Study: Reporters cite homophobia as bigger problem in men's sports

University Park, Pa. -- Most sports reporters believe homophobia is a problem in men’s professional sports but not in women’s, according to a study by researchers with the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.

Almost 300 reporters at newspapers across the United States were surveyed about their attitudes toward homophobia and women’s sports coverage, with the results published in the most recent edition of Newspaper Research Journal.

A majority of reporters surveyed — 65 percent — acknowledged homophobia as an issue in men’s sports, and only one in five reporters said professional male athletes who came out of the closet would be accepted by fans and other athletes. 

Even more reporters, about 75 percent, said they believed questioning an athlete about his or her sexuality was off-limits, although reporters 30 and younger were more likely to say they would.

The acknowledgment that homophobia is a negative force in men’s professional sports, combined with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach by reporters, will likely keep gay athletes playing in the closet, said Marie Hardin, an associate professor in the College of Communications, associate director of the Curley Center and lead author of the study.

“The fact that only handful of professional male athletes in team sports have come out, and all after they have retired, reflects a deeply rooted homophobic culture in men’s sports,” she said. “Many reporters witness this culture up close and they understand why athletes stay closeted.”

The results about acceptance of gay athletes mirror those found among fans in a 2005 Sports Illustrated poll. More than half of fans surveyed said most people are not ready to accept an openly gay athlete — although four out of five said they were personally willing to accept one.

Hardin said there have been calls by gay-rights advocates for reporters to question and report on athletes’ sexuality because, in doing so, homophobia could be directly addressed. But, she said, journalists might resist that because they understand locker-room dynamics and the negative repercussions for gay athletes.

“There are no easy answers,” Hardin said. “On one hand, homophobia in the sports culture needs to be discussed and challenged, and that requires a public forum. On the other hand, homophobia is such a powerful force in pro sports that reporters may not want to address it out of concern for athletes.”

Fewer reporters — only about half — said they saw homophobia as a problem in women’s sports. On this question, however, female reporters were far more likely to see homophobia as an issue than male reporters.

Reporters also divided down gender lines on another question: whether newspapers provided enough coverage of women’s sports. Three-quarters said they did, although female reporters were far less likely to agree. Reporters at very large papers (with circulations of more than 100,000) also were less inclined to believe that women’s sports received adequate coverage.

Differences in the way male and female reporters see women’s sports are important, said Hardin. The vast majority of sports reporters are men, which means that coverage likely reflects a viewpoint that minimizes the impact of homophobia on women’s sports and doesn’t challenge the generally sparse coverage women’s sports receive.

There are a growing number of female professional sports leagues in the United States, including the new women’s professional soccer league launched in March. “Female reporters may be more likely to push for coverage of these sports,” Hardin said.

The telephone survey involved 285 reporters from 119 randomly selected Associated Press Sports Editors-member newspapers and appears in the most recent edition of Newspaper Research Journal, published by the Newspaper Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

The College of Communications at Penn State serves as home for the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, which was created in 2003 and explores issues and trends in sports journalism through instruction, programming and research.

The Center's undergraduate curricular emphasis includes courses in sports writing, sports broadcasting, sports information and sport and society. Along with classroom instruction, the Center’s mission stresses the value of interaction, from on-campus guest lectures and on-site visits by students to real-life experience gained through internships. Sponsored programming includes lectures, panels and workshops on journalism and the role of sport in society.

Recent research has focused on a wide variety of topics, including misconceptions about Title IX among the media, the gender makeup of sports departments at newspapers and television stations, and the "mythology" behind the perceived behavior of student-athletes.
 

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Last Updated June 04, 2009