Blaming the Woman on the Sidelines

Whenever a controversy involves a woman in sports, blame systematically shifts away from the male party and his own agency to the woman whose sex supposedly provides her an inherent advantage yet prevents her from understanding just how sports are supposed to work.

Sports on Earth's Gwen Knapp had a great column this week about the backlash against Erin Andrews for her handling of Richard Sherman's postgame interview after the Seattle Seahawks' win over the San Francisco 49ers. Knapp rightfully calls out critics who implied that Andrews' feminine wiles goaded Sherman into his overblown emotional response -- a sports-media twist on the trope that beautiful women naturally bring out the worst impulses in men, who are biologically incapable of controlling themselves around the fairer sex.

Whenever a controversy involves a woman in sports in any capacity -- from Ines Sainz's treatment by the 2010 New York Jets to the apparent "wussification" of the athletic world -- blame systematically shifts away from the male party and his own agency to the woman whose sex supposedly provides her an inherent advantage (news to me) yet prevents her from understanding just how sports are supposed to work.

The issue comes up in many iterations, including the prevalence of mostly beautiful women on sidelines whose looks then prompt skeptical fans to call into question their qualifications. Female sports reporters constantly struggle to be taken seriously; a quick Google search of "female sports reporters" yields almost an entire page of posts in the vein of "The 40 hottest sports reporters" before you get to an article actually discussing the institutionalized challenges faced by women in sports. As Knapp notes, these aspects come into play particularly when it comes to female reporters engaging in off-field relationships with the athletes they're tasked to cover. That issue was revived this week with NESN's reassignment of Boston Red Sox sideline reporter Jenny Dell.

Dell has been involved with Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks for about a year, with the couple announcing their partnership over Twitter on New Year's Eve. NESN didn't cite the relationship as the specific reason for reassigning Dell, but the connection isn't difficult to discern. Even the uncritical coverage of the story has shown its sexist side, characterizing Dell as little more than "a pretty face" and "the de facto homecoming queen of New England," because obviously her attractiveness trumps her ability to report on the game and was probably the reason she got the job in the first place. (Those who might point out that Middlebrooks has just as much to gain out a relationship with a reporter assigned to cover him have been absent from the discussion.)

That's an incredibly cynical reading their relationship, and we should give Dell and Middlebrooks the benefit of the doubt. The pairing between reporter and potential subject isn't unprecedented by any means, in the sports world and beyond. ESPN college football reporter Samantha Steele and former NFL quarterback Christian Ponder are married, as are NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

You could argue that in those cases, reporter and subject weren't as closely tied as Dell and Middlebrooks, but consider the National Basketball Association's premier power couple: Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss. If you're going to engage in self-righteous indignation, you couldn't find an easier target than the daughter of a franchise owner who serves as the team's president and was dating (and is now engaged to) that team's legendary coach. (Although it doesn't appear the connection has directly affected personnel decisions, it did make things a bit awkward when the Lakers, led by Buss's brother Jim, snubbed Jackson in contract negotiations.) But you'll hear very little rumbling surrounding the pair, and for good reason: Buss's familial connections and years of executive experience have earned her much-due respect, and Jackson is arguably the greatest coach in NBA history.

Women on the sidelines aren't afforded the same courtesy. They start from a position of disadvantage, either because they're deemed too ugly to be in front of a camera or too pretty to intelligently discuss sports, and are called everything this side of "bimbo" when they fail to keep their head down and accept the status quo. Beautiful reporters like Dell and Andrews aren't setting back women in sports who don't share the same genetic gifts -- they're helping to shift the perception that femininity belies power and aptitude in traditionally male arenas, which will ultimately benefit women of all stripes.

(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.