Despite loss, soccer success could fulfill goals for women's sports

July 18, 2011

Cheryl Cooky

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Even though the U.S. women's soccer team lost to Japan on Sunday (July 17), the World Cup experience could be a win for women's sports, says a Purdue University expert.

"During the short term, this amazing team captured fan and media attention that showed how strong the athletes are and how entertaining women's sports can be," says Cheryl Cooky, an assistant professor in health and kinesiology and women's studies. "Time will tell how these athletes' achievements are remembered. Unfortunately, coverage of women's sports is often connected to what women are wearing or who they are dating. This stereotypical coverage prevents viewers from seeing the strength, dominance and athleticism that women demonstrate on the field every day."

Cooky, who studies television coverage of women's sports, said that even though the quantity of women's coverage experienced an upward trend in the 1990s - from 5 percent to nearly 9 percent of total sports coverage since data collecting commenced in 1989 - the quality of coverage has not improved. This includes the 1999 U.S. women's World Cup victory, which is often associated with images of Brandi Chastain removing her jersey in celebration.

"Rather than focus on the accomplishment of that championship team, televised news media focused on the relatively innocuous removal of a jersey by a female athlete, calling it a 'striptease,' essentially sexualizing a moment that should have been about determination and drive," Cooky said. "Despite this, many people thought the World Cup title win would usher in a new moment in women's sports history, one that would be characterized by increased participation, popularity and media coverage. Surprisingly, in our most recent study released in 2010 by the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California, we found the amount of televised news media coverage to be the lowest ever in 20 years."

Coverage of women's sports garnered less than 2 percent of total coverage, Cooky says. Though sexualized images of female athletes seem to have declined in news coverage, when women are covered, the focus is on their roles as wives, mothers or girlfriends, rather than on their athletic accomplishments, she says.

"It's wonderful to see such enthusiasm around today's team, and hopefully that will continue," Cooky says. "These stars, like many male athletes, will make television media appearances and receive invitations to star in reality television shows or get commercial endorsements. While they continue to be celebrated, it is also important to remember that attention should be given to their athletic achievements. If that doesn't happen, then we are giving the audience, especially young women, a limited view of female athletes."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu 

Source: Cheryl Cooky, 765-494-2503, ccooky@purdue.edu