NBA’s Glass Wall: Cheerleaders

(This is part four in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)

Mary Jo Kane, in “Sex sells Sex, Not Women’s Sports” links the marginalization of female athletes to the hegemony of sex within sports.  She successfully debunks the claim that sex sells women’s sports: “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports.” As part of the Nation’s series on sports, Kane argues:  “Millions of fans around the globe just witnessed such media images and narratives during coverage of the Women’s World Cup in Germany. Perhaps such coverage will start a trend whereby those who cover women’s sports will simply turn on the camera and let us see the reality—not the sexualized caricature—of today’s female athletes. If and when that happens, sportswomen will receive the respect and admiration they so richly deserve.”

This is pretty easy to see as one looks at the ways female athletes enter into the sports media sphere. Historian Patricia Hill Collins notes how contemporary sports cultures works to “simultaneously” “celebrate and ‘feminize” their athleticism by showing women in action and showing their navels”.  Coming on the WNBA’s marketing campaign, Collins argues that WNBA “ads all shared another feature — unlike their basketball uniforms that provide more than adequate coverage for their breasts and buttocks, each woman was dressed in fitted sweat pants and in a form-fitting top that, for some exposed a hint of their midriffs, an occasional naval”.

In regards to the WNBA, one has to look no farther than google to see the hegemony of sexualization.  If one types in WNBA and “hotties,” “sexy” or “sexiest” one is faced by an avalanche of websites offering top-10 lists.  Whether on the Bleacher Report, Spike TV, ESPN, and YouTube, women in the WNBA are far more readily available as sexual objects than ballers. Routinely radio stations and websites pit women of the WNBA in a battle for who will be crowned as the “hottest” WNBA star (see here for example).   In these contests, presumably male fans vote for the “hottest player” illustrating the ways in which primarily male fans interact with women ballers: as sex objects, as body parts, as sources of pleasure.  Women, thus, enter into the sports realm reaffirming patriarchy and gender boundaries, reinforcing the primacy of males in this space.

The sexualization of women within basketball is of course not limited to WNBA players, but is on full display during each and every NBA game.  Over the past decade women have been deposed from their positions as referees and play by play analysts.  When the NBA hired two women referees, Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner, in 1999 three years after promoting Cheryl Miller as a play by play analyst, it appeared as if women were shattering the NBA”s glass wall that kept women away from on-court positions of authority.   However by 2003, Palmer was the lone woman referee in the NBA and there were no other women doing play by play for nationally televised games.  Therefore if you watched an NBA game on TV in the last thirty years the only women you saw was either a sideline television reporter—but that still depended heavily on which team you were viewing and whether it was a televised game.  So more likely than not the only women you saw gracing the courts during NBA games were cheerleaders.

The sight of scantily clad cheerleaders who make limited wages for their in-game performances (around $100 dollars per game) affirms that the place of women on the basketball floor is quite clear.  Cheerleaders are the most prominent examples of the “sexy babe mode” mode of representing women.  According to Kane, the “sexy babe mode” “represents a “hot” female athlete, falls just short of soft pornography.” This carries over into sports media with websites and “mainstream” sports like NBC Sports or Sports Illustrated offering pictorial slide shows, often showing women in sexualized positions (cleavage shots seem to be a requirement for some websites).

In spite of the fact that it operates a professional woman’s basketball league sex and sexuality remains the predominant vehicle through which the NBA transmits images of women.  While sex sells sex, it also sells “MEN’S SPORTs.”  Whether in advertisements for strip clubs in local newspapers, athlete pictorials, or eye-candy cheerleaders, women in sports remain sexualized objects for the consumption of male consumers.

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