Sexism in the Sports Industry

By: Amrita Kumar

Q: Why might the media enforce sexism within the sports industry?


Findings- Discussion, Results & Next Steps

Sexualization of Women

The sexualization of female athletes was a very clear theme stated within my research. Sub-topics such as the objectification and sexual appeal of female athletes showed to be very prominent sub-themes.

Within my research, I found media coverage focused more towards the sexual appeal of female athletes, as opposed to their athletic performance. Female athletes either used sex appeal to control the image the media projected out, or gained their standing in a very male-dominated press through sex appeal. Athletes such as Anna Kournikova, until recently the most highest earning female tennis player, accentuates her sexual appeal over her athletic capability as a way to market herself. On the other hand, many radical feminists argue that the "reliance on [the] sexuality [of female athletes] rather than athletic ability may take away their athletic integrity" (Carty, 2005). Meaning if women need to use exploitation and objectification to get to the standing of a man, they are lowering their own standards (Carty, 2005).

In addition, it has been discussed time and time again that men do not need to use sex appeal as a method of being recognized for what they do. "For men, beauty is not a prerequisite to reap the material benefits of endorsement contracts that corporations so eagerly seek" (Carty, 2005).

Female athleticism can now be equated with ideals such as sexual appeal, femininity and physical capability as it is no longer about athletic performance but rather how good you look while performing. Coaches, agents and media consultants impose a dress on female athletes that include wearing revealing uniforms, having long hair, shaving legs and even wearing make up to play sport (Wenner, 1998).

A study done showed that female athletes are portrayed in one of two ways, either as a sexualized athlete, such as Anna Kournikova, or a performance-focused athlete, such as Mia Hamm. Knowing this and applying this to a new study, a group of teenage girls were given pictures of both athletes and asked for their opinions. When it came to Hamm, the girls described her as being inspirational, athletically dominant and a good representation of women's strength. On the other hand, when it came to Kournikova, the girls described her as being beautiful and attractive but being "less capable." The objectification of female athletes provoked ideals such as self-objectifying and the importance of appearance. The conclusion from this study, the media influences how girls view female athletes and in turn will view themselves (Daniels, 2012).

Media Coverage and Business

Another very clear theme stated in my research was media coverage and business. Sub-topics within this theme included the poor treatment and coverage of female athletes, as well as gearing sport towards a male-dominated audience.

Within my research, I found that media coverage of female athletes was a fraction of the media coverage of their counterparts. In the NBA, there are always postgame interviews about how male athletes strategized and used teamwork to end up with a victory, or certain tactics they should use to ensure a victory. However, in the WNBA, as soon as the game finishes, so does the media coverage. There are no, or very little postgame interviews, with no or very little relevancy to the actual sport (Carty, 2005).

Female athletes are constantly underrepresented in sport as their athletic performance isn't looked as being as significant or exciting and therefore makes their sport inferior. A study found that in the 2002 Olympic Games, men had six and a half hours more coverage than females. A few statistics showed that 95% of all sport coverage is male dominated. Simply for the fact that male sport is more popular and needs more views, therefore getting more coverage and generating more money at the end of the day (Nicely, 2007).

Moreover it has been shown time and time again that the media gear sport towards a male-dominated audience. Athletes who are more sexually appealing and have a more feminine touch to the way they look and act are used more often on covers like Sports Illustrated and Women's Sport and Fitness, as opposed to the athletes who are top in their game. For instance, Anna Kournikova and Serena Williams are both world-renowned tennis players, but the more sexually appealing player, Kournikova, is used more on magazine covers, rather than Williams (Carty, 2005).

Famous female athletes, such as Danica Patrick, Maria Sharapova and Anna Ivanovic, have each done magazine covers, like Playboy, that gear towards a male-dominated audience. To simply get recognition in what they do, athletes are posing topless with their bikini bottoms submerged into water as if they were shooting with fashion models. Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition uses female athletes in a way that depicts their femininity and sexual appeal, as opposed to their athleticism (Kim, 2014).

Gender Roles

The final theme stated within my research was stereotypical-gender roles in the sports industry. The one overall sub-topic I found in this theme was the ideology of femininity in sport.

Within my research, I found that the society and the media has set "women-designated" sports, which include figure-skating, gymnastics and tennis as these sports each represented the traditional femininity ideas of vulnerability, fragility, dependence, subservience, elegance and poise. Female athletes are commonly portrayed as being referenced with their male counterparts or their gender roles, such as being a mother, wife, or sister. They have to occupy the ideal "feminine society role," or occupy the ideal "masculine athletic role" (Nicely, 2007). For instance, Jenny Thompson, the greatest female swimmer, posed topless for Sports Illustrated in 2000. Her cover was a huge success and it was because she possessed the "ideal" female athlete. She was white, blonde and physically fit, as well as having a traditional sense of femininity. On the other hand, covers with the Williams sisters, are not seen to be as big of a success as they possess more of a "masculine" look. (Carty, 2005).

Female athletes are said to be "less authentic" versions of their male counterparts (Wenner, 1998). Females and males are biologically polar opposites, but ideals such as femininity and masculinity have social, historical and cultural implications. Sport enforces male supremacy as it glorifies the fact that males are biologically superior to females, which in turn creates a gender hierarchy, placing females at the bottom (The Media's Role in Accommodating and Resisting Stereotyped Images of Women in Sport, 1994).

However, successful female athletes can be seen as a threat to men and their superiority (Raney, 2006). To which the media then likes to emphasize and maintain the idea that men are superior to women and represent power, control and dominance ((The Media's Role in Accommodating and Resisting Stereotyped Images of Women in Sport, 1994).

Next Steps

After thoroughly researching my topic, my position is that the media enforces sexism within the sports industry to maintain control of women and the gender hierarchy.

In my research, despite the effort to get perspective from every angle, there were limitations. For instance, I was not able to conduct my own research and therefore had to go off on theory and the results of other journal articles. In addition, there were many journal articles that I was unable to access which could have provided a better point of view on my topic.

The next steps for this topic is to conduct more research based around the poor treatment of women in sport, the perspective of the sexualized athletes and the media's position on this topic.

For that question's answer is one I would like to know...


Carty, V. (2005). Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy? Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 26(2), 132-172. doi:10.1353/fro.2005.0020

Daniels, E. A. (2012). Sexy Versus Strong: What Girls and Women Think of Female Athletes. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 33(2), 79-90. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2011.12.002

Kim, K., & Sagas, M. (2014). Athletic or Sexy? A Comparison of Female Athletes and Fashion Models in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues. Gender Issues Gend. Issues, 31(2), 123-141. doi:10.1007/s12147-014-9121-2

Kim, K., Sagas, M., & Walker, N. A. (2011). Replacing Athleticism With Sexuality: Athlete Models in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues. International Journal of Sport Communication, 148-162.

The Media's Role in Accommodating and Resisting Stereotyped Images of Women in Sport. (1994). In P. J. Creedon (Ed.), Women, Media, and Sport: Challenging Gender Values (pp. 28-39). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Nicely, S. (2007). Media Framing of Female Athletes and Women's Sports in Selected Sports Magazines. 1-77.

Raney, A. A., & Bryant, J. (2006). Gender Warriors in Sport: Women and the Media. In Handbook of Sports and Media (pp. 247-266). Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Wenner, L. A. (1998). Media Treatment of Female Athletes: Issues of Gender and Sexuality. In Mediasport (pp. 186-201). London: Routledge.

Women's Sports & Fitness Facts & Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from