Dear ESPN. You did well at the end of last year. Though we weren’t entirely convinced, you launched your new website, ESPNW, which drew attention to the differences between coverage of male and female sports, and provided dedicated online space to for coverage and discussion of women’s sporting achievements. What went wrong? You were really doing quite good things… and then you went and named a horse at number 4 in your list of top 10 women’s sports stars for 2010.
Yes ladies, you read that right. In their …
… year-end list of the ’10 Biggest Stories in Women’s Sports,’ ESPNW names the retirement of Zenyatta – a horse – as number 4. Whilst it is true to say that Zenyatta is female and that her accomplishments are impressive, this to me seems quite the own goal for ESPNW. But perhaps we should look at a little more context…
Horses do appear in lists of ‘greatest athletes’ – the horse Secretariat, for example, appeared in Sports Illustrated’s top 100 North American athletes of the 20th century. So horses have long been recognised as a type of athlete but, that said, let’s face it, they’re not usually introduced to us as men. Men and women are different, quite obviously, but surely we can all agree that a man and a woman have more in common with each other than a woman and a horse. Whilst I’m sure we should all embrace diversity, it is somewhat alarming, to me, to see an animal appear in a top ten list of women’s sports stories.
In addition, with so little media attention given to women athletes and sports stars in general, it’s pretty frustrating to see ESPNW give over one tenth of their highlights of 2010 to a horse. No matter how great the horse, just, what the hell?!
It would seem that ESPNW is challenged by the category ‘woman.’ This isn’t good. Sports media and journalism as a whole, it would seem, struggles with this term, as well as with the more broad category of ’ women’s sports story.’ Jennifer Doyle, writing in the UK’s Guardian this week, cites the type of stories about women that seem to make sports headlines – and those that don’t. She writes:
‘In 2009, ESPN broke the ‘story’ of Elizabeth Lambert’s ponytail pull in a regional college match. This was a bigger ‘women’s sports story’ than the debut of the Women’s Professional Soccer League that year… Who has heard of Mary Kom, the five-team world women’s boxing champion? Where are the stories about the impact of Fifa’s corruption on the international women’s game?’
Doyle, I think has a good point. Successful women athletes are rarely given press, and when they are, they’re often portrayed as some sort of horrible, ponytail-pulling butch bitches. Given that this is the case, and that ESPNW was designed to do something about this, naming a horse as a highlight of women’s sport in 2010 really is, I think, a huge fail on ESPNW’s part.