10 Ways The Media Has Undermined Women Athletes

We look at the pattern of sexism perpetuated by the media in sport after tennis star Naomi Osaka had to withdraw from The French Open for the sake of her mental health

By Emma-Louise Boynton

7 June 2021

n a recent post on social media, Naomi Osaka, ranked the No. 2 tennis player in the world, announced her withdrawal from The French Open citing the need to protect her mental health – she had suffered “long bouts of depression since The US Open in 2018”, she said.

The announcement follows Osaka’s earlier decision not to participate in any press conferences during the open, since she believed they sustained a disregard for athletes’ mental health, drawing on instances in which athletes had broken down in the press room following a painful loss.

“I believe that the whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down, and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it,” she wrote.

While Osaka received an outpouring of support on social media from fans and players alike, the organisers of the Grand Slams said her decision violated players’ media obligations and slapped her with a $15,000 (£10,600) fine, threatening further penalties should she miss any more press conferences.

“This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago,” she subsequently posted on social media. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”

Having reportedly earned $37 million (£26 million) between May 2019 and May 2020, Osaka is the highest paid female athlete ever. She is rich enough to pay the fine. And she is right to prioritise her mental health.

While the tournament’s disregard for Osaka’s mental wellbeing is risible, the incident sheds light on the sometimes problematic relationship between sportspeople and the media, particularly between sportswomen and the press.

Here are 10 times the media has undermined women athletes and perpetuated sexism in the sporting world.

1. Ahead of the ICC Women’s cricket championship, Mithali Raj, the captain of the Indian cricket team, was asked who her favourite male cricketer was. Her response? “Would you ask a man that?”

2. Former world no.1 in women’s single tennis and the winner of 23 Grand Slams’ singles titles, Serena Williams, was asked by a reporter why she wasn’t smiling after a particularly tricky match. She responded that in all honesty, she didn’t want to be there. We wouldn’t have either.

3. Minutes after tennis superstar Eugenie Bouchard beat her opponent in just 54 minutes, securing her a place in the third round of the 2015 Australian Open, Ian Cohen, an Australian news reporter, asked her to “twirl” for the crowds to show off her hot-pink outfit.

Serena Williams had been asked to do the same thing the night before. At a news conference later that day, Bouchard said she is fine to twirl, providing male players are being asked to flex their muscles and stuff too. The hashtag #twirlgate began to trend soon after.

4. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, the English-language Korea Times ran a piece discussing volleyball superstar Kim Yeon-koung’s love life. She was looking for a boyfriend, the paper proclaimed, but at 6ft 3in it was natural the captain and main hitter of the national volleyball team must take the height of any prospective suitor very seriously. Yep… priorities.

“Eugenie Bouchard said she is fine to twirl, providing male players are being asked to flex their muscles too.”

5. Before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he was also a journalist. The type of journalist who, in writing about the reasons we should feel cheerful ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, listed as one the “semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade”. He went on to describe the players as “glistening like wet otters…”. Good to know he took the team’s athleticism seriously.

6. Meanwhile, the BBC decided to focus instead on the uniform choices of the Egyptian and German women’s volleyball teams, referring to their match as “Bikini vs Burka”. As one woman notes on Twitter, why not just refer to them as “athlete versus athlete”? Crazier things have happened.

7. Ahead of announcing she would be pulling out of The French Open because of an injury, Serena Williams was subjected to a pretty farcical interview with Inside Tennis magazine reporter, Bill Simons. He said he’d been waiting 14 years to ask the athlete one specific question… She shut him down.

8. In 2018, surfer Sophie Hellyer was asked to comment on a new rule change in pro surfing, which barred photographers from “zooming in gratuitously on female competitors wearing bikinis”.

She referred the news outlet to a blog she had written on the topic, in which she discussed the hypersexualisation of women in the media, as well as the fact female surfers aren’t, she said, represented by many surfing media outlets.

The news group twisted the story and posted a picture of her in a bikini next to a headline that read: “I never get coverage, now I’m covered up”. Cue Hellyer received an onslaught of abuse from online trolls. But Hellyer had the final word by way of this brilliant essay on the topic.

9. When Hungarian swimmer, Katinka Hosszú, beat the world record in the women's 400-meter individual medley, NBC commentator Dan Hicks used it as an opportunity to praise Hosszú’s... husband. As the camera panned to Hosszú’s partner and coach, Hicks proclaimed: “There’s the man responsible!” Umm, yeah. Sure.

10. Women belong to their husbands, right? Their successes are secondary to the fact they are married, right? That’s what the Chicago Tribune seemed to be suggesting when it tweeted a photo of Corey Cogdell-Unrein, a bronze medalist in women’s trap shooting, and referred to her only as “Wife of a Bears’ lineman”.

Header image by Hannah McKay / Alamy stock

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With Naomi Osaka quitting The French Open because of concerns about her mental health, The Stack looks at the sexism sports women face from the media.

By Emma-Louise Boynton

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