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Leveling the Playing Field: Women sports journalists are underrepresented in soccer coverage

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First in a continuing series

Giovanna Z. Rinaldo
Editorial Director

Kay Murray’s extensive record as a soccer journalist in three different countries speaks for itself. The host of beIN Sports’ “The Express Xtra,” born in Middlesbrough, England, was an anchor at Spanish club Real Madrid’s TV for six years and co-hosted the Ballon d’Or 2011 and 2012 ceremonies.

Murray has been obsessively watching soccer since her grandfather introduced her to the sport at the age of nine, and it was love at first sight. Despite her expertise, she could not compete with a former soccer player’s denial that she was part of that game too.

“I was supposed to host the show that he would be on and suddenly I wasn’t hosting it anymore. I was not told the reason, but rumors get around, and I found out he didn’t like working with women,” Murray said.

“At the time the company decided ‘well, he’s an ex-professional, he has won a lot … so we are going to go with him and we will just not put Kay on this show.’ And that really annoyed me because why should he and his outdated attitude stop me from doing something I was supposed to do?”

Murray’s experience with gender discrimination in sports journalism is not an isolated case. While soccer, like most professional sports, remains male-dominated, female sports journalists around the world struggle to break through and are denied opportunities.

Girls who are raised loving the sport, including in countries where it is the national passion, grow up to find out they barely have a voice to discuss soccer in a professional environment, facing challenges that range from access and credibility to blatant sexism and harassment.

The Score
Excluding women from the sports journalism workplace is a phenomenon bigger than soccer. According to the 2014 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, for the fourth consecutive study, APSE newspapers and websites received an F for gender hiring practices, also failing individually in all five positions examined: sports editors, assistant sports editors, columnists, reporters and copy editors/designers.

Statistics showed that men respectively occupied 90.1 percent, 90.2 percent, 87.6 percent, 87.4 percent and 80.8 percent of these positions.

The issue lies in not only the small numbers of women in the field, but also in that they tend to improve proportionally to the decrease of the position’s prestige. The ratio of women is smaller in leadership roles such as sports editor and higher for reporters and copy editors. The status quo becomes a vicious cycle, as women are less likely to pursue positions where their presence is already scarce.

Even during the 2016 Women’s Sports Week from Oct. 3 to 9, only 1.8 percent of sports articles were written by women, according to a study by The Guardian head of media Jane Martinson.

Of the 1,111 bylines analyzed from national print press in the United Kingdom, 1,067 were men’s and only 20 were women’s. A single collaborative spread provided five of the Telegraph’s six total female bylines.

Women soccer journalists are often subject to the same kind of scrutiny and objectification that women athletes continuously face, and the content of sports coverage, as well as its standards for equality, has as much to do with who produces it and with how gender can affect the framework.

The Lineup
Encouraging women to follow a career in soccer journalism allows those interested in the sport to make their passion and career one-in-the-same. Diversity among people covering the sport is translated to diversity of content, perspective and framework, according to the 2009 study “Framing of Sport Coverage Based on the Sex of Sports Writers,” published in the International Journal of Sport Communication.

The study claims there are qualitative differences in coverage based on the sex of sports writers, and male writers are “more likely to reinforce gender stereotypes by praising the athleticism of male athletes” and perpetuate patriarchal images of sport.

A lack of women covering sports results in storylines and events being told almost exclusively through a male perspective, which shapes the sport’s dynamics.

Scholars recognize sports and mass media as “two primary forces helping to preserve hegemonic masculine social structures throughout the Western world,” according to the study, and a combination of the two can be naturally exclusive to women.

An increase in the number of female sport journalists and editors could result in more substantial, fair and better coverage of both women’s and men’s sports.

The Comeback
Brazilian journalist Bibiana Bolson, former reporter and TV presenter for soccer network Esporte Interativo, vented on Facebook last year in response to sexist remarks made by a disagreeing soccer fan online. In the post, she said that for a long time she chose silence as a means to defend herself against abuse, especially when it happened the first time.

“I had not felt this bitter taste of discrimination yet in that environment, I grew up visiting all kinds of stadiums with my dad, and maybe his masculine presence was what shielded me for so long without having to go through that,” Bolson wrote.

She then said that a second incident did not take long to happen, and the violence of the graphic remarks by someone in the stands caused her to think she would never have the stomach to step on the field again and continue to work. Consistent harassment and abuse then became just another part of the job, but Bolson said she now refuses to remain silent.

“This is not a feminist speech, it is a human speech, from someone who is certain that the less silent we stay, maybe in the future we can remain safe being who we are.”

Bolson is not alone in her fight for better representation of women in soccer. Other female journalists around the world have been speaking up against sexism in soccer in a variety of ways, leading by example and demanding their own space in the game — not as mere spectators or trespassers, but as rightful participants. Some women have broken through.

The Pioneers
In the country of soccer, Brazilian journalist Regiani Ritter was the one to first open the doors for women who wanted to cover the sport, in the 1980s. After debuting to fill the absence of a male reporter, she never looked back.

In retrospect of over 20 years in the field, having worked nationally and internationally covering everything from World Cups to Libertadores, she takes pride in the journey and in being the first woman to ever go inside a locker room.

Ritter was not the first woman journalist who tried to cover soccer in Brazil, but claimed the pioneer title because she was the first to try and stay, while many gave up along the way.

“I’m known as a great reporter … and also a troublemaker,” Ritter said. “I don’t know if that is the ideal formula, but that is the one that worked for me,” she said, adding that women in the field face constant scrutiny.

“I could not be like everybody else because I was one of the very few women in a universe of 600 men. When I started there were 600 male soccer reporters in the state of Sao Paulo and I was one of the seven or eight women,” Ritter said.

“If we made a mistake, it was ‘wow, she is a woman, go back to the kitchen, go back to the laundry room.’ If a man made a mistake they laughed it off because there were 600 of them, nothing for them was bad. Everything about us was bad.”

Ritter, however, said she believes the constant vigilance might have also played in her favor, and rewards came in a variety of ways.

In 1994, Ritter covered the World Cup in the United States, when Brazil won its fourth title after a 24-year drought. In 2010, the association of sports journalist of the state of Sao Paulo gave her name to the trophy that awards one excelling female soccer journalist every year. In 1991, she was elected the best sports reporter of the state while simultaneously covering soccer for the three divisions of media — radio, television and print.

This prize, however, came at a cost. While the adventure lasted for six months, Ritter ended up in the hospital afterward.

“I stayed there for 32 days not knowing what the issue was. It was exhaustion,” she said. “I (had) worked 18 to 20 hours a day to do things how I like to do them — well done. To not fail in anything.”

She ultimately won her battle for recognition, opening the doors for women who followed.

“I used to face rain, heat, microphone shocks when it rained a lot, I got hit by a rock, had to get stitches in my eyebrow…”

Across the world, other women have also faced adversities to carve a space for themselves in soccer journalism.

Viviana Vila became in 2012 the first and only woman to work as a soccer commentator on Argentinean television broadcasting a first division game. In 2016, after 20 years in soccer journalism, Angela Lerena became the first female reporter to cover a superclásico — the Argentinian derby between River Plate and Boca Juniors — from the field.

In 2016, journalist Claudia Neumann became the first woman in German television to comment a men’s national team game during the Eurocopa. In Spain, journalist Mari Carmen Izquierdo was the first ever female journalist to cover soccer in the 1970s, but to this day no woman has ever broadcasted a men’s national team game.

In American television, soccer seems to not only give more visibility to women, but to also attract journalists who have a harder time working in the field where the sport is more popular.

Murray is accompanied in anchoring the main beIN Sports soccer coverage by Canadian journalist Terri Leigh, while the Spanish extension of the channel is run by Spanish journalist Ana Cobos and Honduran Carmen Boquin. On NBC Sports, British journalist Rebecca Lowe anchors Premier League coverage and on Fox Sports, also British Kate Abdo is a soccer studio host.

“I know there are a lot of sports in the U.S. where women are very much restricted to sideline reporting rather than in the studio, but if you look at soccer broadcasting in America now, I really think they are setting the standard and they’re at the forefront,” Murray said.

Other women are taking it into their own hands the task of creating bigger avenues of access to soccer journalism, and discovering that there is hardly a platform more democratic and independent than the internet. As stated in their Twitter biography, the website Unusual Efforts produces soccer content for everyone, “from a decidedly unmale perspective.”

Leveling the Field
Talks about the project started in late 2015 between Canadian Sonja Missio and American Kirsten Schlewitz, and it has since taken off. On their platform, Unusual Efforts showcases articles and art produced only by women, from across the world, who are united by a passion for the ‘beautiful game’ in its many different forms.

“We didn’t realize people actually wanted this idea and it wasn’t just me and Kirsten being like ‘let’s hope this works,’” Missio said.

The website has three primary goals: to provide women a place to get their voices heard; to financially support their work, efforts and expertise; and to help them make professional connections.

“I kind of like looking at us as an academy team who is trying to place their players with bigger clubs,” Missio said. “We are experts in a sport first and foremost, so we look more of what people are interested in and give them the freedom and range to write about what interests them, what their expertise is.”

Missio said she hopes women soccer journalists in the industry can get more credentials to expand their roles beyond presenting basic facts, such as injury updates and asking general questions, to a point where they can insert analysis and opinion into their work as much as male coworkers can.

Fighting the sexism attached to the female soccer expert status is something Missio has learned to master, and that she now hopes to mentor to the thousands of online followers.

“I have my credentials, I’ve talked to people like Sepp Blatter, I’ve been lectured and watched games with people like Alessandro Nesta, I don’t need Joe Smith at the bar to be able to verify me,” she said.

While social media can provide the freedom for a project like Unusual Efforts, which also has active Twitter and Snapchat accounts where female fans can occasionally broadcast soccer games they attend, it is not immune to the traditional questioning of women’s knowledge about the sport.

On one hand, the platform serves as an accessible and democratic place for displaying work and building credibility, breaking free from the chains that constrain women in traditional media companies. On the other, women are still subject to the same discrimination and harassment they face in real life, with the bonus of anonymity.

“Twitter has largely replaced blog comments when it comes to sports discussions, but for women, not much has changed,” sportswriter Julie DiCaro wrote in her 2015 Sports Illustrated article “Threats. Vitriol. Hate. Ugly truth about women in sports and social media.”

“Unfortunately for these ‘meninists,’ an entire generation grew up as the daughters of Title IX, with progressive fathers and kick-ass mothers who took us to football games, played one-on-one with us in the driveway, and taught us how to throw a fastball,” DiCaro wrote.

The fact that sports are seen by men as their domain, inciting a protective instinct over it, is what drives most of the abuse towards women who also want to claim the sport as their own.

“It’s not that we’re not tough enough to take it, it’s that we shouldn’t have to,” ESPN columnist and radio host Sarah Spain said in an interview to The Nation. “If this kind of thing prevents women from doing their jobs, intimidates them into not speaking their minds or makes them feel like they’re not welcome in the space, then that’s not okay.”

Looking Ahead
The fight for gender equality in soccer journalism is one that produces steady, but slow results. The men’s team has field advantage, numeric superiority and the referees that govern the industry still tend to often side with them. Women have their abilities underestimated systematically, making it difficult to thrive even when they find means to penetrate the industry.

In addition, female journalists are often camouflaged as mere body props with the purpose of adding to the male soccer experience.

“A lot of the time because you are a woman, it’s the assumption that you have been given the role because of how you look … and they (sportsmen) will be more unprofessional than they would be with a man,” Murray said.

The dynamics of the work women are generally asked to do and how much autonomy they have in doing them also needs to expand in depth and dimension, as they are often constrained in terms of career growth and projection.

“I found that even with some of the broadcasters, they are much more likely to put women on if she is with a man when so many women can easily hold their own, as it has been proven,” Murray said.

“The people who are already there, where they are making a living and they are making their career like me, like my male colleagues, we have to try and do the best we can to help pave the way for the future, for future female journalists and women to feel that they can comment on the sport,” Murray said.

While fighting to do their job, female journalists are writing the story of progress and change in the industry simultaneously to their own. And there might not be a better comeback tale in soccer history than the story of women who persevered even when the scoreboard, fans and odds were teamed up against them.

Giovanna Z. Rinaldo can be reached at giovanna.zelonirinaldo@laverne.edu or on Twitter @giozrinaldo.

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