What happens to audiences when commentators use sexist language to describe female athletes?

American Katie Ledecky swims at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics
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The following is a commentary on a recent publication written by me and my collegues, Lauren Smith and Walter Gantz.

Welcome to 2020—it’s an Olympic year! During the next year, athletes from across the country will compete to earn a spot on Team USA for the 2020 Summer Olympics, one of sport’s biggest stages. If trends continue like they did during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, women will comprise the majority of that team. Women’s participation in sports at all levels continues to grow in the United States, and the popularity of women’s sports is rising.

However, the growing role of women in sports is not well-reflected by the on-air personalities who narrate the epic achievements of these athletes. After paying $7.7 billion in 2014, NBCUniversal owns the sole broadcasting rights in the United States for televising the Olympic Games on all media platforms (TV, internet, mobile) through 2032. Analyses from a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches all conclude that sport is by men, for men, and about men. NBC reflects this notion with the cadre of sports commentators who are overwhelmingly male.

Who tells the stories and narrates the feats of female athletes matters for how these athletes are portrayed to the world. During the 2016 games in Rio, this became very clear through a number of incidents that garnered international attention. For instance, Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hozzu broke the world record in the finals of the women’s 400 meter individual medley. After Hozzu touched the wall in first place, NBC cut to Hozzu’s husband, Shane Tusup, and commentator Dan Hicks proclaimed, “There’s the man responsible for turning his wife in to an entirely new swimmer.” In another example that garnered the attention of fans and media critics occurred during coverage of American gymnast Simone Biles competing on the vault during the women’s team preliminary event. Commentators Nastia Liukin and Tim Daggett consistently compared her vaults and ability to that of the male gymnasts. Other examples were less explicitly sexist. During the preliminary rounds of women’s beach volleyball, featuring the American team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, announcers Chris Marlowe and Jason Knapp and reporter Kathryn Tappen repeatedly compared Kerri Walsh Jennings’ style of play to her husband’s as well as made several remarks about her meeting her husband (beach volleyball player Casey Jennings), as well as her role as a wife and mother. This type of commentary focuses on stereotypical female roles and means there is less time spent talking about the players’ athletic feats or the strategies employed during the match itself.

This type of commentary during the Olympics was nothing new, though, as decades of research in sports communication had shown gendered language has been applied to female athletes across sports and nations (check out this study for examples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and this study for examples from the 2012 London Olympics).

Notably, there is a difference between hostile and benevolent sexism. While hostile sexism—explicitly noting that women are inferior or explicitly stereotyping all women—has become generally unacceptable in mainstream sports broadcasting, stereotypes of females and female athletes in particular still seep into sports commentary, as demonstrated by the examples from NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Games. Benevolent sexism is a subtler form of sexism which can be disarming; language surrounding benevolent sexism is subjectively favorable, yet entrenched in masculine dominance and traditional stereotypes of women.

We know this type of sexism exists in sports media commentary, but what does that mean for viewers and for broadcasters? As athletes-turned-media-researchers, we wanted to investigate the consequences of sexist commentary. That is, how might sexist commentary help shape audience responses to women’s sports, and what implications might it have for broadcasters like NBC who continue to employ commentators who make such remarks?

In order to answer these questions, we conducted a study recently published in Communication Research Reports examining how college students responded to clips of women’s sports from NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics that media critics had previously flagged as examples of sexist commentary. We invited 78 students to come to a computer lab and watch three different clips of NBC’s coverage of women’s sports from the 2016 Rio Olympics. After watching each clip, participants rated their emotional states and enjoyment of the content. Once they finished viewing all three clips, we asked them about their attitudes towards NBC and their intentions to watch future Olympic Games broadcast by NBC.

After analyzing the data we found the men in our study enjoyed watching videos of women’s sports less than the women in our study. We also found that, regardless of the gender of the audience member, listening to sexist commentary did evoke some anger in audiences. Our study demonstrates that emotional responses to sports media are complex and that people can both enjoy watching women’s sports but also experience anger in response to the nature of the commentary or coverage. Finally, we found that when audiences do report feeling angry after viewing women’s sports coverage, then they report enjoying the coverage less, which then results in more negative attitudes towards NBC and lower intentions to watch future coverage of the Olympics.

While this is only one study that needs replicating across more participants and with more examples of sexist commentary, the results do provide a number of important insights for thinking about the implications of sexist commentary. First, the finding that men enjoy watching women’s sports less than women do may not be surprising. But, it suggests that broadcasters have some work to do in promoting and marketing women’s sports to the same degree they do for men’s sports in order to help broaden the fanbase for women’s sports. NBC does have a history of crafting achievement-focused promotions for women’s Olympics sports, such as its “Slay, Girl, Slay” promotions run during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Additional content along those lines, as well as infusing a similar spirit into the commentary itself and not just during promotions, could assist in fostering enjoyment. If women can enjoy watching men’s sports, then men can likely come to enjoy watching women’s sports, too.

Secondly, we know that audiences watch sports for many reasons, but a primary reason is because they derive enjoyment out of the viewing experience. Our research shows that anger can significantly dampen that enjoyment, and subsequently harm brand attitudes and dampen the likelihood of tuning into future Olympic broadcasts. This finding has implications for broadcasters’ bottom lines but also for society. Girls and women also derive many benefits from participant in sports, ranging from physical fitness and mental health/self-esteem benefits to greater academic success and increases in career advancement. Televised sports are a great place to inspire current and future female athletes to pursue sports to their fullest.

For both economic and societal gains, we hope this research motivates broadcasters to employ a more diverse array of commentators, ensure all the commentators on their rosters are aware of benevolent sexism, and implement training on how to avoid promulgating it upon the masses. The idea that ‘if she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ rings true in sport; when girls and young women see women competing in sport, they understand that those opportunities exist for them as well.

As one father tweeted after the NHL All-Star skills competition in 2019, “After watching the NHL All Star skills comp with my almost five-year-old daughter she says “Dad I want to do that.” Our research suggests that, in addition to ‘seeing it,’ it would be helpful to also ‘hear it,’ with commentary that emphasizes athletic accomplishments while avoiding expressions of benevolent sexism. NBC has the opportunity to inspire millions of young girls around the world who will soon be glued to the television watching their favorite Olympians compete to be the best in the world.