Can we separate athletes from their appearance?

Fiona McCade makes the case that the age of social media has been especially cruel to female athletes:

Can it really be true that in the hideously sexist, discrimination-riddled Seventies, it was easier than it is now for a woman to triumph without her looks being an issue? Or was it just because I was so young that I never noticed Martina Navratilova’s FHM underwear shoot?

It’s an interesting question without a simple answer. No, Martina never appeared in an underwear ad or swimsuit issue as far as I can recall — and yes, I was alive then. On the other hand, you can’t deny that Chris Evert built a big fan base in part because she was the blonde peppy alternative to a lot of the top tennis players of her day.

The Seventies just had a different vibe. We didn’t see much leering over female athletes, but we didn’t see many female athletes at all. And everyone was pushing the envelope a little — today, it’s hard to imagine a soccer player, male or female, baring all as the Cosmos’ Shep Messing did. (“You said you wanted exposure!”)

ESPN’s Body Issue is restrained by comparison, notwithstanding the dubious photo selections from the Hope Solo shoot. It’s a celebration of the athletic build. And athletes tend to be attractive — they’re fit, and they usually carry themselves with a charismatic confidence. Walking around the Olympics means walking around with beautiful people. Not that we sportswriters feel self-conscious by comparison. (At least, not at the Winter Games, where we’re all hiding under thick coats and hats, anyway.)

And male athletes get their share of ogling. I’m still scarred from watching Oprah early in the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty era and seeing a female crowd collectively lose its grip as they gazed upon these fine basketball players. Tom Brady’s TV appearances, from Family Guy to Saturday Night Live, are a little embarrassing.

Brady embraces it, with little harm to his career. Female athletes have a tougher choice. Heather Mitts rolled with ESPN’s “Hottest Athlete” tag and helped keep women’s soccer in the news during some lean years for the sport. But when you think of Anna Kournikova these days, do you think about her status as one of the best doubles players in the world for a few years? (Seriously — look it up.)

And McCabe gets into the darker side of modern media:

Social media has a lot to answer for. If people in the past felt that sportswomen weren’t gorgeous enough, they probably said so quietly, over a pint and just to their mates. Now, they can say it in so many globe-traversing ways that the sportswomen themselves can hardly avoid finding out about it.

The Internet undoubtedly requires a thick skin. Any public figure is going to face some share of cruelty. But it seems only fair to remind people to grow up a little bit and think about what they’re tweeting, doesn’t it?

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One Response to Can we separate athletes from their appearance?

  1. Andrew says:

    When McCabe suggests that it was “easier than it is now for a woman to triumph without her looks being an issue,” are we talking about results, or fame?

    There’s a big difference. If we’re talking about fame… well, it should be no surprise that the more attractive athletes get more sponsorship opportunities and magazine covers. Surely it has been that way for as long as there have been sponsorship deals and magazines.

    If you’re talking about sporting achievement, though, that’s a different story. It really depends on the sport. Martina didn’t have to impress anyone with her looks because she was unbeatable on the court. On the other hand, there are some sports where physical attractiveness actually gives you a competitive advantage. Take figure skating, for example – if you don’t look like a model, you can forget about a medal.

    This is sometimes true even in sports that do not involve subjective judging. It is hard not to notice, for example, that there are very few professional alpine skiiers or Formula One drivers who are not physically attractive.

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