McGuire on Media

Women, sports and media: A remarkable journey

I am completing my diversity section of my Sports and Media class. Women in sports was the final topic. I wanted to show the journey of women in sports so I used the hackneyed  four-scene approach.

Scene 1, Ypsilanti Michigan 1973. I was the managing editor of the now-defunct Ypsilanti Press.  Carolyn King was an 11-year-old girl who wanted to play Little League baseball. This is a year after Title IX passed, but the Little League major domos didn’t want to believe Little League was covered.  The Carolyn King story became a national story. I’d like to believe that was largely because the local paper covered the heck out of the story. I remember declaring this was a huge story.  Little did I know.

To refresh my memory I found this “League history” on the Ypsilanti Little League Web site:

The Ypsilanti American Little League was founded in 1953 and is the oldest Little League in Michigan.   In addition, our Little League was the first in the world to include a female player.  When Little League was founded in 1936, girls were not allowed to participate, but that changed in 1973 when Carolyn King of Ypsilanti played in our league. 

A June 4, 1973 article in Time Magazine tells the story.  “When Outfielder Carolyn King, 12, tried out for the Orioles, an Ypsilanti, Mich., Little League baseball team, she beat out 15 boys and qualified for a starting position. Not long afterward, Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., cited its rule barring girls from league teams and threatened to withdraw the Orioles’ charter. Ypsilanti’s city councilmen issued a counter threat:  if Carolyn did not play, they would cut off city support for the league and bar it from public ballfields. After some soul-searching, the Orioles decided to let Carolyn play. Promptly, national headquarters made good on its threat and withdrew the Orioles’ charter. Last week, just as promptly, the city council voted 10-0 to file suit in federal court charging violation of the U.S. Constitution. No verdict is likely for weeks.”

Ultimately the U.S. Division of Civil Rights ordered Little League to drop its boys-only policy, and in 1974, Little League revised its rules to allow girls to compete.  Girls worldwide now enjoy Little League thanks to Carolyn and our league! 

This account is seriously counter to my memory. It makes the league out to be heroes, and my memory is that there were a lot of local  league officials giving the young woman a real hassle. I don’t recall them being particularly kind to the local newspaper that thought this was a big deal either.  That’s the great thing about 35-year-old memories. We all get to spruce them up so we look good. 

The Carolyn King battle was typical of the early Title IX skirmishes.

Scene 2: Late 80’s, Minneapolis Star Tribune Newsroom. The women’s basketball tournament sat between the boys’ hockey tournament and the boys’ basketball tournament on the calendar. The two boys tournaments were BIG, BIG, BIG. For several years the debate raged in the newsroom about parity for the women. The same debate raged about the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team. The argument centered on attendance and interest. A fraction of the fans that attended the two boys tournaments attended the women’s tournament. Many of us concluded in all our maleness that only a small fraction of our readership was interested. That debate was never resolved with a big ta-da. The evolution to more balanced and consistent coverage was slow and gradual and is still not equal. But for an old guy who looks at coverage of women’s sports in say 1980, and now, the difference is stunning.

Scene 3; June 2007 My living room. Taryn Mowatt is one the brink of winning the College World Series for the Arizona women’s softball team as a gritty, bubbly pitcher. She is mainstream and embodies everything you want sports to embody. I watch her every pitch and can’t help but think about Carolyn King and how hard we covered that breakthrough story in Ypsilanti in 1973. I can’t help but think about all those debates we had in Minneapolis about how much we should cover women’s sports. As I watched, I said to my wife of 32 years, this is a profound social change we have been able to watch up close since the very beginning. We were among the first to cry, Go Carolyn. Now we shouted, Go Taryn!

Scene 4: Jan 12, 2008. Every web site known to man. Marian Jones, from Olympic Gold Medalist to disgrace as she was sentenced to 6 months in jail for perjury about her use of steroids during her Olympic run. As I watched those images of a crying, repentant, pleading Jones I couldn’t help but think of the trajectory of women sports that has taken. It has gone from oblivion and insignificance to the point that women cheat and lie to gain an advantage, just like men do.

Sometimes our progress in this country carries negative consequences along with the good. For every celebration of Taryn Mowatt there will be the tragedy of a Marian Jones. It is the nature of the human spirit–male and female. The triumphs and tragedies of sports now crosses genders seamlessly.

As I told my class, Marie Hardin is doing about the only legitimate work I can find on women and media and women’s sports.

Her research makes it clear we have not reached nirvana on women in sports or women in sports media.

She reports in one survey that most women sports writers have experienced sexual discrimination on the job and almost half say they have been verbally abused. Hardin says women covering sports face discrimination on a “pretty routine basis.”

Women sports writers were also interviewed on whether coverage of women sports is adequate. Most said it was not, but said they are unwilling to fight for better coverage. That’s bothersome, but it probably says more about male-dominated newsrooms than it does women.

One of my students, a fellow named Brennan Perry, made a fascinating observation when we talked about media coverage of women’s sports. He contended women’s sports are not going to become a big deal until women start watching them. The comment gave me a start, but the more I thought about it I decided there was a lot of wisdom to it.

As someone who has watched the journey from Carolyn King to Taryn Mowatt, I have to believe such a day is more than possible.