09/24/2013 12:20 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

When Men Lose, Women Get Blamed

As Tiger Woods stepped up to the second tee box at the US Open, the crowd hushed. He clutched his club and stared at the small, white ball before taking his swing. Then, he watched as that little ball flew into the air and out of bounds, onto a nearby road as Woods' poor performance in the June tournament continued into the final day at Merion Golf Club. He finished in a tie for 32nd place.

Two days earlier, champion skier and Woods' girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn, had told the New York Times, "Lots of people go home and talk to their wife or husband about their job. That's what we do."

This slight reference to herself as a wife-figure to Woods after three months of dating became a talking point as soon as Woods' play took a bad turn. But the fact that many claimed the comment threw off his game also peaked interest in a phenomenon Lindy McDowell summarized well: "Possibly this is what they mean by sport being a game of two halves...The man does badly? Blame the other half."

Without outright declaring Vonn responsible, the Daily Mail put two important facts together at the top of its story, titled 'Lindsay Vonn calls herself Tiger's 'wife' at the US Open as she sees him play one of his worst rounds EVER': "Ms Vonn, 28, was casually dressed in T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap" and "Woods has matched his worst round as a pro at the US Open in Pennsylvania as competition enters the final day."

It was a replay of coverage from months before when Vonn found herself in the spotlight as Woods failed to impress at the Masters. "You can cite the lousy weather on Sunday and the distracting presence of Lindsey Vonn along the first fairway, chatting with fans, wearing a Tiger-red shirt, black shorts and that imposing knee brace," the New York Daily News reported, before revealing that "In the end, though, Tiger Woods just wasn't quite good enough."

Vonn isn't the only woman to face this kind of treatment and the trend of faulting women for men's poor performances in sport is nothing new. When Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Tony Romo botched the snap for a game-winning field goal in the 2006 NFL playoffs, little did then-girlfriend Carrie Underwood know, she was about to be mixed up in a sport all its own -- a game of blame -- as her main squeeze toppled from the podium. She wasn't just labelled a distraction, she took the heat for ending the Cowboys' postseason run.

A year later when pictures surfaced of Romo and Jessica Simpson partying in Mexico days before the Cowboys lost in the playoffs, fans gave the singer the title of Jessica the Jinx. She continued to be a scapegoat throughout the 2008 season, including for a blow-out, season-ending loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. At the time, some even said you could get away with robbing a bank in Dallas if you claimed Jessica Simpson made you do it.

"Women, throughout history, have often been scapegoated for men's shortcomings or failures," says Mike Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC. To explain reports of women distracting male athletes, he points to the "spermatic economy" -- the belief that "men have a finite amount of energy, and if it is drained off through sex, their performances will suffer."

As a result, coaches used to tell male athletes to isolate themselves from women and sex before games or matches. And though Messner says the idea has been discredited -- Joe Namath bragged of having sex before winning the Super Bowl in 1969, for example -- commentary still seems to reflect the belief "that if a man fails in an athletic event, maybe his energies were drained off by sex, or perhaps even by just looking at a woman."

Even when male athletes deny women have had a negative impact on their performance, the finger pointing nonetheless continues. It's all part of a male-dominated world of sport in which "women are marginalized... and thus are viewed as 'invaders' of this masculine territory," says Cheryl Cooky, an expert on sex and gender in sport at Purdue, who has worked alongside Messner to research televised news coverage of female sports.

The pair found that when TV news did cover women -- a rare occurrence, Cooky says -- female athletes like Vonn were largely shown in the stereotypical role of girlfriend or wife, even though they were breaking cultural norms. Perhaps not surprisingly, when it came to women's successes in sport, they were often attributed to external factors, like luck or the weather. Failures, however, were put directly on the athlete via charges of being ill prepared or lacking discipline. "The converse is true for men," Cooky says.

Showing female athletes actually playing sports is one way to help change these sorts of perceptions, but for women who aren't athletes, it may be a tougher climb. As Messner describes in Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports, the kind of coverage now prevalent "makes a conventionally conservative statement about women's 'place' -- on the sidelines, in support roles, and as objects of sexualized humour -- in a cultural realm that is still defined... as a man's world."

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