The American sports industry is huge—estimated at a market size of about $485 billion in 2014. While spectatorship has always been a part of American culture, long gone are the days where the sports news was crammed into a two-minute segment on the morning news. Content about athletes’ on and off-field activities dominates social media and the news every day. Sports teams and athletes are part of mainstream pop culture, given the same media attention and sponsorship deals as Hollywood celebrities.
And because the sports industry is so thoroughly embedded into our culture, it’s become a conduit for important cultural discussions, including gay rights, civil rights, gender equality, freedom of speech and, most recently, the right of fathers to paternity leave.
A few months ago, Mets’ player Daniel Murphy took three days of paternity leave (the maximum number of days guaranteed by his contract). The media really sunk its teeth into the story, mostly in its coverage of radio personalities Mike Francesa and Boomer Esiason’s ridiculous, insensitive comments about Murphy’s decision, which included, “Quite frankly, I would've said, ‘C-section before the season starts. I need to be at opening day.’”
But as Slate writer Jessica Grosse pointed out, the public response to Esiason was the real story: “[W]hat’s remarkable about Esiason’s comment in hindsight is not the idiotic statement itself, but the monumental backlash to it and his subsequent apology[…] That Esiason felt he had to eat such major crow shows how far we’ve come in our cultural perception of a father’s role, and it also suggests a shifting of the tides when it comes to our feelings about paternity leave.”
So, earlier this week, when The Nationals (my team—Go Nats!) announced that player Wilson Ramos would be taking three days of paternity leave, I was surprised to see that it didn’t receive a ton of national press. And, again, the press that it did receive was mostly focused on squashing the ignorant responses to Ramos’ decision (see Sarah Kagod’s excellent smackdown on SB Nation). The Washington Post covered it, but other publications that mentioned it simply listed it as a basic change in the line-up.
The lack of hoopla is, in some ways, a good thing. It demonstrates the slow but steady normalization of paternity leave and, as Grosse noted in her article, the evolution of our national perception of the role of fathers. On the other hand, the importance of paid paternity and maternity leave and the overall importance of equalizing the role fathers play in parenting (and women play in the workforce) need as much attention as they can get.
Ramos’ comments about his leave were mostly limited to the Washington Post coverage and included: “It’s a balance between my job, something I’ve dedicated my entire life to, and my daughter, my responsibility and joy for the rest of my life. It’s something that us ballplayers that have kids have to go through. I don’t want to put my job to the side but the circumstances mean I have to,” and “I don’t want those three days to affect my swing. I don’t want to lose the rhythm I’ve got right now.”
And while I respect (and, as a working parent myself, empathize with) Ramos’ comments about the challenges of taking time off, I have to wonder if there wouldn’t have been more media attention paid to those comments if he were a woman. Think of the backlash Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer received when she announced that her maternity leave would just be a few weeks long. If an expecting mother came out and announced that taking a few weeks off for the birth of her child would impact her performance, it would be headline news.
Not to mention that paternity leave, and maternity leave for that matter, continues to be a “perk” that only a portion of working parents receive, not part of standard employee rights. Furthermore, Major League Baseball is the only major American sports league that guarantees paternity leave to its players (the NFL, NBA, and NHL have no policies in place).
All of this is part of a larger issue, though, about the role of sports in the media, pop culture, and our national discussion about gender and equality. Brands and advertisers realize that sports are the fastest way to a live viewing audience. They know that, as more consumers abandon cable and embrace programs like DVR, Hulu, and Netflix, live games are one of the few remaining ways to reach valuable, captive eyeballs. Companies are also intently aware of the increasing demographic of female sports fans and of the viral potential of spectators’ perspectives, as they’re doled in real-time on Twitter.
All that being said, we will begin to see an effort by the media covering sports and the brands advertising during sporting events to appeal to women and our (assumed) “different” perspective. They’ll realize that many women share Sara Kagod’s views, that any ignorant comments about players taking paternity leave are ridiculous and backward. They’ll want to show the more “human” side of athletes. They’ll shift their messaging and change their angles.
It’s our job as women sports fans to continue to be very critical of sports media, advertisers, and sponsors as they begin to value our purchasing power more and more. Sports stories are cultural stories, and we need to ensure that we’re calling BS when we see it, making our voices heard when we see inequalities, and holding the media accountable for the perspectives they inject into their coverage, subtly or otherwise.