Why there is no Title IX for sports media

I don’t want to rain on a parade. I really don’t, even though the local forecast does call for showers as my hometown’s annual Independence Day parade is scheduled to take place on Thursday.

The parade I’m referring to begins tonight, with the first of ESPN’s new women’s sports film series “Nine for IX,” and continues weekly through the end of August.

Nine-for-IX-logoThese are the so-called dog days of summer, when only baseball, the WNBA and MLS regularly dot the televised sports map in the United States.

In recent years, this time period has been a bonanza for those who wish to watch and pontificate about women’s sports — including yours truly — especially during years in which the Olympics and Women’s World Cup are contested.

Yet complaints abound that this isn’t enough. A longtime sports media critic I knew sounded off on a Facebook thread this morning that in spite of ESPN’s ambitions with the “Nine for IX” series, the Worldwide Leader could stand to do a whole lot better in its regular coverage of women’s sports.

My question to him was: As opposed to what other sports media entities?

This isn’t a new complaint. But allegations of the supposed paucity of coverage of women’s sports are growing as stale as the assertions of chauvinists that women athletes aren’t worth watching because they are physically inferior to men.

For far too long, discussions on this topic have been dominated by conventional Title IX thinking: women’s sports “deserve” more coverage — we’re never told how much is enough — because they’ve long been ignored by the media. In fact, one academic scold who believes the world is absolutely out to get women athletes at all turns insists on a “Title IX for media.”

Then there are the diatribes of those who count up column inches from the newspapers and time segments on TV newscasts, as if percentages — and they are quite paltry — reflect something sinister and purely sexist and entirely intentional. And there are others who constantly fret about the way they think things should be, as if that were enough.

As I wrote last year in my e-book, “Beyond Title IX,” numbers can and do lie. The bean-counting here is as misleading as it is wrong-headed. Coverage of women’s sports — whether it’s live television or after-game stories, highlights and interviews — will never come close to what the men get. I wish that weren’t so, but after covering women’s sports for nearly 25 years, I don’t see that changing.

And yet, women athletes are as visible as they’ve ever been, and the availability of women’s sports on television has never been more robust. That may never satisfy some scolds, even after the “Nine for IX” series, which begins tonight with Venus Williams, continues next week with Pat Summitt, and later includes Katarina Witt, Sheryl Swoopes and the 1999 U.S. Women’s soccer team.

(I’m dubious about the series finale, “Branded,” detailing how women athletes are marketed, but I’ve got another couple months to grouse about that.)

In her recently issued white paper on NCAA women’s basketball, former WNBA president Val Ackerman laid some serious charges on those running the sport for not thinking — and acting — more business-like. With attendance and TV ratings lagging, concerns growing about an overly physical style of play and escalating costs for operating programs and coaching salaries, far too many in the flagship women’s college sport have been conditioned to believe they don’t have to justify the bubble that’s growing around them.

Although she didn’t delve into coverage beyond ratings, Ackerman’s real-world experience in the emerging business of women’s sports ought to be heeded by those with a simplified view of women’s sports and the media. In her writings for espnW, Ackerman is one of the few who has been creating a road map for the realistic promotion and presentation of women’s sports.

Unlike those bellowing about a lack of media coverage, or “sexist” portrayals of women athletes, she realizes that the next phase of women’s sports — the one we’re in, actually — goes beyond Title IX, and away from literalist, stuck-in-the-1970s whining about how everything seems so unfair.

(And as the newly appointed commissioner of the revamped Big East Conference, Ackerman will have the opportunity to put some of her many recommendations into action.)

If you’ll take a closer look at the schedule of segments in “Nine for IX” — including one on the challenges of women in sports media — you’ll notice that most are devoted to athletes, or to issues, that have nothing at all to do with Title IX.

If you want to accuse ESPN of anything — and I’ve had my issues with how espnW covers women’s sports and its too-cozy association with the Women’s Sports Foundation — then blame the WWL for lumping just about everything involving women’s sports under the Title IX umbrella.

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