It’s Time for Sports Media to Stop Objectifying Women

Why are misogyny and sports media so intertwined?

The answer isn’t hard to find. Ever since 1964, when the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition was released – and probably even before that – outlets that create sports content have used photographs of women in various states of undress to appeal to their target audience: men.

It has obviously worked. To this day the SI Swimsuit Edition sells so well that it basically props up the (once great, now dying) magazine for the other 51 weeks of the year. Without the bare boobs and bottoms, you don’t get guys like Gary Smith or Alexander Wolff doing their thing…or so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, in the past 53 years things have gotten worse, not better. Sports Illustrated continues to aggressively promote their swimsuit issue, and they do it far more than one week per year, spinning out all sorts of additional content on their website. In fact, it’s impossible to scroll through their entire home page on any given day without seeing at least one half-naked woman.

They’ve “progressed” with the times, moving from an era when they at least pretended to sell swimsuits to their current strategy, which is essentially just softcore porn with swimsuits to get in the way (which Lindsey Adler from Deadspin covered brilliantly here).

SI is hardly alone in mixing sports with misogyny, though. Barstool Sports probably wouldn’t exist anymore without their Smokeshow of the Day feature, which continues to generate massive traffic for them and is basically a user-submitted amateur swimsuit competition, and it DEFINITELY wouldn’t exist without their overall tone of objectification and machismo.

Another popular, pioneering site, TheBigLead (not to be confused with the site you’re currently reading) simply puts an attractive woman at the top of every Roundup (their daily collection of links and stories from around the web) that literally serves no other purpose than to attract male eyeballs. They also like to “report” on who is dating whom in the sports world as an excuse to show a gallery of photos (usually, but not always, including a swimsuit photo or four of said athlete’s better half).

ESPN has even gotten into the game with their Body Issue. This is less offensive because A) the models are actually athletes, B) they include men as well as women, and C) not all of the participants are attractive in the traditional sense. But it doesn’t change the fact that they’re marketing to a mostly male demographic by showing photos of women with no clothes on.

These are hardly the only examples of using scantily clad women to generate interest in sports content. There are countless lists of the hottest sports wives, over-the-top beer commercials, etc., not to mention the often-perverted camera angles on the cheerleaders in many pro sports broadcasts. We’ve even been guilty of objectification here at TheLead, although we used actual athletes and tried to be equal-opportunity objectifiers. There are also other, more serious issues regarding sexism in sports, like online harassment and workplace sexual harassment.

Tackling those deeper, cultural norms is tough; breaking the bond between the objectification of women and sports content shouldn’t be.

Of course, these companies have a right to publish anything they want – you can certainly find much more offensive things on the internet with very little effort. Models also have a right to pose however they want for whomever they want. I have no problem with nudity or pornography, assuming everyone is of age and a fully willing participant. But there are countless other destinations for that kind of stuff, and most of them are pretty clear about what they are (for instance, the name PornHub speaks for itself).

The casual mixing of sports coverage and scantily clad women like it’s the most normal thing in the world signals to readers that women should be judged first and foremost on their looks and exist for the purpose of men’s consumption. If readers want to seek that stuff out, they’re welcome to do so, but we as a sports media community should stop serving it up to them like the two are somehow inseparable.

Imagine if websites geared toward women just randomly threw pictures of men in g-strings all over their pages, with no explanation, in a blatant attempt for more clicks. The opposite happens every single day in the sports world, and it’s barely ever questioned. As the editor of this website, I pledge not to use photos of nude women to generate clicks. The same goes for beautiful clothed women who aren’t athletes and serve no other purpose than being eye-candy. I challenge all other sports editors to do the same.

As I said before, I get why companies do this. What I don’t get is why they don’t get more pushback from fans who prefer their sports without sexism.

If not now, when?

To Top