Media Hits and Misses At Indian Wells

By Dr. Jacquelyn Cuneen

This is part of an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. This week’s post is written by Dr. Jacquelyn Cuneen, Ph.D, a former Sport Management Professor at Bowling Green State University.

Usually, tennis news is just like other sports news — who won the games, how they won the games, who rivals who, who dominates, and when do they play again. Except, quite often, an age-old dispute emerges from tennis that causes us to revisit a new version of an old controversy. Sexism!

The BNP Paribas Open — Indian Wells — is a premier stop on both the women’s and men’s tennis tours. The tournament is greatly respected by players, fans, and media, and it is so prestigious that Indian Wells may one day be granted Grand Slam status. Thus, all the top players compete, global media cover the matches from start to finish, and fans set attendance records each year. In other words, the tournament itself is news. However, from the very start to the very finish of 2016’s event, the global media had much more to cover than matches when sexism, tennis’ recurring nemesis, once again intruded. And while the media devoted more than ample coverage to the major stories, they missed some critical undercurrents.

Opening day brought the Maria Sharapova doping scandal. The world number 11 had for ten years been using mildronate, a drug prescribed primarily for angina and other cardiac-related ills. Since January, the drug has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency because among its effects is an increase in blood flow which can enhance athletic performance. Sharapova apparently missed the agency directive sent to all players in December 2015 that announced this newly banned drug; she tested positive for mildronate and was disqualified from playing at Indian Wells. The media, particularly Tennis Channel and ESPN, doggedly analyzed Sharapova’s performances and discussed advantages she may have gained from using mildronate. Commentators also, but with less ceremony, listed those Sharapova sponsors that deserted her very quickly upon the breaking news.

With such comprehensive coverage of Sharapova’s predicament, what possible undercurrent could the media have missed and how did it relate to Sharapova’s drug use and sponsorships? In a word: Nike!

Nike was one of the first of many sponsors (e.g., Tag Heuer, Evian, Avon, Porsche) to run for cover when news of Sharapova’s failed drug test was made public. So, what undercurrent did the media miss related to Nike and why do Nike’s repudiations relate to sexism? In a word, Tiger.

Think back to the 2009 holiday season when news broke about Woods’ numerous extramarital affairs. His sponsors did not abandon him immediately, but within a matter of weeks, Woods, like Sharapova, lost many sponsors (e.g., Tag Heuer, Gatorade, Gillette, Buick) but not Nike. Nike continued their association with Woods, lasting to this day.

Where were the media to ask questions related to Nike’s sponsorship decisions? Why did they not note the undercurrent and ask Nike about the rationale that fueled their loyalty to Woods, but did not extend it to Sharapova? Is it even thinkable that taking a performance-enhancing drug “inadvertently” (as claimed by Sharapova) is worse than serial infidelity, when many golf and tennis fans would find both to be repugnant? Only Nike knows their reasons for deserting Sharapova; no one else knows because the media did not inquire about it. Fans in a discerning world might like to know how a company with a 2017 target of realizing $7 billion in women’s spending — which will constitute 20% of their total annual revenues — can make such a questionable and possibly gender-biased decision.

Closing day brought the Ray Moore scandal. Moore was a professional player of little note and no consequence between 1968 and 1983, but gained notability as one of the founders and eventual chief executive officer of the Indian Wells tournament. At a breakfast meeting prior to the women’s final match, Moore expressed his beliefs that, among other things, women’s players ride the coattails of the men, and if he was a woman player, he would go down on his knees nightly and be thankful that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried the game. Media, even non-sports media, covered Moore’s comments in depth. Stories in traditional and posts within modern social media universes expressed outrage and disgust over Moore’s archaic ideals. So, what undercurrents did the media miss in the Moore disgrace? In a word, men!

Not only were Moore’s insults obviously degrading and dismissive to those women players who rank among the best athletes in history, his opinion about Federer and Nadal carrying the game is an insult to the other men on the tour. Federer, and particularly Nadal of late, are not carrying the game and they never actually did. While they may have been among the most visible of recent players, plenty of others have dominated tournaments as well. Why did the media not seek opinions from champions such as Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Stan Wawrinka who have dominated Federer and Nadal for the past few years. Moore’s comments were not just offensive to the women players. His version of sexism offended every player regardless of gender, except Federer and Nadal.

Moore learned the consequences of antiquated ignorance expressed in a modern world within three days of the tournaments’ conclusion. He resigned as Indian Wells’ CEO, and as the controversy is ongoing, it is the media’s obligation to discover the reasons for his retreat. Could Moore not face the personal significance of his comments or was his resignation forced by inside and outside sources? It would be nice to know that story.

A final thought for consideration: Ray Moore played on the men’s professional tennis tour for 15 years.  In that time, he managed to win eight doubles titles, none of them a major, playing with 16 different partners. This was during the tennis boom of King, Evert, Laver, and Connors. It was the era when dedicated tennis beat reporters emerged and media coverage of the game flourished. Yet, few besides the most faithful of tennis aficionados heard of Ray Moore then or now … speaking of riding coattails.

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