Women’s History Month and March Madness are both here, bringing increased attention to college basketball among women. But in doing so, we’re reminded also of how Black female athletes don’t get nearly as much endorsement love, or media exposure as their white female contemporaries despite being the driving force behind the game’s growth. This has to change…now!
For as long as University of South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston has been in the basketball spotlight, few have consistently shined so brightly. And when the NCAA relaxed its rules to allow student-athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness (NIL), Boston was a shoo-in to benefit from this rule change.
But even as the best player on the best women’s basketball team in the country, Boston’s NIL earning power pales in comparison to comparable white female athletes—a recurring theme throughout the history of women’s sports.
The discrepancy and inequity really hits home in March which is Women’s History Month and the start of the NCAA Tournament, aka March Madness.
And Boston’s South Carolina team, ranked atop the women’s basketball polls most of this season, will be among the more talked-about women’s programs throughout the NCAA Tournament with Boston, recently named SEC Player of the Year and the Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year (it’s her third time winning the Defensive P.O.T.Y. award), a focal point of those discussions.
But as big a deal as Boston is, her story when it comes to endorsements and sponsorship opportunities isn’t all that different from the struggles we’ve seen from previous generations of Black female standout athletes when it came to cashing in on their athletic success.
We’ve seen track stars such as Evelyn Ashford fail to get significant endorsement deals come her way despite sitting firmly atop the sport as the world’s best with multiple Olympic gold medals to her name while white track athletes such as middle-distance runner Mary Decker reportedly had endorsement deals that totaled more than $500,000 annually.
There’s no denying the role played by corporate America which is rife with racism, sexism, and a long laundry list of other isms towards Black women, most of which are far from flattering.
But what’s often ignored that in many ways helps fuel those corporate sponsorship decisions, is the media coverage which has been consistent in its disproportionate treatment of Black women particularly when it comes to women's basketball.
While sports media publications in the last couple of years have spoken glowingly about the need for diversity and how corporate America needed to do better, far too often their own racial biases shine through in their coverage which far too often doesn’t portray an accurate or near-accurate reflection of how the game has grown or more important, those who are fueling that growth.
Risa F. Isard, a research fellow with the Laboratory of Inclusion and Diversity in Sport at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts, teamed up with Dr. E. Nicole Melton who is an associate department chair and associate professor at UMass-Amherst to produce a groundbreaking research study on the media coverage of the WNBA.
The survey focused on the 2020 WNBA season because it was at the height of the global racial reckoning in which conversations surrounding the importance of diversity were at a level this generation had never seen before.
That year, A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces, who is Black, was the league MVP but received half as much coverage as Sabrina Ionescu, who is white, and was the top overall pick in that year’s draft before injuries limited her to just three games played all season. The WNBA postseason awards that year were dominated by Black women who accounted for 80 percent of the winners. Still, the top three most talked-about players in the league that season (Sabrina Ionescu; Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird) were all white.
In the various articles and content reviewed by Isard and Dr. Melton, Black players were mentioned on average 52 times compared to white players who were mentioned on average, 118 times. “Media begets more media, which leads to more sponsors and more endorsements, which leads to white players getting bigger payouts,” Isard told Power Plays newsletter which focuses on sexism in sports.
The discrepancy is not lost on white players such as Paige Bueckers of UConn who has been among the biggest winners since college athletes could cash in on NIL endorsement opportunities. One of the top players in the country, Bueckers, who is white, became the first college athlete signed by Gatorade.
But she knows all too well that her success, like the success of so many athletes Black and white, male and female, has been held up upon the shoulders of talented Black female athletes.
“With the light that I have now as a white woman who leads a Black-led sport and celebrated here, I want to shed a light on Black women,” Bueckers said after being named the 2021 ESPY Award winner for Best female college athlete. “They don’t get the media coverage that they deserve. They’ve given so much to the sport, the community and society as a whole, and their value is undeniable.
She added, “We should use this power together to celebrate Black women.”
Bueckers gets it.
But corporate America and mainstream media? Not so much.