Why this matters
Years after gendered violence scandals first rocked the NFL and college sports, U.S. sports media has become better-equipped to report on these crimes. But to accurately and consistently follow these stories, media outlets will need to further education and investment while also diversifying their staffs.
In late 2015, the Women’s Media Center released a report about how media in the United States covered sexual assault on college campuses. The report analyzed almost a thousand news stories, op-eds, columns, and editorials over a year-long period stretching from September 2014 to August 2015. In the subsection that focused on 214 stories “on sports pages or written by sports journalists,” the WMC found “the disparities in this arena” to be “startling.”
The majority of stories about sexual violence in sports were written by men. While 29 percent had no byline, a mere 7 percent – 16 of the 214 articles – were written by women. In addition, when men in sports covered collegiate sexual violence, 81 percent of their quotes were from male sources and only 7 percent from women, as compared with the 16 sports pieces with a woman’s byline in which the sources were 49 percent women and 41 percent men. The report also found that “the impact coverage mainly discussed the impact on the alleged perpetrator (e.g., suspension from team; the impact on the sports careers”) while the “impact on alleged victims received less than 2 percent of coverage.”
All of this led the WMC to conclude in 2015 that “anyone relying on sports coverage to keep up with stories involving athletes and sexualized violence are receiving a seriously skewed kind of coverage, one that clearly prioritizes the voices of men.”
That was seven years ago, which might as well have been a lifetime ago in terms of reporting on gendered violence. The coverage period for the study overlapped with reporting about Ray Rice, the professional football player caught on camera hitting his then-fianceé, but the WMC was focused only on sexual violence on college campuses. It was also years before #MeToo, a movement many thought would radically alter how our society approaches how we talk about and report on sexual harassment and violence – but which also has, perhaps inevitably, led to an extensive backlash.
The first piece Dan Solomon and I reported about sexual violence and the Baylor University football program made the cut for the WMC report (August 2015), but the study came out before ESPN’s extensive follow-up reporting and an outside law firm’s findings of failures within the football program, the athletic department, and the school at large. It came out years after former Penn State University defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was convicted and former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died, but a year before The Indianapolis Star first reported on Larry Nassar, the abusive Team USA and Michigan State gymnastics doctor. It came out before we knew about reports of sexual abuse and violence in athletic programs at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, and the University of San Francisco, among many others. And the WMC study arrived a full six years before the multiple reports about abusive coaches in women’s professional soccer, which came as part of a wave of stories about sexual abuse in women’s soccer across the world, most recently including the University of Toledo.
In short, there have been dozens and dozens of stories about sports and gendered violence, from the youth to the professional level, since the WMC published its 2015 report. As such, it’s worth asking: What, if anything, has changed in terms of who is reporting on this area and how they’re doing their jobs?
Unfortunately, we don’t have any data akin to what the WMC collected. But that doesn’t mean we have no way to answer. My career covering the intersection of gendered violence and sports started in 2013. I’ve written extensively on the problem within college athletic programs. I’ve also written about domestic violence in the National Basketball Association, abuse in youth gymnastics, and how a ballerina dealt with severe PTSD after being raped. Last year, for this outlet, I outlined my process for reporting these sorts of stories.
In other words, I have spent a lot of time over the past nine years thinking about how I report and write on this topic – and how others do, too. Surveying the landscape, I believe that sports media has improved. Journalists and outlets are less likely to present one-sided narratives that center athletes over victims; less likely to advocate moving on from cases as soon as possible; and less likely to minimize violence in a way that effectively erases it from stories altogether.
These are important shifts. Yet coverage today remains far from ideal. In order to make further progress, it’s important to understand how we got to this point – and where sports media’s handling of gendered violence still needs work.
Moving Away from ‘Cringe’
Paula Lavigne has been an investigative journalist at ESPN for the past 14 years. Her work on gendered violence in sports parallels my own timeline, with the first piece she remembers publishing on this topic being from August 2014. Lavigne told me that she also feels the reporting on this topic has gotten better over the years. She said that after the Jameis Winston case at Florida State University, which first surfaced in the news in November 2013 and stretched out for years, “there was a change in how the media responded to these stories,” specifically “how they were taking these reports more seriously.”
Lavigne compared the kind of work happening now to what she saw in newspapers in the 1970s, which she came across recently as she was investigating her latest deep dive, a piece co-authored with Tom Junod, about a Penn State football player who raped multiple women in State College and on Long Island in the late 1970s. “We had the opportunity to go back and look at some of these things'' from that time period, she said, and “reading how the columnist wrote about it made me cringe.”
Lavigne described the newspaper reports as being “so sympathetic to the athletes,” concerned with “how unfortunate it was that he had to deal with [being reported].” Perhaps it’s not particularly surprising to see that framing in a story from over 40 years ago, but Lavigne says that “around the time that I really started to get into this , there was still sort of that tone. ... It almost seemed like it was cast as if an athlete got accused of sexual misconduct or sexual violence or whatever, that it was something that someone did to the athlete, as opposed to the athlete doing something bad to somebody else. And [reporters and columnists] would write about it in the context of how unfortunate it was that he was dealing with this accusation because that meant that he had to miss a game or he had to sit out of practice. ... It was seen as this speed bump in this guy's career.”
Lavigne cannot pinpoint exactly why there has been a shift but believes that “the tone and the context of those stories changed to where the story was about the incident, about what the woman reported, and was looking at it as how is the institution and how is the criminal justice system going to adjudicate this.”
‘We Need Those Voices’
It’s possible that part of what has changed is who is doing the reporting, with more women in the sports space taking on this topic and pushing their male colleagues to do a better job. Lavigne thinks that is a definite possibility. So does Jenny Vrentas. Vrentas has been reporting on sports since 2007, first as a beat reporter and now as an investigative journalist. She previously worked at Sports Illustrated and now is at The New York Times, and she has covered the Deshaun Watson case extensively at both places, including a recent blockbuster report about how Watson’s former team, the Houston Texans, helped enable Watson’s behavior.
When I asked Vrentas if she felt like more women reporting on sports and on this topic in particular were part of what has changed, she told me it’s hard to know for sure – but she does think it most likely matters.
“But on the flip side,” she noted, “I think that our jobs [as journalists] require us to constantly connect with, relate to, and seek out stories of people who won’t have the same life experiences as us. So it shouldn’t be up to women to be the ones that carry the burden of telling those stories. At the same time, I’m grateful for the women that do take it on.”
While it may be the case that there are more women covering the intersection of gendered violence and sports – and, in turn, are altering how the industry does this work – it’s important to understand that in sports media, women make up a small piece of the overall employment pie. In 2014, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s (TIDES) Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Racial and Gender Report Card showed that women made up only 12.7 percent of sports reporters, 12.4 percent of columnists, 9.8 percent of assistant editors, and 9.9 percent of editors. The 2021 TIDES APSE report showed overall improvement: 14.4 percent of sports reporters, 17.8 percent of columnists, and 16.7 percent of editors are now women. The 2021 report also calculated the percentage of women in upper management roles at 36.3 percent, a promising sign.
Still, in both its 2014 and 2021 reports, TIDES gave the industry an F grade for gender hiring. The numbers simply are not high enough, not even close. The 2021 report included a quote from Lisa Wilson, former APSE president and key advisor to the study, who said: “We’ve seen some signs of progress, but it remains a major problem for women and especially women of color. We need more women in this industry, we need those voices, we need that perspective. We need them making coverage and hiring decisions.”
The Women’s Media Center did its own report in 2021 about gender gaps in media and found that when looking at different topics – such as health, arts and culture, and even weather – sports were the worst in terms of the percentage of women reporting on them: 13 percent. Even divided into different types of media such as print newspapers, online reporting, and wire services, the percentage of women in sports was at the very bottom of the list (12 percent, 21 percent, and 9 percent, respectively).
If we think about all of these numbers alongside what we learned from the WMC report about how women who cover campus sexual violence are more likely to interview women as sources – and to consider the impact on the person who reports harm – they remain concerning.
Of course, the progress of the past seven years shows that men can also do this work well, provided they are given the necessary time and space. Rick Westhead was the journalist at TSN who led the coverage of the Chicago Blackhawks’ coverup of reported sexual assault of one of their players during the runup to their 2010 National Hockey League championship. It was the veteran reporter’s first major investigation into gendered violence in sports. Westhead says he let his curiosity lead him.
“I was really committed to finding news stories, then covering them, and learning,” he says. “I’m driven by curiosity about this, about how organizations navigate allegations like this and cover them up, and how non-disclosure agreements work and why some federations in sports are more transparent than others. There’s just an unending list of questions that I have about this.”
Some barriers to better coverage have little to do with gender. Vrentas noted that reporting on gendered violence often is time-consuming and needs a lot of institutional support, like what Westhead enjoyed at TSN. “It’s frustrating that there aren’t many outlets to take on this work,” she says, “but at the same time, you see the amount of resources that it requires” and you understand the challenge of it. Vrentas’ editors at The New York Times, a global news company that generated $2 billion in revenue last year, were OK if she spent a week reaching out to dozens of people in Houston, even though she didn’t know what she’d find.
“That’s a privilege to have that kind of time and space to kind of do this deep reporting,” she says. “I know that doesn’t exist, especially in an industry that’s being gutted by private equity, clicks first, and business strategies.”
Speaking about his Blackhawks coverage, Westhead says that “there were very few people that really wanted to kind of go all-in on the reporting of this.” He named investigative reporter Katie Strang at The Athletic and some local Chicago reporters, but all in all, “for the most part, it never got national prominence until the really late stages.” In a media landscape that has changed drastically and, in some ways, shrunk significantly over the past decade, it’s hard to see how this improves moving forward.
There are other concerns, too – ones that are as real today as they were in 2015. Sports reporters, especially beat reporters, aren’t always in a great position to take on complex stories that land outside the lines. Nor are they eager to potentially antagonize the same locker rooms and league sources they need to do their daily jobs. “When you are on a daily beat, you’re so worried about access and keeping up with the day-to-day news that diving deep into a complicated and weighty subject matter just sometimes is not top of your list in terms of what’s expected by editors, or maybe just in the way that you’ve been taught to cover beats,” Vrentas says.
Westhead says that this is why sports media needs specialized journalists who are tasked with investigative reports – women and men like himself who are removed from daily beat reporting. “Am I worried that the [NHL]’s gonna stop giving me stories or tips that would lead to exclusives?” he asks. “No. They were never gonna do that in the first place.”
We live in a society that is often still unkind to people who come forward to report being harmed and that reflexively distrusts those people as soon as they speak. Sports reporters are a part of this culture as much as the next person. One of the ways this manifests is when stories of gendered violence not only center on the person who has been reported but also nearly erase the person who reported them. The very thing Lavigne feels has changed overall – the excessive, myopic focus on the impact to the athlete – still rears its ugly head.
For example, SB Nation in 2016 published a 12,000-word piece about a former college football player convicted of rape that included only 500 total words about the 13 women who testified against him. Five years later, a front-page, 2,500-word article about Deshaun Watson in the Houston Chronicle had only 78 quoted words dedicated to the 16 women who had come forward at that point.
“I think a lot of times the framing is still often in terms of the athlete’s career or how this will affect the team or what the discipline is rather than seeking out the details of the account, trying to talk to the people affected,” Vrentas says. “I think the same power imbalance that affects the people who are victims of gender-based violence … also applies at times to the media coverage.”
In 2015, the WMC concluded that “anyone relying on sports coverage to keep up with stories involving athletes and sexualized violence are receiving a seriously skewed kind of coverage.” In some cases, that is still true. That’s frustrating and disappointing. But it does seem that the sports media as a whole is moving away from past mistakes and toward a better future.
And maybe the biggest change is how improving coverage builds on itself, with quality reporting leading to more of the same. “I feel like with every person whose story we tell there are others who are emboldened to come forward as well,” Westhead says. “It feels like there’s a new story coming out literally every day. Every sport, every day. And I don’t see any reason I think that’s going to change.”
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?