Stop Asking Women Athletes Insensitive Questions

Morocco’s captain Ghizlane Chebbak listening to an “inappropriate” question at a Women’s World Cup press conference in Melbourne on July 23, 2023. (Photo by William WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

The gasps from fellow journalists were audible. During the July 23 press conference for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, a BBC reporter asked the captain of the Moroccan Women’s National Football Team a question that stunned the room: “In Morocco, it’s illegal to have a gay relationship. Do you have any gay players in your squad, and what’s life like for them in Morocco?”

Captain Ghizlane Chebbak grimaced in disbelief. A FIFA moderator quickly called for the question to be disregarded. Condemnation from fellow journalists at and outside the press conference was swift. (The BBC later apologized: “We recognise that the question was inappropriate. We had no intention to cause any harm or distress.”)

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“The thing that’s really terrible about this is that this person is assuming that their right to ask a question overrides someone else’s right to safety, and that’s something in journalism that needs to be unlearned,” said Shireen Ahmed, a CBC Sports reporter and journalism professor who was at the conference.

Mega-events like the FIFA World Cup present rare opportunities for journalists to question powerful administrators about the issues that plague women’s sports, while also serving as an opportunity for players to voice issues like gender discrimination and rampant abuse by officials. For many national teams that struggle with coverage and funding, a World Cup appearance is a rare chance to appear on a global stage and get much needed exposure to generate revenue.

On the flip side, big sporting events also attract journalists who aren’t always well-versed in the ins and outs of women’s sports. But women athletes, like their male counterparts, deserve their stories to be told accurately, appropriately and with context. Below are three areas for journalists to consider when covering women’s sports.

Ask considerate, relevant questions

It’s important for journalists to remember an athlete’s job is to play. Questions should focus on the athlete’s performance, the game or issues facing the team, sport or industry. It should not veer into the personal without sensitivity or purpose. 

Throughout their respective careers, tennis stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have faced  press questions that range from inane to sexist to deeply probing. In one famous 2015 exchange, a reporter pressed Williams on why she was not smiling following a win at the U.S. Open. The athlete noted it was 11:30 at night. 

In 2021, Osaka decided to skip media appearances, and ultimately take a step back from competing altogether, to focus on her mental health. Over the years, reporters have asked her to explain her Japanese last name and whether her age — she’s 25 — made her an inconsistent player. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes mental health and this rings true every time I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka posted on Twitter in 2021.

Insensitive questions can also throw an athlete off and affect their performance. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds,” Osaka wrote in her post. “I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”

Journalists need to remember that while their questions may seem harmless, they can easily play into sexist stereotypes and feed online trolls. Unnecessary questions about how athletes dress for competition or comparing them to male counterparts can only normalize harmful commentary about women’s bodies.

Ask the right questions of the right people

There is a time and place for journalists to pressure powerbrokers about systemic abuses in sports.

Ahead of Zambia’s first game of the Women’s World Cup, multiple journalists decided to ask the team’s captain, Barbra Banda, if players considered leaving the team over misconduct allegations about her coach — who was sitting next to her during the conference.

FIFA quickly moved to shut down the press conference, drawing condemnation from journalists and rights groups. Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said journalists should absolutely report on human rights abuses, but they also need to recognize the harm they could be putting athletes in with such questions in particular situations.

“Journalists should bring the hardest questions to FIFA directly,” Worden said. “The very first thing is for journalists to recognize that these aren’t questions for players, unless they choose to answer them. These are really questions for FIFA, which … has a single job, which is to create a safe workplace for women and girls.”

Instead, she hopes journalists work toward a “survivor-centered approach” in how they direct questions to players affected by these abuses. That approach includes centering survivors’ experiences in a way to minimize harm and contextualizing their experiences. Journalists can retraumatize victims through harsh questioning and inappropriate framing.  

Report on larger issues outside of game play

That’s not to say some progress hasn’t been made in women’s sports coverage. Just last year, the first-ever network to focus on women athletes was launched, The Athletic announced it was doubling its women’s sports coverage, and ESPN scored a multimillion-dollar ad deal for women’s sports coverage, showing the value of investing in high-quality women’s sports journalism.

But that means outlets also need to invest in journalists who understand the scope of the larger issues in women sports. Sports are never about just what happens on the field of play — there are larger stakes to dig into, and that reporting can have impact. 

For example, reporting of the unequal conditions in the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments led the NCAA to hire an outside firm to investigate the depth of the discrepancies and begin implementing changes. Soon after, the NCAA began referring to the tournaments as the “men’s” and “women’s” basketball tournaments respectively, instead of just calling the men’s tournament as the “NCAA basketball tournament.”  

There are intersectional issues of gender and culture to report on, too. Ahmed was originally at the July 23 press conference to report on Nouhaila Benzina, a defender on the Moroccan team, becoming the first senior woman’s player to wear a hijab during competition at a FIFA accredited tournament. Morocco being the first Arab country to qualify for a Women’s World Cup was also of interest to Ahmed, who had followed the team’s qualification and what it meant for soccer in the Arab world at large.

Instead, such nuanced reporting was overshadowed by coverage of the BBC flub, Ahmed said.

“I want to see [women’s sports] be covered and amplified as much as possible, but the problem arises when you have people who come into the place that really truly don’t appreciate or understand or are not interested,” Ahmed said. “They don’t have the same goals as other journalists do.”