Tale of two hockey players offers a sharp look at gender equity in sports

Nicole LaVoi
Nicole LaVoi: Based on the coverage, it appeared that one athlete's injury was more important and newsworthy.
Courtesy of Nicole LaVoi

Nicole M. LaVoi is associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Following the severe injuries in short succession of two Minnesota high school hockey players — Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette — I contend that checking should be banned at all levels and for all players.

A checking ban would primarily affect male hockey; checking is already illegal in female hockey. Rules differ for males and females in many sports. For example: In lacrosse, males wear more protective padding. In basketball, women play with a smaller ball. In tennis, women play two of three sets (in most circumstances) and men play three of five.

All of these different rules, in short, help construct male sport as "the real" version, while females (weaker, not as tough, vulnerable) are left to play a less valued, shorter, potentially less dangerous, arguably less interesting version.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the revolutionary federal legislation Title IX, which unquestionably is responsible for significant increases in the number of female sport participants. Offering a single version of a sport where everyone plays by the same rules, regardless of gender, is an idea worth considering for a variety of reasons.

First, girls and women can handle it.

Second, it might help (some) people view female sport as real sport, thus advancing gender equity.

Third, in some cases it might protect male sport participants — and all athletes have the right to be equally protected.

Lastly, having "different" versions of the same sport contributes to society's placing more value on male sport and male athletes.

There are many differences between the cases of Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette. Their injuries are different; Jablonski's spinal cord was severed, Privette's was not. Their prognoses are different, their versions of hockey are different, their genders and the mechanism of their injuries are different. (Whether both athletes were checked, legally or illegally, is a point under contention.)

Other prominent differences are the media coverage of the two cases and the public expressions of support for the two athletes.

The local print and broadcast media, and some national media, covered the Jablonski story extensively. Jablonski received calls, tweets and hospital visits from celebrities and hockey coaches and players. Fundraisers were organized, and Hockey Day Minnesota 2012 will be dedicated to Jablonski's family.

In contrast, I heard about Privette's injury on Twitter from Mark Rosen. Her story was covered with much less frequency and detail, and public support appeared to be much weaker.

Competing explanations for these differences are abundant. But in general, when one version of sport is portrayed as more important, valued and known, it is not surprising when it is seen, covered and discussed more than the less valued form. Based on the coverage, it appeared that one athlete's injury was more important and newsworthy, even though both athletes, immediately following their injuries, had no feeling or movement in the lower body.

Unfortunately, three decades of sports media research clearly indicates that female athletes receive less than 6 percent of all coverage — a number that is declining — even though females constitute approximately 43 percent of all sport participants. The Jablonski/Privette case is no exception.

All athletes, regardless of gender, injury, prognosis or version of the sport they play, deserve — and in some tragic instances need — equal coverage and support.