How Title IX publicity requirements impact sports media’s NIL coverage (2024)

It’s currently the dead season in college sports–since the Men’s College World Series wrapped up last week, on-the-field action at the college level is on pause until the fall. But the last week of June and the first week of July still mark important developments in the history of the American college sports industry. Title IX, the educational amendment that bans all U.S. institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex, passed on June 23, 1972, opening the floodgates to women’s sports participation. Then, almost 50 years on July 1, 2021, the state of Florida’s NIL bill went into effect along with several other state-level NIL laws, which forced the NCAA to adopt its interim NIL policy and loosened longstanding restrictions on college athletes’ rights to monetize their names, images, and likenesses.

Although the two movements might seem unrelated, there are important intersections between the two. First, it can be argued they’re close in significance to female athletes. Financial empowerment is of the utmost importance to women in general, and because most female athletes peak in earning potential in college, millions of women pre-NIL have missed out on financial opportunities that can fund their graduate education, future businesses, or homeowner aspirations once they earn their degree.

However, arguably the most important relation between Title IX and NIL is how much they overlap when it comes to institutional compliance–especially when it comes to publicity, a critically overlooked area of Title IX regulations.

Most media coverage surrounding Title IX centers on important disparities between male and female athletes like the quality of facilities, athletic budgets, and allocation of athletic scholarships, so it makes sense that most people don’t know that publicity also falls under the Title IX umbrella. But according to Dr. Shannon Scovel, an assistant professor of sport communication at the University of Tennessee, equity in publicity is also protected by Title IX.

“It’s promotion,” Scovel explained when asked to define publicity under Title IX. “And that promotion can include flyers. It can include social media. It can include cheerleaders. It’s anything that amplifies the team if the school is offering educational opportunities for students in sports. It’s wide-ranging and it’s become more wide ranging in the dawn of the digital age.”

While publicity is a broad term, it’s also a powerful force that subtly communicates which athletes deserve visibility and promotion.

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“There is this presumed expectation that certain teams get certain coverage and certain teams get certain publicity support,” Scovel explained. “So this is something as simple as cheerleaders–if they only cheer for the men’s football team and no women’s teams, that’s a potential violation. There’s more flyers promoting the men’s football team than the women’s basketball game–that’s a potential Title IX violation. And it all depends on how [schools] balance that promotion with other sports at the school and the gender breakdown of students at the school.”

Sports media similarly reinforces which athletes are deserving of promotion and which aren’t. Although Title IX only applies to universities that receive federal funding, promotion of athletes at Title IX institutions start at the high school level and help inform media choices surrounding these athletes from the ground up.

“The media, newspapers, and broadcast companies are not held to the system standard,” Scovel explained of Title IX compliance. “So they’re allowed to make editorial choices for whoever they want to cover. But school sponsored events, and the schools that are receiving federal funding must provide educational opportunities that satisfy Title IX. And they must do that because that creates visibility for women athletes, it brings fans into seats, it elevates their profile, and it creates more opportunities for women and girls because they believe they can participate.”

Although women’s sports coverage has tripled in recent years, it still sits at 15% of overall sports media coverage thanks in large part to streaming services and social media. According to Scovel, when media coverage so predominately covers male athletes, it creates a vicious cycle for women, who are already under-covered in sports media. “[Men] are revenue-generating athletes because they’re being written about,” she explained. “They’re being sponsored. Schools are investing in them, and so they produce revenue.”

The good news for sports media, however, is that the curse is also the cure–just as a lack of coverage hamstrings female athletes, increased coverage could bolster the already strong women’s sports movement. “If that cycle was broken through an understanding that media coverage creates interest because interest is socially constructed,” Scovel said. “These women sports athletes could be creating revenue, but they’re so dismissed by the press as non-revenue athletes that then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The relationship between media coverage and revenue is often viewed as a chicken-or-egg dilemma–do women’s sports produce less revenue because they are covered less or are they covered less because they produce less revenue? But, just as there’s no denying that the former is likely more true, as women’s sports have excelled even with the limited resources afforded to them, it’s also true that the editorial decisions made by sports media are so influenced by sexism, which also suggests that a lack of coverage is more responsible here.

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“Journalists are going to cover athletes who they think fans will read, who they think are interesting,” Scovel said. “They want to provide a service for their audience so that they get clicks and they get readers, and they make money, and their perception of interest is impacted on what they know, which is often a result of schools’ publicity–who are schools promoting in their press releases, who their school sports information director is sending pitches to journalists about certain athletes, who’s kind of in the public ethos, public discussion as an relevant athlete. And so a lot of that does fall on schools and yes, sports information directors overworked. They have a lot of things on their plate. But their job is to promote their athletes and the success stories of the student athletes on their campus, and they should be doing that in a way that celebrates men and women athletes.”

Here’s where NIL really comes into the picture: because of the importance of media coverage in the NIL space, Scovel conducted a study called “Mentioned, Quoted, and Promoted: How Sports Journalists Constructed a Narrative of Athletes’ Value in the ‘Name, Image, and Likeness’ Era” that tracked media trends during the first week that sports media covered college athletes’ NIL deals in July 2021. Her findings were somewhat expected, but stark.

“Unsurprisingly 80% of the 300 articles that were published during that 1st week that used the phrase ‘name, image, and likeness’ were about men–specifically men’s basketball players and men’s football players–and the argument that journalists [made] very subtly was that these are quote revenue generating athletes.”

Scovel discussed this dynamic through the lens of agenda setting, or the process by which mainstream (or sports) media determine what publics should be concerned with (or excited about) based on both how and how much particular topics are covered. While it might seem obvious, it’s worth acknowledging that by overexposing male athletes at the expense of female athletes, the media thereby elevates the importance of men’s sports over women’s sports. And of course, agenda setting in terms of the quantity of sports media coverage by gender isn’t all that matters when it comes to adequately promoting athletes. Quality of coverage is also of the utmost importance.

“So many journalists who did write about women were writing about women as social media influencers and lifestyle stars, not as athletes,” Scovel explained of early NIL coverage, “whereas men were being written about as point guards and quarterbacks. And so they were writing about these women and their social media presence. But they weren’t actually showing us the women’s social media content. They were just making generalizations about their content, based on a few cherry picked posts.”

Her findings might, in part, explain why sports media has fumbled so much of its coverage of women’s NIL activity, which, according to Scovel, has also been an issue from the very beginning of the NIL era. “That 1st week was so valuable in shaping our understanding of the image and likeness,” she explained, “because at a time when we were all trying to learn about it. These journalists were telling us which athletes were important, which athletes were ideal ambassadors, and why and which businesses should then sponsor these athletes.”

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To Scovel’s point, shallow, sexist coverage of female athletes when it comes to NIL has been a persistent problem since July 1, 2021–after all, just over a year ago, an article entitled “The NCAA Has a Hot Girl Problem” argued that the sex appeal of female athletes like Olivia Dunne and the Cavinder twins was the centerpiece of their business success, rather than their entrepreneurship and business savvy. Similarly, last July, the New York Times discussed the so-called problem of sexual content (that really wasn’t all that sexual) in the NIL space in its equally problematic piece entitled “New Endorsem*nts for College Athletes Resurface an Old Concern: Sex Sells.”

Although Scovel and others have repeatedly refuted these claims with data (for example, Scovel’s research has found that the most popular social media posts from the Cavinder twins are basketball-related shots, not the bikini pictures the media hyper fixates on), stereotypes like these are hard for women to shake–especially when they’re bolstered by reductive media coverage. NIL has, thus far, acted as watchdog both for potential Title IX violations and sexist coverage and revealed just how much work universities and sports media has to do to effectively promote female athletes.

Luckily, Scovel has simple, yet effective advice for those who want to make that happen and a good reason for them to do so.

“It’s often framed as taking a risk to invest in women’s sports, and it should not be,” Scovel said. “It should be rebranded as investing in women’s sports and seeking new revenue opportunities….We know that when schools decide to cover women the way they’ve always covered men, they experience growth, revenue, and success.”

How Title IX publicity requirements impact sports media’s NIL coverage (2024)

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