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The Gendered Role of the Sideline Reporter in Sports

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There are so many “actors” involved in the spectacle of professional sports. Athletes take center stage (on a field or court), coaches instruct from the bench, audiences cheer and boo accordingly, commentators inform spectators watching (or listening) from home, and sideline reporters provide inside information.

While we’re aware of these features every time we watch basketball on ESPN or attend a sporting event in person, we take for granted how this formulaic construction of sports influences our perceptions and understanding of them.

Let’s look at commentators for a moment. The broadcast team, as the commentators are collectively called, watches the game or match in person and tries to relay that live experience to viewers at home. Of course, if you’re attending the event, there’s no need for a broadcast team since you presumably know (or at least should know) what exactly is going on. Needless to say, watching in person versus in your living room on T.V. makes for a completely different sports consuming experience.

In a sense, commentators treat viewers as if they’re dummies. They provide play-by-play, say who’s on the field (or on the court), detail who’s been playing well or poorly as of late, and offer interpretations of the action. Basically, commentators are authority figures that try to explain what exactly is going on to those who couldn’t possibly grasp it on their own. Not only that, they have control over how we as consumers perceive sports.

Next time you watch a football game, put the television on mute and see what happens. Does the action feel more or less exciting? Are you able to understand what’s happening? How do the final seconds of the 1980 U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. Winter Olympics semi-final change without hearing Al Michaels scream “Do you believe in Miracles?... Yes!”?

The broadcast team has become an essential fixture in the presentation of sports. But there are also these other people who commentators often kick it to during games: sideline reporters.

The sideline reporters stand adjacent to where much of the action takes place, usually in front of a team’s bench or dugout, and provide some kind of inside information. They’ll say if a player is injured or explain a weird ritual that an athlete performs before games (i.e. LeBron James reading the Hunger Games books during the Heat's 2012 championship run).

A lot of the time, they serve as mouthpieces for athletes and coaches, and hardly ever express their own thoughts. Doris Burke, an ESPN sports correspondent, will often say something like “I was talking to so-and-so before tonight’s game, and he said X, Y, and Z.”

Sideline reporters also tend to tell human-interest stories. They may reveal for example that Steph Curry’s daughter Riley is in attendance (probably doing the “Whip/Nae Nae” dance), or perhaps that Mark Teixeira won’t be on the field because he and his wife just welcomed a baby boy into the family. Sideline reporters essentially provide an emotional side of sports.

This notion is interesting to consider since sideline reporters are almost always female. Is it a coincidence that broadcasters who talk about sports for two to three hours are usually men, and sideline reporters who discuss how a player is coping with a death in the family are usually women? Simply put, no.

Because we generally equate females and femininity with expressing emotions rather than playing sports, women must take on the more “suitable” role of sideline reporter. Is this a way of pushing women who want to be involved in sports literally to the sidelines? Absolutely. It conveys the message that women can have a place in sports so long as that place doesn’t overstep a certain gendered expectation?

The one exception to the “sideline reporters are always women” trend is Craig Sager. A long-time TNT employee, Sager makes appearances after the first and third quarters of NBA games. He’s notorious for being either the best or worst dressed man in sports, depending on whom you ask (likely worst for most, but I’ll describe his suits as “out there”).

Sager elicits such a strong reaction from everyone, players and colleagues included, because he violates an unspoken social rule of what kind of attire is appropriate. Instead of a classic black suit, he’ll wear a yellow jacket with a flowery tie and a hot pink pocket square (see above). Sager certainly calls attention to himself.

But it’s almost as if Sager needs to make this kind of fashion statement in order to step into the role of sideline reporter. It becomes easier for Sager to take on the “female position” because he subscribes to a mode of behavior that is stereotypically feminine—concern with outfit.

Networks choose to put women on sideline reporting duty not only because they are “more equipped” to bring us the emotional side to sports, but also because they’re more visually appealing to a mostly male demographic. Instead of a pretty or appealing face (note, we never really see the faces of broadcasters), Sager offers us a pretty piece of clothing, which is just as striking.

But what does all of this mean? Why should we care that women (or people that express “female traits”, in Sager’s case) are typically the sideline reporters at sporting events?

The female sideline reporter represents a clear example of the gendered divide that exists in sports. Women can’t have a place in men’s sports, unless that place is peripheral. They’re allowed to be present at sporting events, just as along as they don’t do anything that impacts the actual game itself or how we as an audience understand it. Women are neither players, nor coaches. They’re not even broadcasters.

This type of exclusion exists on other platforms related to sports, as well. It’s considered abnormal for girls to like and play sports as much as boys do. If a girl loves sports in elementary or middle school, she’s a tomboy. The fact that there is a derogatory name for this type of person is an exclusionary tactic in itself. A girl shouldn’t love sports to the same extent as a boy, so she’s called out and labeled for it. She wouldn’t face that same scrutiny if she decided to do a more “girly” activity, like play with dolls.

There’s also the “throwing like a girl” insult. If a guy makes a poor throw, one of his friends may use the expression as a way to mock him for having a weak arm. What uttering the expression actually does is make the claim that girls are inherently worse at sports than their male counterparts. It implies that girls and/or women can’t be taken seriously because they are not legitimate athletes—they’re on a lower tier, and therefore can neither hang nor play with the guys.

In professional sports, women are just pretty faces (with very few exceptions). They’re either cheerleaders who wear skimpy outfits to keep the attention of male viewers, or attractive sideline reporters who give us “the emotional stuff.”

Clearly, there is something wrong here. This isn’t the 1960s anymore. The way we perceive gender when it comes to sports and athletic ability needs to change.

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