Watchdogs of the Fourth Estate or Homer Journalists? Newspaper Coverage of Local BCS College Football Programs

Submitted by Edward M. Kian, Ph.D., Stan Ketterer, Ph.D., Cynthia Nichols, Ph.D. and James Poling

Sport newspaper departments are regularly mocked for employing hometown journalism deemed too partial in favor of local teams. However, national media are increasingly criticizing affluent, major college football programs for scheduling games against smaller schools from the Football Championship Subdivision, most of which end in lopsided blowouts. Whereas media and sport teams have long formed a symbiotic relationship, major college athletics programs need local media less now due to the ability to post content on their own Web sites. A textual analysis was used to examine hometown media framing of these mismatches by community newspapers that cover football programs in the Big 12 Conference. Results showed newspapers rarely criticized near-by, powerhouse college football teams, but framed FCS teams as inferior. The larger the newspaper examined and the further they were away from the team covered in distance, the more likely they were to criticize hometown coaches and athletic directors. This topic has practical applications for sport mangers who face potential media criticism for scheduling contests against inferior opponents, especially in major college football.

Despite the prevalence and popularity of sports, sports writers have long been denigrated as part of the “toy department” at newspapers due to a perceived lack of objectivity and an unwillingness to engage in critical journalism (Rowe, 2007). A common critique of local sports reporters is they accept gifts from the teams they cover (19). However, the most poignant insults are they engage in “homer” journalism by openly cheering for local squads and becoming too close to athletes. As a result, some reporters fail to fulfill their watchdog roles (2, 16).

In an effort to address questionable industry practices, the Associated Press Sports Editors adopted a code of ethics in 1974, later enhanced in 1991 (21). Sports reporters, however, may be merely acquiescing to the majority of their readers’ desires by providing more coverage of area teams, while generally framing stories about hometown stars more positively.

Further, newspapers usually sell more copies when their local sport teams are successful (50). Coverage of area winning teams could lead to an increase in advertising due to greater readership, which could lead to conflicting interests for newspapers. “Media outlets cover sports with a clear conflict of interest: Their very enterprise is deeply invested in the continued success of commodified sport,” (37, p. 338).

Teams and athletes, in turn, must attribute much of their “staggering popularity” to media coverage that promotes their games and their exploits to readers (McChesney, 1989). Without media coverage, commodified sports struggle to exist. Therefore, sports and media form a “symbiotic economic relationship” (65, p. 38).

Historically, this relationship was strongest with the closest daily newspaper to those college campuses. In many cases, hometown college football reporters are “expected to withhold information that coaches, athletic administrations and athletes perceive as harmful to the program” (43, p. 9). They also occasionally help promote the college’s athletic events that officials believe need more coverage, such as non-revenue sports. In return, reporters may receive access to practices, games, and private contact numbers for coaches and administrators, as well as insider information (43).

However, the need for this symbiotic relationship has diminished for college athletics programs due to huge revenue increases from new television deals with conferences. These deals have increased national exposure for marquee programs in college football (60). Moreover, independent fan websites, such as those affiliated with networks like, have the potential to reach far greater audiences of fans and alumni than local newspapers (26). Finally, more colleges are attempting to disseminate and frame the news on their teams, athletes, and coaches through their official websites and other social media, such as Twitter and Facebook (18, 49).

Meanwhile, the print newspaper industry has suffered setbacks in recent years, highlighted by constant layoffs since the late 1990s, corporate consolidation, decreased circulation, and a loss of advertising revenue (1). Some of the most prominent sports writers have left the newspaper industry to work for online sites (27). In efforts to survive, many newspapers shifted resources to their online sites, while refocusing content on local coverage (59). Whereas circulation figures have declined sharply at nearly every major U.S. newspaper since the late 1990s, most of those publications actually increased their total readership due to traffic on their websites (25). Smaller papers located close to university towns often generate much of their online readership from coverage of college athletics, partly because alumni often move there for professional careers.

However, national media are increasingly criticizing the most famous college athletics programs for many of their practices, particularly the inequities within college sports between the “halves” and “have-nots” (13). During the last two years many national sports journalists have condemned large universities in the National Collegiate Athletics Association for playing smaller ones outside their division. Specifically, they have criticized Football Bowl Subdivision schools that have played games against teams in the Football Championship Subdivision.

The 120 FBS programs in 2012 included all the big-name football programs like Texas, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Louisiana State. Forbes magazine calculated each of those football programs generated at least $100 million in value for their institutions in 2012 (54). In contrast, the 122 FCS schools included Alabama A&M, Monmouth, and Old Dominion. The median 2010 revenue for all FCS athletics programs was just $3 million (48). Therefore, many FCS athletic departments need the guaranteed lump sum payment of generally between $200,000 and $800,000 for playing a road game versus an FBS football team just to stay afloat (61).

But how do hometown newspapers frame such David vs. Goliath mismatches, particularly since the coaches and athletics directors who scheduled those contests provide them access to their programs? Local newspapers risk irritating some of their readers with critical commentary. Moreover, businesses that advertise in these papers may not appreciate negative comments about these games because they want as many visitors as possible on game days, regardless of the opponents. Therefore, the purpose of this exploratory study is to examine how objective hometown newspapers are in framing these college football “paycheck” games.

Historic Connection Between Newspapers And Organizations They Cover
Newspapers have always had a symbiotic relationship with the communities they serve. They provide news and information that residents need for a better understanding of their world, tools for daily living, and entertainment. In return, newspapers depend on local communities for readers and area businesses to help generate advertising revenue.

Journalistic independence is sometimes threatened because of this relationship. Rouner et al. (45) pointed out newspapers are businesses “with profit making taking priority over news reporting,” making it difficult for journalists in most newspapers to remain autonomous of advertising “because large advertisers are a major source of revenue” (p. 106). A survey found nearly 90% of editors at both large and small newspapers reported advertisers had tried to influence the content of stories and what is published (55). More than 70% percent indicated advertisers had attempted to kill stories, and 97% reported they had threatened to withdraw their advertising because of story content, with 90% actually doing so (55). The advertisers were most successful in influencing content of stories at smaller newspapers.

Demers (10) also found editors at larger circulation newspapers had a greater sense of autonomy in decision making than editors at smaller newspapers. Northington (36) suggested editors at smaller newspapers might have more difficulty balancing editorial independence with community involvement. In a study of editors selected to represent the range of newspapers by circulation, Reader (42) found more small-paper editors cited pressure from advertisers attempting to influence content than large-paper editors. But the biggest difference between the types of editors was a perception of direct accountability to the community, which was much stronger at smaller newspapers.

Benefits For Sports Programs Maintaining Public Relations with Local Newspapers
Public relations also plays a role in the symbiotic relationship between sports organizations and newspapers as it helps maintain a tentative but necessary bond. Although some negative stereotypes exist about sports public relations, the value added by maintaining the relationship between sports organizations and local newspapers is essential to fostering the organization’s credibility in local communities, while also lowering its costs for publicity (22). By developing relationships between athletes and journalists, the ability to reach specific groups (i.e., local fans, newspaper subscribers, etc.) is enhanced via free media coverage.

Due to the types of stories that community newspapers can offer to specific publics on a local level, it is logical to develop positive relationships between the various publics involved. Scholars have noted some sports organizations are hesitant to engage in public relations, mainly because they do not understand how to use it properly (23). The assumption exists, however, that regardless of how effectively public relations is used, people will continue to support community sport teams regardless of what transpires (23). But that could change when scandals engulf sport teams or the quality of their performances diminishes over time. Therefore, it is especially important for sport organizations to maintain a positive relationship with local newspapers (52).

Newspaper Framing
Journalists select and organize facts and quotes before embedding them in storylines, a process commonly called framing (11). When writing articles, newspaper reporters emphasize specific points over others through inclusion, exclusion, repetition, and emphasis (44). Media framing helps determine the public’s understanding of issues (28). Moreover, once opinions are formed through framing, they often become more difficult to change (3, 62).

College Football “Paycheck” Games Between FBS and FCS Universities
In1973, NCAA football split into three divisions (I, II, and III), and Division I further divided into three subdivisions in 1978 (9). Division I-A was later re-named the FBS, while Division I-AA is now called FCS (9). FBS schools are allowed to have 85 players on football scholarship, whereas FCS programs can have 63. FBS athletic departments also have higher requirements for the minimum number of men’s and women’s intercollegiate sports they must offer, as well as the annual football home game attendance they must average to remain in the FBS.

Entering the 2012 season, FCS universities defeated ranked FBS teams just three times in 2,252 meetings dating back to the 19th century (34). The most famous was Appalachian State’s 34-32 victory in 2007 at then fifth-ranked Michigan. Whereas two of these upsets occurred since 2007, the average margin of victory by FBS teams was 25.9 points for all inter-division games from 2000 to 2011 (61).

NCAA rules previously limited FBS schools to counting no more than one win against a FCS team every four years toward post-season bowl eligibility. These rules made it counterproductive to play FBS opponents more than once every four seasons. However, due to the advent of 12-game regular-season schedules in 2006, the NCAA now allows one victory against an FCS program to count toward bowl eligibility each season, which has made these mismatches commonplace (61).
Playing a FCS school assures these prominent football programs revenues from an extra home game and adds a probable victory toward bowl eligibility. The often cash-strapped FCS athletics programs use such contests as a recruitment tool for prospective athletes. However, their primary impetus is financial, such as Georgia Southern getting $475,000 to play at Georgia in 2012 (63).

Rationale and Research Questions
Although some national media have criticized major college football programs for scheduling FCS opponents, it is unclear how hometown newspapers – who rely heavily on access from the coaches and athletic directors who scheduled these games – frame such mismatches. Therefore, two broad research questions guided this exploratory study:
RQ1: How did hometown newspapers frame FBS-member games vs. FCS opponents?
RQ2: How did hometown newspapers frame the visiting FCS-member programs and their athletes?

Textual Analysis
A textual analysis was conducted of local newspaper stories about Big 12 Conference football programs during the week before and after their 2012 games against FCS opponents. Textual analyses are non-reactive tools that uncover both explicit and subtle underlying meanings within mass media content (33). They are both interpretative and subjective (64).

Sampling Selection
The goal of this project is to examine local newspaper framing of marquee college football programs’ games against teams from the FCS. The Big 12 Conference was selected from the FBS because its schools played the highest percentage (30%) of their non-conference games against FCS teams in 2012 of any conference in the Bowl Championship Series.

Despite its name, the Big 12 Conference had just 10 universities in 2012. Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 before the 2011 college football season and were not replaced. Missouri and Texas A&M also left in 2012, but they were replaced by Texas Christian and West Virginia.

Nine of the 10 schools in the Big 12 scheduled a single game against a FCS opponent in 2012, with Texas the exception. The Longhorns had a home game against New Mexico, arguably the worst FBS program. New Mexico was the only FBS team to win one or fewer games in each of the three preceding seasons. In an attempt to study hometown newspaper framing of all Big 12 football programs, Texas’ home date with New Mexico was included in the analysis.

Online versions of stories about these games written by the closest instate newspaper with a daily circulation of at least 30,000 according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations were examined, so long as articles mentioned the FCS opponents. Articles published from the Sunday before each game through the Sunday after each game were included. The story and any accompanying text were examined, including headlines, photo captions, and breakout boxes.

Table 1 shows each university, its location, and its hometown newspaper for this study. Only four of the 10 newspapers were located within the same city as the university: Austin American-Statesman (Texas), Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas Christian), Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Texas Tech), Waco Tribune-Herald (Baylor).

Table 1: Newspapers Examined
Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 11.40.00 AM

Coding Procedures, Data Analysis, and Trustworthiness
Working independently, three coders each read and wrote notes about how the FCS programs and these games were framed in the 79 stories published in the 10 newspapers. The authors then used the constant comparative method to decipher and define key concepts by unifying their supporting data (17). Specific themes related to how the FCS opponents were framed were given greater importance.

Through its design, this methodology did not aim to reproduce the primary themes from the overall articles. Rather, it sought to uncover the textual constructions related to how the FCS teams and these games were framed within narratives in the FBS schools’ local papers (56). This process is highly interpretive (8). However, our analytical methods were designed to ensure consistent data collection. Moreover, the analysis by multiple researchers (first working independently and then collectively) resulted in a dynamic and layered analytical framework.

Four primary themes emerged from the analysis. Direct passages from newspaper articles will be used to support and contrast these themes.

Successful or Not, These Are FCS Programs!
The most frequent theme was a constant reminder these opponents were from the FCS, and/or they competed in a lower-level division. Moreover, the articles often implied FCS opponents are incapable of competing with FBS schools. For example, The Oklahoman reporter Anthony Slater (53) began his post-game analysis by writing:

Oklahoma beat Florida A&M 69-13 on Saturday night in Norman. The Sooners are now 2-0.
It was over when…
OU scheduled an FCS team. The expected blowout was just that, with OU scoring 14 in the first quarter and never looking back (¶ 1-3).
That same sidebar noted “Florida A&M’s overmatched interior” and a “superior

OU defense,” while concluding that little could be gauged from Oklahoma’s overwhelming victory because “…it was an FCS opponent, so it’s tough to take much” away from such an outclassed opponent (53).

This subtle mockery of the caliber of FCS opponents was paramount in many of the post-game-analyses. For example, in recapping Iowa State’s 37-3 blowout win over Western Illinois, the Des Moines Register wrote, “The Cyclones success Saturday should be tempered by the fact Western Illinois was 2-9 last season and has not beaten an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in nine years (31, ¶ 23).

This condescending tone toward FCS programs was also apparent in stories leading up to these games, with the hometown newspapers of FBS programs largely treating these contests as scrimmages. In projecting the effectiveness of the 2012 Kansas State offensive line before its season-opening 51-9 win over Missouri State, an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal surmised, “It’s hard to evaluate offensive-line play in one game – especially against a Division I-AA opponent” (12, ¶ 4).
Even when framing FCS opponents positively, articles still regularly noted these universities compete at a lower level than the FBS programs. For example, Baylor’s hometown paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, wrote of Sam Houston State: “The Bearkats are a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse that won 14 straight games before losing to North Dakota State in the national championship game last year, and Baylor knows it can’t take them lightly” (66, ¶ 4).

Further, some of the positive framing of FCS opponents could be viewed as half-hearted compliments, such as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram emphasizing that Grambling State – which Texas Christian defeated, 56-0 – was a superior opponent than fellow FCS member Savannah State, a school pummeled by Oklahoma State, 84-0, a week before. “Don’t hate the dominator either. This wasn’t Savannah State that TCU played. Grambling has a rich football legacy and won eight games a year ago” (29, ¶ 19-20).

However, for most FCS schools – many of which hoped for greater national media exposure from these games– being marginalized was still probably more desirable than being ignored entirely.

FCS Opponents Are Not Worthy of Coverage
This study only analyzed newspaper articles that specifically mentioned FCS opponents. Nevertheless, much content leading up to these games only mentioned the opponent in passing, with very few providing in-depth analyses of the FCS teams or their players. Most stories focused on FCS players who attended high school within the coverage area of the newspaper.

For example, in the only Waco Tribune-Herald article largely focusing on Baylor’s opponent, all four Sam Houston State players mentioned attended high school in the greater Waco area (66). Similarly, an advance of the Kansas-South Dakota State game in The Kansas City Star noted seven South Dakota State players attended high school in the Kansas City area, highlighting the relationship between former teammates at Olathe North High who would square off as opponents in this game (38).

Indicative of the lack of respect for the FCS programs was no player from a FCS school was quoted before these games unless that player was from an area high school. Further, no articles were published with a dateline from the town/city where the FCS university was located, indicating the papers likely never sent any reporter or even hired a freelance writer to interview athletes or coaches from the FCS schools prior to these games. The common narrative for local players from FCS programs was they were honored to play against an FBS school and coming home to do so. For example, a game preview before Iowa State hosted Western Illinois in the Des Moines Register quoted an area resident who suited up for the visitors:

I’ve been watching Iowa and Iowa State play my entire life,” said Nick Eversmeyer, an offensive lineman for the Leathernecks from Wapello. “I actually grew up a pretty big Hawkeye fan. So I’ve always kind of been toward that side. Just to play a team like (Iowa State) will be a pleasure. It’ll pretty much be a dream come true (31, ¶ 10-11).

The Waco Tribune-Herald was the only paper to publish a feature story on an FCS athlete. However, that player – Sam Houston State quarterback Brian Bell – was a graduate of Waco area high school, China Spring, where his father Mark was the head football coach. Moreover, Brian Bell is the younger brother of former Baylor star quarterback Shawn Bell. In other words, those two local ties were prominently mentioned in the feature and seemingly served as the impetus for it (39).

The few post-game articles focusing on FCS teams always tied back to their experiences playing road games against a FBS team. Following a 44-6 rout by hometown program Texas Tech, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal noted how beneficial this game would be for the loser, Northwestern State. The headline was “Facing Tech will aid Demons down the road.”

Of course, the Big 12 schools easily won all nine games, outscoring the FCS programs by an average score of 51.3 to 9.2. Throw in Texas’ 45-0 win over New Mexico, and the hometown teams outscored their smaller opponents by a combined score of 507 to 83. Nine games were decided by a margin of at least 25 points, with Kansas’ 31-17 win over South Dakota State the lone exception. Therefore, it would have been misleading to frame these contests as competitive afterward.

Scant Criticism of Hometown Teams For Scheduling These Games
Even though these contests resulted in the blowouts projected by many national analysts, largely missing from the hometown newspapers’ coverage were criticisms of the FBS teams for scheduling them. The exception was a series of articles published in The Oklahoman before and after Oklahoma State’s 84-0 annihilation of hapless Savannah State. Jenni Carlson, who already had garnered a reputation for criticizing Oklahoma State, wrote the most critical of these commentaries. It was Carlson’s column about the Cowboys’ quarterback situation in 2007 that resulted in Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s now infamous “I’m a man. I’m 40!” tirade directed at her during a press conference. It is No. 1 on ESPN SportsCenter‘s list of the top 10 all-time most heated exchanges between athletes/coaches and sports media.

In a notes column five days before the game, Carlson (7) included a ranking of Oklahoma State’s all-time “Five Worst Nonconference matchups,” placing the 2012 Savannah State squad atop the list. “The Cowboys will be the first major-college opponent that the Tigers have ever played,” she wrote. “It’s a dubious distinction considering the FCS program hasn’t had a winning season this century” (¶ 6-8).

In an article focusing on the performance of then-Oklahoma State freshman quarterback Wes Lunt, Carlson (4) wrote, “On a night that OSU throttled Savannah State 84-0 and left you wondering if it should be illegal for major-college teams to schedule lower-level teams” (¶ 5). She made her strongest condemnations in a column calling for the end of FBS-FCS matchups: “This madness needs to stop. The NCAA or the BCS or whoever’s in charge of college football these days should ban games against lower-division teams. End the insanity. Bring back the civility” (5, ¶ 5).

No newspaper was close to as negative about these contests as The Oklahoman. Interestingly, The Oklahoman was much less critical of Oklahoma hosting Florida A&M. Carlson (6) wrote that game was only scheduled because Oklahoma had a vacancy on its non-conference schedule after Texas Christian joined the Big 12, “so when OU got desperate, it went looking just about anywhere for an opponent. Its search ultimately landed in Tallahassee with Florida A&M” (¶ 3).

Let’s Let Others Do the Criticizing of These Games, Like Players and Coaches
Whereas reporters from hometown newspapers rarely directly criticized university athletics directors or football coaches for scheduling these matchups, several stories included negative quotes from hometown coaches and players after they were played. Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Stefan Stevenson (58) quoted TCU Coach Gary Patterson downplaying any significance of his team’s 56-0 win over Grambling State. “They beat an FCS team,” Patterson said of his Frogs. “Simple as that” (¶ 6). Gina Mizell, an OSU beat writer for The Oklahoman, seemingly took advantage of one athlete’s verbal slip-up to form the lead of her game story after Oklahoma State’s 84-0 win over Savannah State: “Joseph Randle immediately caught himself after he said he wished Oklahoma State could have played a ‘real’ opponent in its first game, quickly following with a ‘no comment’ ” (35, ¶ 1).

However, most of these player/coach criticisms were subtle or indirect. For example, in discussing San Houston State outscoring Baylor 20-10 in the first half of an eventual 48-23 Baylor blowout, the Waco Tribune-Herald’s Will Parchman included a quote blaming Baylor’s mental acumen, instead of praising its opponent for its play:

The root of the trouble? Perhaps a pinch of overconfidence.
“We were saying (we’ve got to take them seriously), but the first drive we go out and get a three-and-out, we were like, ‘This is going to be an easy game.’ ” nickelback Ahmad Dixon said (40, ¶ 7-8).

The purpose of this study was to examine objectivity of hometown newspapers in framing college football “paycheck” games. Results suggest Big 12 hometown newspapers generally failed to perform their watchdog function by not criticizing the hometown FBS schools for scheduling patsies from the FCS. Others found similar failures of sports journalists to perform this role (e.g., 2, 43). Only The Oklahoman criticized a university, Oklahoma State, before the game for such scheduling, and the newspaper was not located in the same city as the university. But the newspaper did not criticize a university located much closer, Oklahoma, for doing the same thing in a pinch.

Indeed, coverage of FBS programs from smaller newspapers located in the same city as the universities was generally less critical than content published in larger newspapers located further from the college towns. This type of “homer journalism” has long been common in media sports departments (47).

As a result of sports journalists failing to perform their watchdog role, the FBS schools in the Big 12 have little incentive to change such scheduling because they are mainly getting a free ride from these newspapers. These teams nearly always get their extra win over FCS schools to pad their record and enhance their chances for a bowl game. But the readers and fans must endure a boring, lopsided game at high ticket prices, unless the tickets do not sell well and they can get a discount.

The main criticism of these games was indirect and in post-game content, providing further evidence of the local newspapers failing to perform their watchdog role. Moreover, the few critiques mainly appeared in game stories instead of commentaries. Such indirect criticism suggests the sports reporters are heavily concerned about their future access to the teams and/or are concerned with upsetting readers who do not want to read anything negative on the local team.

The hometown papers chiefly framed FCS programs as athletically inferior, particularly through the use of post-game quotes. Tuchman (62) argued reporters use quotes to frame stories as they desire, while claiming they distance themselves from events and people they cover. Even when writing about a historically successful FCS team like Grambling or one that won 14 consecutive games the previous season in Sam Houston State, the hometown FBS newspapers still trivialized FCS successes as coming in a lower division and/or versus lesser competition.

Further, the hometown newspapers in the Big 12 wrote few advances about FCS teams, indicating they felt the other team was unworthy of such coverage. When they did write such stories, they primarily focused on the local angle of players who attended high school in the area. The only advance feature story written about an FCS athlete was about a former local prep star. Thus, readers were largely deprived of in-depth coverage of these teams.

In addition, the lack of datelines from FCS cities indicated the hometown newspapers did not send their reporters there to cover the opposing team. They are apparently unwilling to expend precious resources to do so. Consequently, readers usually received one-sided coverage of the home team.

The backlash against scheduling these types of contests by national media is already having effects. In early 2013 athletic directors in the Big Ten agreed to stop scheduling games against FCS opponents (41). Around the same time, Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby opposed passing legislation to prohibit these games, but said he would discourage his league’s schools from scheduling them. Bowlsby said these games do not make Big 12 teams better and typically resulted in blowouts (24).

Our study showed scheduling of these games was generally not framed negatively by hometown newspapers of the Big 12 schools. Results from this exploratory study, however, cannot be generalized for games with FCS schools beyond Big 12 games during this year. Future research can examine these games over a longer period of time and with hometown newspapers in other conferences.

It is unknown how the implementation of a four-team college football playoff in 2014 will affect scheduling philosophies of the most powerful programs, such as Big 12 Conference members Oklahoma and Texas. Strength of schedule is supposed to be considered when selecting teams. However, several high-profile coaches, such as Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, have already expressed skepticism. Stoops pointed out strength of schedule was also supposed to be a key criteria in BCS bowl game selections, but its track record shows win-loss records generally were given more credence, encouraging powerful teams to schedule easy non-conference teams (57).

Future research must examine how FCS teams are framed after major college football implements a playoff system for the first time in its history, starting in 2014. Moreover, scholars can analyze how local and national media frame the powerful and affluent FBS programs that continue to schedule outmatched FCS opponents.

Regardless, hometown media framing was evident in these newspapers, showing that “homer” journalism remains commonplace in at least the smaller- and mid-sized daily newspapers that cover major college football programs in Big 12 conference areas.




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2017-12-11T11:28:11+00:00March 10th, 2014|Contemporary Sports Issues, General|Comments Off on Watchdogs of the Fourth Estate or Homer Journalists? Newspaper Coverage of Local BCS College Football Programs

Female Athletes and Eating Disorders



Sports should prevent athletes from having eating disorders not develop eating disorders. There is evidence that female athletes are at a risk of developing
disordered eating. The purpose of this study was to find how prevalent eating disorders are in female athletes and examine factors that may have a relationship
with eating disorders.

A questionnaire containing two instruments was distributed to volunteer female athletes in a Midwestern university. The EAT 26 was used to measure the prevalence
of eating disorders. The ATHLETE questionnaire was used to inquire some factors that may have a relationship with eating disorders among athletes. Results showed
14.3% of the respondents scored a 20 and above on the EAT 26 and thus considered at risk of having an eating disorder. The ATHLETE questionnaire showed that
there were some significant negative correlations between the EAT 26 score and participant’s feelings about their body, feelings about sports, feelings
about performance, and feelings about eating. The negative correlations meant that the more the participants scored high on their feelings about their body,
sports, performance, and eating, the less likely they scored low on the EAT 26 indicating they did not have a risk of an eating disorder.

This study implies that when athletes feel good about their body, sport, performance and their eating, the less likely they will have an eating disorder. This study
makes an important contribution in understanding female athletes and eating disorders as well as factors that may have a relationship to eating disorders
in female athletes.



An eating disorder is a psychological disorder that many women can acquire, ncluding collegiate athletes. Participation in sports activity can be a healthy
and enjoyable experience that can enhance self-worth and self-image in female athletes (12). Many people may believe that because athletes participate in
sports and maintain high levels of physical activity, they are not as self-conscience about their bodies. Contrary to this belief, (1) stated in their study that
athletes are at a greater risk for developing eating disorders than non-athletes. Why female athletes have eating disorders when they are so active is a question
of interest to many people. The purpose of this study is to find how prevalent eating disorders are in female athletes and examine factors that may have a
relationship with eating disorders.

Incorrect weight perceptions are more common in young women, with persistent overestimation of weight and attempts to lose weight even when unnecessary (7).
(5) stated that female athletes are a group particularly at risk for developing eating disorders or engaging in unhealthy behaviors to control their weight.
These athletes not only face the typical social pressures to be thin, but they also are immersed in a social context that focuses on their bodies.

Eating disorders are behavioral syndromes associated with considerable mobility that present onset of the highest mortality rates among mental illnesses. The
prevalence of eating disorders’ has increased since the 1990s in both female athletes and non-athletes. Female athletes go through a lot of pressures
and conflicts playing collegiate sports. Female athletes are a group particularly at risk for developing eating disorders or engaging in unhealthy behaviors to
control their weight (13).

The western cultural emphasis given to weight and body shape points towards a “beauty standard” centered on thinness disorders (11). For some
female college athletes, college concerns and pressures may contribute to eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors (6). The sports environment can heighten
body and weight related concerns because of factors such as pressure from coaches and social comparisons, body dissatisfaction, physique anxiety, and perfectionism
(6, 11). A lack of professional guidance can make an athlete vulnerable to the onset of disordered eating (10). It appears that negative moods such as anxiety,
perfectionism, and negative comments about body shape or weight from coaches are related to disorder eating in female athletes (1). (9) found that social
pressure on body shape was strongly correlated with body dissatisfaction. Female athletes’ body dissatisfaction has shown correlation with bulimia (6).
According to (7), perfectionism, for example in sports has been found to be a risk factor for bulimic symptoms.

However, prevalence of clinical and subclinical eating disorders has been found to be higher-among female athletes than non-athletes (5). Young women, particularly
those in aesthetic sports are vulnerable to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and disordered eating (10). Situational factors specifically involvement in
individual sports or team sports, may put athletes in situations where social physique anxiety and disordered eating is likely to be heightened to manage
weight and shape concerns (13, 8).

This is an important topic because although physical activity enhances self-esteem and promotes physical and emotional well-being, there is evidence that female
athletes are at a risk of developing disordered eating. It is important to investigate some of the reasons why female collegiate athletes feel the need to have disordered
eating. Results of the study can assist in developing and executing suitable eating-disorder prevention and intervention programs for female college athletes.
The purpose of the study was twofold. First, it was to assess how prevalent eating disorders were among female college athletes. Secondly, it was to explore
some factors that may have a relationship with eating disorders.


There were 56 participants in total, including 11 freshman, 21 sophomores, 13 juniors and 11 seniors. The following sports were included: soccer (23.2%),
softball (23.2%), track and field (41.1%), and swimming (12.5%). The age range was between 18 to 22 years, with over 98% being between 18 and 21 years. The
entire sample was Caucasian with an exception of one participant.

A questionnaire was used to collect data, it included a demographic section on age, sex, height, weight and race of the participants. Two instruments were
included in the questionnaire, the first being the EAT 26 by (4), which measured prevalence of eating disorders among athletes. The EAT 26 has been used extensively
in research as a reliable measure of prevalence of eating disorders. The EAT-26 scale is comprised of these dimensions: dieting, bulimia and food preoccupation,
and oral control. Each item on the scale is rated on a scale of 0-6 as follows: never=0, rarely=0, sometimes=0, often=1, usually=2, and always=3, except for
item 25 which is reverse scored.

Second was the ATHLETE questionnaire, which was used to inquire some factors that may relate with eating disorders among athletes. The ATHLETE questionnaire
is a reliable and valid measure of factors that may relate to disordered eating in athletes (9). The ATHLETE questionnaire has the following factors that have
shown association with disordered eating: feelings about being an athlete, the athlete’s body and sports, feelings about performance, team support, feelings
about one’s body, and feelings about eating.

Both instruments showed acceptable reliability. The EAT 26 included 26 items and yielded a reliability value of .76. The six factors in the ATHLETE questionnaire
demonstrated the following reliability values: feelings about being an athlete included five items with a reliability of .71, athlete’s body and sports
included 12 items with a reliability of .87, feelings about performance included seven items with a reliability of .67, team support included four items with
a reliability of .73, feelings about one’s body included six items a reliability of .85, and feelings about eating included four items with a reliability of

The researchers first obtained Human subjects approval from the IRB before conducting the study. The questionnaire was distributed to the participants, and it contained
the demographic section of the questionnaire, the EAT 26, and the ATHLETE questionnaire. The questionnaire was given to volunteer female athletes at a Midwestern university.
A volunteer female athlete served as the monitor and distributed the questionnaires. The study was conducted in the absence of the coach and the researchers so that
the participants would not feel any coercion to participate in the study. The consent information for the participants was included at the beginning of the
questionnaire. The consent information explained that participating in the study was totally voluntary and that by completing the questionnaire, the participant
was giving consent to participate in the study. The questionnaire was completed anonymously and since there were no signed informed consent it was not possible
to identify individuals who participated in the study nor those whose scores indicated they were at risk of an eating disorder. Due to the sensitive nature
of the study, all participants were provided with referral information to their school’s health center and the crises hotline center, in case they realized
they were at risk of acquiring an eating disorder.

Statistical analysis
The data was entered into SPSS program – PASW Statistics 18. Reliability test for the EAT 26 and the ATHLETE questionnaire was analyzed. Descriptive statistics
were analyzed for the EAT 26. Those who scored EAT 26=20 were considered at risk of having an eating disorder. ANOVAs were computed to compare the means
of EAT 26 by year in school, age, weight, and sport participation. Correlations were completed between the EAT 26 and the factors of the ATHLETE questionnaire.


There were 56 total participants who responded to the questionnaire. Frequencies were completed for EAT 26. If the participant scored EAT 26=20, then they were
considered at risk of having an eating disorder. Results showed that 8 female athletes, (14.3%) scored a 20 and above and were thus considered at risk of
having an eating disorder. The EAT 26 mean was 7.9 and standard deviation was 7.6. Figure 1 shows details of how the participants responded to the EAT 26.

ANOVAs were used to compare the means of EAT 26 by classification year, age, weight, and sports participation. Only age showed a significant difference in
means for the EAT 26. Further, Cross tabs were completed between those who had EAT26=20 and age. Results showed all of the 8 participants who had EAT 26=20
were 19 years of age.

Descriptive statistics were conducted on how the female athletes performed on the ATHLETE questionnaire, which can be seen in Table 1. Pearson correlation
was conducted to see whether there was a relationship between EAT 26 and ATHLETE questionnaire factors.
These four factors in the ATHLETE questionnaire demonstrated significant Pearson correlation values with EAT 26: feelings about body and sports with a correlation
of -.53, feelings about performance with a correlation of -.51, feelings about your body with a correlation of -.50, and feelings about eating with a correlation
of -.31. These two factors in the ATHLETE questionnaire did not demonstrate significant Pearson correlation values with EAT 26: feelings about being an
athlete, and team support. Table 2 shows details about correlations between EAT 26 and the ATHLETE questionnaire factors.


This study found 14.3 % of female athletes were considered at risk of having an eating disorder. This study also reported that everyone found to have an
eating disorder was 19 years old. The ATHLETE questionnaire showed that there were some significant negative correlations between the EAT 26 score and participant’s
feelings about their body, feelings about sports, feelings about performance, and feelings about eating. The negative correlations meant that the more the
participants scored high on their feelings about their body, sport, performance, and eating, the less they scored on the EAT 26, indicating they did not have
an eating disorder.

Two of the factors in the ATHLETE questionnaire dealt with body image; the athlete’s body and sports, and feelings about one’s body. Both factors
had a significant negative correlation with EAT 26 scores. This indicated that the female athletes’ who scored high on the athlete’s body and sports,
and feelings about one’s body were likely to score low on the EAT-26. Hence, indicating they were not likely to be at risk of an eating disorders.
This finding concurs with the study by (2), which contended that body image dissatisfaction is the strongest predictor of eating disorder symptoms.

A study done (6) stated that sport-related pressures such as weight limits, teammates’ eating-related behaviors, judging criteria, revealing uniforms,
and coach expectations have been suggested as potential risk factors for an athlete to develop an eating disorder. Our study found that team support and
feelings about being an athlete did not have a relationship with eating disorders. Another study done by (10) stated that families, peers, and coaches can have
a major effect on female athletes. Our study did not show that pressures from the participant’s families, peers, and coaches had any effect on the athlete
and eating disorders.

This study found that ‘feelings about performance’ in the ATHLETE had a significant negative correlation with the EAT 26 total. This indicated
that the more the athletes felt good about their performance in sports, the less likely they were at risk of an eating disorder. This finding concurs with
(1) study that stated that negative moods such as anxiety and perfectionism were related to disordered eating in female athletes.

In the current study, all participants who scored EAT 26=20, were 19 years old, and were either sophomores or juniors in school. There were no freshman
or seniors found to have a risk of an eating disorder. This indicates that the female athlete participants felt more pressure or problems with their eating
in the middle of their college years. This finding concurs with the study by (2), which stated that eating and dieting problems in college freshman women
was fairly stable across the first year of college. The current study suggests that the female athletes develop some eating disorder as they try to lose weight
in the sophomore year and stabilize by the fourth year. More research is needed on eating disorders of female athletes through the four college years.

Since the participants is this study was were nearly all Caucasian, this study may have found higher levels of disordered eating concerns than a more diversified
sample. Future similar studies can build on this study by having a larger proportion of other ethnicities. In addition, future similar studies can have a wider range
of sport, especially sports where the athletes’ uniforms for competition are more revealing such as swimming, dance, and gymnastics.


This study shows that eating disorders are prevalent among female athletes. Some factors that have a relationship with eating disorders include feelings
about their body, sports performance, and eating. This study also shows that feelings about being an athlete such as being competitive and team support did
not show much relationship with eating disorders.
This study makes an important contribution in understanding females and eating disorders, as well the factors that may have a relationship in causing eating
disorders in female athletes.

Application to Sport

Eating disorders are still an issue of concern among female athletes. This study reveals that the more female athletes felt good about their body, sports,
performance, and eating, the more likely they would not have an eating disorder. Feelings about an athlete like being competitive and team support did not show
much relationship with eating disorders. To keep away from disordered eating, female athletes ought to have positive inner feelings about themselves.

Sports participation among college females should be encouraged because this will improve their ‘feelings about their body’ and in turn make
them less at risk of getting an eating disorder. Participation in sports activity can be a healthy and enjoyable experience that can enhance self-worth and self-image
in female athletes (12). Since body image dissatisfaction is the strongest predictor of eating disorder symptoms (2), then body image holds the most promise as a
focus for prevention programs of eating disorder among college female athletes.

Disordered eating prevention efforts offered by college counseling centers for female athletes should focus on promoting students’ acceptance of their own
bodies. Such efforts will counteract the media influences that propagates the extremely ‘thin ideal’ that is unattainable by most normal female
athletes. A school-based sport centered program can be useful in deterring females from disordered eating (3). For those working with athletes, they should avoid
equating thinness to sport performance. They should be encouraged to become more knowledgeable and responsible regarding the critical role of healthy eating
and nutrition in female athletes. Such knowledge will equip them to play a significant role identifying, managing, and preventing eating disorders among female athletes
and increase prospects of a positive sport experience for female athletes. Female athletes ought to be encouraged to regard their health first before sports performance.
Consequently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) emphasizes an athlete’s health rather than weight and body composition (12).


Many thanks to the anonymous volunteer female athletes who agreed to participate in this study.


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of eating disorders reported by female collegiate athletes. The Sport Psychologist,
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2. Cooley, E., & Toray, T. (2001). Disordered Eating in College Freshman
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6. Greenleaf, C., Petrie, T., Reel, J., Carter, J. (2010). Psychosocial risk
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8. Haase, A. (2009). Physique anxiety and disordered eating correlates in female
athletes: differences in team and individual sports. Journal of Clinical Sports
Psychology, 3, 218-231.

9. Hinton, P. S., & Kubas, K. L. (2005). Psychosocial Correlates of Disordered
Eating in Female Collegiate Athletes: Validation of the ATHLETE Questionnaire.
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10. Kerr, G., Berman, E., Jane De Souza, M. J.(2006). Disordered eating in
women’s gymnastics: perspectives of athletes, coaches, parents, and judges.
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Figures and Tables

Fig 1- Eat 26 Performance

Figure 1

Legend: Figure 1 shows frequencies of the EAT 26 totals for the female athletes,N=56. If the participant scored EATS 26=20 then they were considered at risk
of having an eating disorder. Figure 1 shows that eight participants (14.3%) had EAT 26=20.


Table 2 – Descriptive Statistics of the ATHLETE Questionnaire

Legend: Table 2 shows the ATHLETE questionnaire which was used to inquire
some factors that may relate with eating disorders among athletes. The ATHLETE questionnaire
has six factors. Table 2 lists the six factors, sample questions on each factor,
as well as the descriptive statistics for the ATHLETE questionnaire.

Factors of the ATHLETE questionnaire Sample Question on the ATHLETE QUESTIONNIARE No of Items Total Possible Mean SD
Feelings about being an athlete I cannot imagine what I will be like when I am no longer competing
The athlete’s body and sports I would be more successful in my sport if my body looked better and I
often wish I were leaner so I could perform better
Feelings about performance No matter how successful I am, I never feel satisfied and my parents expect
more of me athletically than I do for myself
Team support It is hard to get close to my teammates because we are constantly competing
against each other
Feelings about one’s body My friends (non-athletes) make me feel I am too fat
Feeling about eating I feel uncomfortable eating in front of my friends


Table 3- Correlations between EAT 26 and the ATHLETE questionnaire
Legend: Table 3 shows the Pearson correlation values between EAT 26 and
the ATHLETE questionnaire factors. These four factors in the ATHLETE questionnaire
demonstrated significant Pearson correlation values with EAT 26; feelings about
body and sports; feelings about performance; feelings about your body; and feelings
about eating. These two factors in the ATHLETE questionnaire did not demonstrate
significant Pearson correlation values with EAT 26; feelings about being an
athlete, and team support.

Factors of the ATHLETE questionnaire Pearson Correlation
EAT 26
Feelings about being an athlete .139
The athlete’s body and sports -.530**
Feelings about performance -.507**
Team support .127
Feelings about one’s body -.502**
Feeling about eating -.313*

** .01 correlation is significant at the .01 level
*.05 correlation is significant at the .05 level

2016-10-20T14:59:00+00:00November 15th, 2012|Contemporary Sports Issues, Sports Exercise Science, Sports Management, Sports Studies and Sports Psychology, Women and Sports|Comments Off on Female Athletes and Eating Disorders