IMAM: Crying wolf about Olympics sexism

Online critics often inflated the level of misogyny in press coverage of the Rio Games

Over the course of the Olympics, there were multiple allegations of sexism with respect to the coverage of female athletes. Some critics may have a point, but often their claims are blown out of proportion and used to initiate a witch hunt. With a focus on vilifying and labeling those accused as sexist, critics are too often searching for sexism that may not exist rather than highlighting it effectively.

One barrage of criticism I’ve seen as particularly unfair is that of The Chicago Tribune for tweeting, “Wife of a Bears lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics,” linking to a (more tastefully titled) article, “Corey Cogdell, wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein, wins bronze in Rio.” This tweet clearly should have at least mentioned her name, but it’s also important to consider why the Tribune probably did this. While hardly anyone pays attention to Olympic trap shooting, millions of people care about football. Wording it this way was clearly intended more as a form of clickbait than of diminishing her accomplishment. In fact, as a sport with such little attention, presenting the article this way had a better chance of bringing attention to her sport and her medal than the headline “Corey Cogdell wins bronze in trap shooting” would have.

The Associated Press similarly faced unreasonable criticism for making its headline about Michael Phelps’ silver medal so much larger than that about Katie Ledecky setting a new world record, despite the fact that Phelps is more of a household name and therefore more likely to get readers to pick up the paper. While you could make the argument Ledecky would become a household name with more media attention, it still makes more sense to focus on Phelps, as he was completing his fifth and final Olympics. In a similar vein, calling the focus on Dana Vollmer’s motherhood sexist is also unfair because it is a large part of her journey at this Olympics (she even has embraced an identity as a “Momma on a Mission,” using the hashtag as a catchphrase). NBC’s coverage wasn’t suggesting she wasn’t just as incredible before having her child — its purpose was to highlight the physical feat of medaling in the Olympics only 17 months after bearing a child.

Social media in general has been counterproductive in rooting out casual sexism during the Games. NBC commentator Dan Hicks was condemned for calling Katinka Hosszu’s coach and husband, Shane Tusup, “the man responsible” for her success. To be fair to Hicks, there is a specific story to Hosszu’s growth as an athlete that puts the quote in context. After failing to win a medal at the 2012 Olympics, she replaced her former coach with Tusup, whose coaching style and training plan has drawn its own controversy, which has clearly paid off given her three medals at both the 2013 and 2015 World Championships and four medals this Olympics. Still, there undoubtedly was casual sexism at play in that Hicks emphasized Tusup’s role — he could have explained her journey rather than repeatedly focusing on Tusup. But because so many people denounced him as sexist despite the context, Hicks missed their legitimate critcisms.

It is great that social media can get stories out so quickly to a large number of people, but it means nothing if responses to those stories fail to effectively point to the issue at hand. Unfairly decrying the press and commentators as sexist in certain cases also prevented coverage of more substantial instances of sexism elsewhere. While it is easier to share a story that automatically denounces someone as sexist instead of acknowledging intentions and context, doing so will never reach the people who need to understand what went wrong the most (people who saw no problem at all with the statement in the moment). This, paired with wrongly ascribing sexism to business decisions, copies sold or (in Vollmer’s case) merely telling an athlete’s story, further muddies the waters as to what is and isn’t worthy of outrage.

Alyssa Imam is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.imam@cavalierdaily.com.

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