BY HEATHER MUIR, PHD
Following the uproar over Brent Musburger’s on-air comments during ESPN’s coverage of the BCS National championship game about Katherine Webb, the Alabama quarterback’s girlfriend, I was curious to see whether or not there would be a ripple effect in subsequent television coverage of football games. During the CBS coverage of Super Bowl XLVII from New Orleans, I examined which women appeared on air, how they were dressed, and what roles women played during the broadcast. From a feminist sport criticism perspective, I wanted to know whether the women present during the broadcast were positively contributing to the program or were merely there as “eye candy” for the viewing pleasure of the male audience.
I. Family members/supporters
Mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of players and coaches appeared during the game and the broadcast leading to the main event. Several behind-the-scenes stories about football players included interviews with mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. In this role, three women stood out: Candace Brigance (wife of former Ravens player OJ Brigance who has become his primary caretaker while he battles ALS), Jackie Harbaugh (mother of Jim and John Harbaugh, the head coaches of the opposing teams participating in the Super Bowl), and John Harbaugh’s daughter Alison. The coach and his daughter stood together on the sidelines during the national anthem, both with their right hands over their hearts. She was dressed in a white t-shirt with a purple long sleeve shirt underneath. Under both of her eyes, she had “eye black” just like the players often wear to reduce glare. Women are often portrayed on television as nurturers and emotional supporters in both life and sports.
Cheerleaders, singers, musicians, and dancers added to the entertainment value of the broadcast. As the players from both teams entered the stadium prior to the kick-off, cheerleaders were among those welcoming them to the field. The Ravens cheerleaders wore white crop tops, short white skirts, and white tennis shoes while the San Francisco cheerleaders wore red bikini tops, short white skirts, and tall white boots. During each team’s entrance to the field, the cheerleading squad was positioned on the periphery of those gathered to greet the players. Oftentimes television producers of football games include a shot of the cheerleaders when the broadcast goes to or returns from a commercial break. Throughout the remainder of the CBS broadcast, the cheerleaders were never featured on air. There were no close-ups of the cheerleaders dancing, kicking, or waving their pompons. The cheerleaders were not a primary form of entertainment for the television audience as much as they were for the audience in attendance at the game.
The Super Bowl broadcast featured a trio of female singers. Jennifer Hudson and students from Sandy Hook Elementary School sang, “America.” Alicia Keys sang “The Star Spangled Banner” while accompanying herself on piano. The musical highlight was Beyonce’s performance during the half-time show. Interestingly, all three main female performers are of African-American heritage. Each dressed in a distinctive style. Hudson wore a tight-fitting, black, leather-like shirt with long sleeves and a turtle neck collar. Her skirt was white and knee-length with two vertical lines of small black buttons down the front, reminiscent of a soldier’s uniform. Classy with a hint of patriotism. With this she wore high heel shoes, a green Sandy Hook ribbon, and small earrings. Much of her body was concealed and yet the fit of her clothing seemed to accentuate her curvy body. I wondered how much input she had in her fashion choice and whether her struggles with her weight influenced her outfit that covered most of her body. For her performance of the national anthem, Alicia Keys wore a sporty-looking, full-length, maroon gown. She chose small earrings and a short necklace as her accessories. Her clothing choice reminded me of someone performing at a classical music concert, and yet the bodice of the gown was shaped like a sports bra showing off her shapely arms. Classy with a hint of sporty. Finally, Beyonce’s music, clothing, and dancing set her apart from the other female entertainers. Her wardrobe choice looked like a piece of leather lingerie fully exposing her hips featuring a neckline that plunged past her bosom and down to her waistline. To this Beyonce added long, black leather, finger-less gloves; black fishnet nylons; and long, black, leather boots with high heels. To add a feminine touch, she added a black, lacey, see-through skirt around her waist and hips. During her high-octane singing and dancing, she gyrated and thrusted her hips all over the stage. All of her back-up singers and musicians were women whose costumes were primarily in black and similar in style to the lead singer. Following the half-time performance, the CBS Super Bowl commentators made no reference to Beyonce, her wardrobe, or her performance. However, the following day on the Morning Express show on the HLN channel, Carlos Diaz commented that all of the performers during the Super Bowl half-time show were women, that no men were needed, and what a powerful statement that is for young women everywhere. I applaud the notion that women can perform musical and dance numbers without the assistance of men, but I question whether young girls should emulate this scantily clad, leather teddy-wearing, hip-gyrating entertainer.
Over the years many women have been on-air commentators for CBS Sports starting with Phyllis George who in 1975 co-hosted CBS’s live NFL pregame show. Lesley Visser began her career with CBS Sports in 1983 with a few feature pieces and later served as a reporter for numerous sporting events on CBS. In 1990 became the first woman to cover the World Series. She joined the NFL Today show in 1990 and became the first female sportscaster to handle the Super Bowl trophy presentation in 1992. She eventually became one of the first women to provide color commentary of NFL games when in 2000 she joined the CBS Radio Sports group. Since then she has provided pre-game and sideline reports during CBS’s coverage of various Super Bowls. During the 2013 Super Bowl, Visser appeared only once during the Super Bowl broadcast. She introduced a pre-recorded piece on former Ravens player OJ Brigance and his battle with ALS. Visser was standing on the sidelines of the field wearing a green, sleeveless dress with a plunging neckline along with a beaded necklace. Visser, who will turn 60 this year, seemed cold and uncomfortable in the dress as it exposed her arms. She seemed to be hiding one of her arms behind her back, she shifted her weight, and her voice wavered which made it appear that she was uncomfortable and unsure of herself. During previous Super Bowl appearances, she wore suit coats and winter jackets. With all of her talent, experience, and knowledge of the sport, it was disappointing to see that her role was to introduce a pre-recorded video featuring an emotional personal story related to the sport. Women are often equated to emotions, and thus female TV personalities are often relegated to these touchy-feely stories.
The other female sportscaster who appeared on the CBS broadcast of the Super Bowl was Tracy Wolfson. She wore a bright yellow shirt with a black suit coat. Like Visser, Wolfson introduced a few personal stories, but she also provided some game-related coverage. First, she interviewed coach John Harbaugh as he entered the stadium. Had it not been for the power outage, we may have not seen Wolfson again on-air. Male sportscasters, primarily former players, gave the sideline reports throughout the game. However, during the power outage, Wolfson was asked to give a report about how the teams’ office equipment had been affected by the power outage. She reported that bench-side printers and telecommunication devices had been knocked out along with the lights throughout parts of the stadium. She wasn’t asked to give a report about the game from the sideline, but how fortunate they had a woman available to report on the state of office machines!
Overall, women played some fairly stereotypical roles in the Super Bowl football broadcast on CBS. Women are often portrayed as nurturers and supporters of their husbands’ and sons’ sporting endeavors. They are in touch with their emotions and thus ideal candidates for introducing personal, touching stories about athletes overcoming adversity. Female singers, musicians, and dancers often enhance the audience’s enjoyment of television programming. Two of the three performers helped elevate the viewers’ spirits and patriotism through song. The third entertainer merely raised the temperature and heart rate of the audience and demonstrated the definition of “eye candy” and sexualized female bodies. Sex sells, sex brings viewers to the show, and she filled that role during this broadcast. Missing from the broadcast, however, were close-up shots of the cheerleaders in their short skirts and pompons. Missing was commentary about how the cheerleaders looked or how Beyonce shook her booty on stage. Perhaps this was a direct result of the flack ESPN received after Musburger provided commentary on how young boys need to learn to throw the football so they can bag a beauty like the Alabama quarterback did. Finally, CBS missed the boat by under-utilizing the experience, knowledge, and skills of its female on-air sports talent. Relegating Visser and Wolfson to introducing touchy-feely stories was a disservice to sports journalism and women’s presence in television sports.