe gymnasium. In 1895, students had formed a women’s basketball team there, “long before they had access to the leagues, uniforms, and other resources that Harvard men took for granted.” Pointedly, Cohen added: “Certainly much has changed. But damaging social attitudes persist, and not just among the men of the Harvard soccer team.”

Rich-Edwards took it from there. “I want to take a second to talk about the elephant in the room,” she said before introducing the three panelists who would discuss how sports are marketed to female fans and how female athletes are covered in the media. A Harvard epidemiologist, associate professor of medicine, and co-director of Radcliffe Institute’s science program, Rich-Edwards criticized the men’s soccer team’s “witless cruelty” and read an excerpt from the response letter that six former women’s soccer players had published in the Crimson: “We are hopeful,” the women wrote, “that the release of this report will lead to productive conversation and action on Harvard’s campus, within collegiate athletic teams across the country, and into the locker room that is our world.”

 “That’s what we’re here to do today,” Rich-Edwards said.


The bulk of the panel’s conversation centered on media coverage of female athletes. Daniel Peterson ’02 had spent eight years as an editor and writer for before joining AdmitHub, a startup college counseling website, in 2015; he’s currently serving as Lowell House’s resident scholar in journalism. He paraphrased ESPN’s mission as “basically, ‘Let’s be everything to everyone with anything that has to do with sports,’” a goal that he called ambitious, overbroad, and in some ways noble, but also too often unfulfilled for fans of women’s sports. Especially women’s team sports.

“We take for granted that in men’s sports, and particularly the big three in the U.S.—football, baseball, and basketball—we should parse and examine them from every single possible angle, constantly, all the time,” he said. The scope of women’s sports coverage is comparatively minuscule. Besides the periodic news cycles of the Olympics or national championships, which are “here and gone in the flash of an eye,” he said, women’s sports coverage is limited to “individual superstars, to exceptional feats, and incredible performances, and the top of the top that you can’t ignore in women’s sports teams.” Like the eighth national title that Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt won in the 2008 NCAA tournament. But even that year, Peterson said, when ESPN produced some “great stories” on the Tennessee women and its Final Four rivals LSU, Stanford, and UConn, coverage was dwarfed by the volume of attention given to the men’s NCAA champs from Kansas and the other top 25 men’s teams. “Not close.”

Peterson reported that about 25 percent of ESPN’s viewership is women, and women’s sports account for 8 percent of the network’s programming. But on highlight and analysis shows like Sportscenter, only about 2 percent of airtime is given over to women’s sports. “And it’s actually decreased over the last 10 years, believe it or not.” When he first started work at ESPN, “we had one writer devoted to women’s sports other than women’s basketball. One,” he repeated. Covering the NFL, there were “32-plus” writers, more than one per team. “It’s better now,” he noted.

About 25 percent of ESPN’s viewership is women, and women’s sports account for 8 percent of the network’s programming.

Some of those women watching ESPN are perhaps also among the New England Patriots fans that panelist Jessica Gelman ’97 and her data-analysis group identified a few years ago as an important and underserved marketing demographic for the team. The CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, and a former star Harvard point guard, Gelman described how the Patriots organization began gathering data on its fan base in the early 2000s. It quickly realized that women were being underserved, prompting big changes in product lines and in where and how merchandise was sold. When Gelman took over the Patriots’ retail business, she said, none of the 10 employees were women—“So there was no one that could say what the women’s product was that we should be buying.” The data analysis also changed how the team itself was marketed, leading to Patriots Lifestyle, a website “geared toward the softer side.” The changes have paid off, Gelman said, with merchandise sales that in some cases have tripled and with more women coming to games, joining waitlists for tickets, and engaging with the team—customers and fans that, without the data, the organization might not have known were there.


In media, though, many hurdles remain. Another example Peterson offered: the ESPN website’s front page, among the highest-profile stretches of real estate the sports-media world. “Those headline news items are dominated by the successes, the failures, the injuries, the misdeeds, the misfortunes, the legal troubles of big names and top teams,” Peterson said. “It’s hard for women to crack that threshold.” Two consistently have: tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. (No coincidence that they are also the only two women to land on Forbes’s list of highest-paid athletes.) “But,” Peterson added, “they have faced criticism and dismissive attitudes that men in similar positions have never had to deal with. Serena because of her skin color, because of her body type”; Sharapova for the perception that she is “all style, no substance,” despite the grand slam tournaments she’s won and the number-one ranking she’s reached. 

More devastating and noticeable than the lack of coverage, Peterson argued, is the disparity in how men and women are judged physically: “Where we marvel and celebrate male athletes’ bodies for their incredible function and utility—‘Wow, so fast, so strong, so big, so tall, incredible!—on the other hand, female bodies are still primarily judged on attractiveness.” He recalled how the nickname “freak,” a term of admiration for gifted male athletes, became a slur against female basketball star Brittney Griner. “That was a wake-up call for me,” he said.

Hammering home the point a few minutes later, Peterson added, “[W]hat more stark reminder do we have than what’s happened on this campus in the last few weeks?…How sad is it that the press coverage that the women’s soccer team is getting in the New York Times is them having to defend themselves against yet another juvenile sexist chauvinistic attack? We owe these women more than that, both in the media, and as fans and as people.” He mentioned his three-month-old daughter and declared, “I hope that when she gets on the Internet we’ll have a better conversation.”

“What more stark reminder do we have than what’s happened on this campus in the last few weeks?…How sad is it that the press coverage that the women’s soccer team is getting in the New York Times is them having to defend themselves against yet another juvenile sexist chauvinistic attack?”

For panelist Shira Springer ’97, the frustrations are similar. A women’s-sports columnist for The Boston Globe, Springer recalled pitching a story in the fall of 2013 about the U.S. women’s hockey team, which was holding its Olympic training camp in Massachusetts. Held to a strict stipend, most of the women were bunking with local families in cities like Lexington, Medford, Concord, and Cambridge. “Wherever they could find a room.” Springer thought it was a great story. In six months, they’d head to Sochi, “and you knew it was going to come down to the U.S. and Canada in the gold medal game, and here we had an opportunity to go out and see what was developing with the team chemistry and this unique living situation.” Springer’s editors said no: more lifestyle than sports. If it had been a Bruins player, she believes, the answer would have been an easy yes. Female athletes, even Olympians, are almost always a harder sell.  

So Springer, who also contributes to NPR and WBUR, took the idea to The Boston Globe Magazine, where it became a feature, “The Olympians Next Door.” Readers loved it. The magazine editors—three of whom are women, Springer noted—asked her for another idea. She came back with a question that had long been nagging her: why do fans ignore women’s pro sports? (One answer she got from an MIT marketing expert: “They need to stop selling themselves as in competition with men’s sports.…They have to market themselves as something different and better because of that difference.” Springer asked if anyone had ever succeeded with that strategy. Yes, he said: ‘Tastes great, less filling.’”) Springer’s nagging question turned into a Globe Magazine cover story, and one that generated so many comments and clicks from readers that Springer’s sports desk bosses asked her to write a regular column on women’s sports. “And so that’s what it took,” Springer said, noting that the situation is much the same at other publications. “You constantly have to prove that women are worth the coverage, that there’s an audience out there. And it’s not just one time. It’s multiple times, over and over and over again. There’s a constant education that goes on, of male editors and male readers, of female editors and female readers.” 

What also pains Springer: the surfeit of women’s sports stories that will never be told. “It just kills me,” she said. “I feel like there are so many better women’s stories because there are so many undiscovered stories out there.” She was talking specifically about the Olympics—where, because they don’t get as much lead-up coverage as men, female athletes often come across as “overnight successes” even when they’re not—but the same principle holds for women’s sports stories in general. She described trying to cram in as many women’s stories as she could during this past spring’s Boston Marathon, while also covering her regular reporting duties; as the only Globe writer focused on women’s sports issues, “I was completely overwhelmed,” she said. And yet at many other newspapers, there are no dedicated reporters at all for women’s sports.

“You constantly have to prove that women are worth the coverage, that there’s an audience out there. And it’s not just one time. It’s multiple times, over and over and over again.”

Peterson recalled that back in August, ESPN’s long-running analysis show The Sports Reporters aired with an all-female panel for the first time ever. “How many times has it been all men?” he said. “Too many to count.”

“Yeah, but, look at the timing, though,” Springer said. “It’s late August. It’s after the Olympics.”

 “The NFL hasn’t started yet,” Peterson concurred.

 Springer: “It’s what we would consider the dead time in sports.”

Still, she added: “That being said, women have to seize their opportunities. Even if ESPN is calling you for the 5 a.m. call-in show, you take it.” It might lead to something. “You have to build up your repertoire in a way that men don’t have to, to get your entry, to get your credibility.”

What about the other side of the coin, Rich-Edwards wondered. What about female athletes and their coaches pushing for coverage?

“Female athletes feel like they have to be incredibly accessible, incredibly available all the time,” Springer said. To almost any interview request, “You can’t say no.” She’s been surprised by some of the female athletes appearing in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, which shows players in nude and semi-nude poses—“Athletes I know who I would not have thought were candidates” but posed anyway, to try to make a connection with an editor or a reporter who could be helpful down the line. “They did it as a way forward, which is unfortunate.”

“Did it work for them?” Rich-Edwards asked.

Springer paused. “It did for one,” she said. For that woman, who’d been working for years to dig up publicity in other ways, the Body Issue led to more Twitter followers and online attention, which led, eventually, to a product-endorsement deal. The stakes for women are different, Springer explained, because without the TV deals that men’s sports command, women rely on sports media and social media to help get their name out and keep their career going.  Or, in some cases, to keep it whole. The athlete Springer knew was caught in a common Catch-22 in women’s sports: either take a second job—and sacrifice training time—to make ends meet, or find a way to promote themselves and get endorsement deals that allow them to devote themselves to their sport. Even that, though, requires time and hustle.


And what about the Harvard women’s soccer team? Somewhere in the midst of the afternoon’s discussion, Rich-Edwards wondered aloud when their next game might be. “Tomorrow!” came the shouted answer from multiple voices in the audience. And then, another shout: “One o’clock!” And indeed, on Saturday afternoon, the women’s team played. They were contending for the Ivy League title. In a double overtime match that capped an undefeated conference season and earned them a spot in the upcoming NCAA tournament, they won it 2-1.

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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