You can’t be what you can’t see: A call to action for women’s cycling

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This is a guest post by the author of the wonderful new blog Feministic Fitness (who has chosen to keep her pointed commentary anonymous for the time being). You can read a longer version, containing further details of the author’s choice of academics over sports at her blog. Or if you’re inclined to take immediate action, you can skip straight to the end and copy and paste a letter to NBC asking for more coverage of women’s cycling. It’s small steps like this that’ll eventually fix problems like the lack of women in major stage races like the Tour de France.)

Will this kid be able to grow up to be a racer?

I always said goodnight to the figures on my posters. My childhood bedroom was plastered with posters. Posters on the walls, posters on the doors, and of course posters above my bed. My mother worried how we would ever sell the house with so many tacks in the walls. “Goodnight, Michelle,” I’d say. “Goodnight, Mia.”

I didn’t have Justin Timberlake or Nick Lachey above my bed; I had my sports heroes: Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers. Soccer was my sport of choice. I played day-in, day-out, spending my weekends, summers, and holidays traveling to play. It wasn’t until I was approaching college that encountered the reality of women’s sports.

While I was making the last of my college visitations, meeting coaches, touring schools, it rapidly became apparent that continuing my soccer career and continuing my education were at odds with each other. I had found the deadbolted door at the end of a long, exhaustive hallway that is women’s sports.

In college I hung up my cleats and instead hit the books, and took up cycling to deal with my inalienable need to break a sweat. My parents, both former amateur cyclists themselves, were over the moon. Much to my dismay, it didn’t take long to find that same closed door in another women’s sport.

Flooded with names like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, I asked my father who the female equivalents were. He was silent for a moment. “Jeannie Longo. And…well, that’s all I can think of.” Bicycling magazine filled our house and the living room was drowning in stray frames and components, and Jeannie Longo was all he could think of.

There is a significant disparity in the attention given to men’s and women’s sports, with cycling being one of the starker contrasts. Eyes were glued on the men as they got started on the Tour this weekend, but how many were following the Giro Donne? No, no, cycling buffs, you don’t count. When I mean “how many” I mean how many young girls who could get hooked on a life-enhancing sport if exposed to the pure passion and inspiration of the world’s foremost female cyclists? Since the inception of Title IX, the number of adolescent girls playing sports has risen 1079%, yet a 2005 study by the University of California and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that major television networks devoted only 6% of airtime to women’s sports; sport-specific channels devoted 2%. To quote the award-winning documentary Miss Representation, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The major media outlets must make intentional changes to incorporate women’s sports coverage that accurately reflects the number of women engaging in sport. Some argue that major media outlets are off the hook for women’s sports coverage because there is no demand. The supply and demand of this issue is a chicken or the egg dilemma. In the aforementioned study, many of their airtime samples contained no women’s coverage. All samples contained men’s coverage. This is a staggering difference that is unacceptable on journalistic integrity and corporate responsibility levels; we can argue profitability for the networks once there is a significant sample to even test profitability on.

Letter writing campaigns can sometimes feel like sprinting on a treadmill, but it’s a first step. Below is a template calling on media outlets to reconsider their women’s sports coverage. I would encourage you to customize the letter to tell your story, and share why this change is important to you. The deadbolted door for women’s sports must be unlocked, and if we knock hard enough, it will be opened.

Dear Ms. Haspel and the NBC Sports team,

This July, my eyes will be glued to NBC Sports, watching hundreds of men participate in one of the most honored cycling traditions, the Tour de France. I will see grueling feats of strength and endurance. I will see some of the world’s top athletes push their bodies. I will see riders put their skills to the test. But I will not see any women.
Sport is an avenue for improved physical health, personal growth, and crossing cultural and socioeconomic divides. As the media host of some of the world’s biggest sporting events, you are aware of the positive benefit of sport. And you also know the importance of putting positive athlete role models in front of the eyes of young viewers.
Media leaders must take up the torch for televising women’s sports. The number of adolescent girls playing sports has risen 1079% since the induction of Title IX, yet a 2005 study by the University of California and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that major television networks devoted only 6% of airtime to women’s sports; sport-specific channels devoted 2%.
While the men compete in the Tour de France, the world’s strongest female riders are simultaneously conquering the roads of Italy in the Giro Donne, yet this will hardly make mainstream sports news. If we want to continue to see girls involved in sports, we must put positive, inspiring female athletes in front of them. As the award-winning documentary Miss Representation proclaims, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I am asking NBC Sports, as a leading provider of sports television, to strongly consider increasing your coverage of women’s sports.


Please edit this letter to suit your own needs and send to:

Susan Haspel
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York. NY 10112


susan dot haspel at nbc dot com

This has been a guest post by the author of the blog Feministic Fitness, where you can find a longer version of the story.