Female Athletes: Unfortunately, Sex Appeal Is Part of Overall Success

Kimberley NashSenior Writer IMay 2, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 16:  Driver Danica Patrick arrives at the 2008 ESPY Awards held at NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE on July 16, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.  The 2008 ESPYs will air on Sunday, July 20 at 9PM ET on ESPN.  (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)

If you are a woman, your professional success seems to hinge on two things: 1) your looks and 2) your ability to be marketed as the "girl next door"; no, not those girls next door, but rather the type of girl you take home to the barbecue on the Fourth of July to meet the parents..

Notice how neither of those two things have to do with a woman's professional ability within her sport.

The one thing that has become mind-numbingly clear to me is that women, by and large, are not respected in the sports world as professional athletes. They are seen as girls playing a man's game, and branded as some cute chick with athletic ability.

If they happen to be attractive enough to put on a poster or a magazine cover, then it is likely that their ASSets will be more prominently displayed than their stats.

It's the reason why Anna Kournikova could be more popular than Martina Hingis or Lindsey Davenport in her days as a WTA player. Reason being she was, for lack of a better word, "hot."

Kournikova has always contended that she was a serious tennis player, she was always about the game, but it's a fact that she made more money playing a model than playing her sport.

For a time, there were men who watched the sport just to see her.  Not to see her play, but to see her, drawing the ire of many a female tennis pro who was actually there to play the game...and win.

In Kournikova's defense, she was indeed talented, however, was never able to find enough consistency to become as successful at singles tennis as she was at doubles.  Further, the fact that she looks good is hardly her fault.

Which leads me to Danica Patrick, the Indy Racing Car League driver that took three years to win her first race on the circuit.

She's obviously a looker and every chance her handlers seem to get, they emphasize that beauty without prejudice.  Whether she's dressed in leather and draped over the hood of a car, or shilling for Target with a free-flowing red dress in tow,  she seems to have the eyes of everyone on her.

Truth be told, if I didn't know Danica was a race car driver, I wouldn't know what she did for a living.  I might take her to be just another model.


Well, because, aside from the Sports Illustrated covers which have featured her with her respective team uniform on (kudos to them for doing that), you rarely see Danica minus the sex appeal.
Of course, SI made up for all those clothed-covers by placing Danica into their annual Swimsuit Issue, so they aren't totally off the hook.

At this point, I feel I must go on record and say "I am not a prude."

I don't have a problem with women who decide to pose, however, they see fit for a dollar or two.   It's their body and their prerogative. Do what you feel you must. 
Men and women have both been known to be exploited for various reasons, but as it pertains to sports, I see a bigger disparity on the female side of things.  That's the only issue I am attempting to address here.

I feel like women have to do too much to be recognized by the mainstream media as athletes.

You can't just be a great female soccer player or a phenomenal female softball pitcher.  No, you have to be that female soccer player that took her shirt off or that hot softball player who pitched for the USA. 

It doesn't matter that said players:  Brandi Chastain (former) and Jennie Finch (latter) are simply great athletes who were pivotal players in their sport and in sports history.  No, they are simply that "shirtless one" and that "hot one."

Now, I already hear what some of you might be saying, "What about Michael Phelps"? Isn't he always half-dressed and on the cover of some magazine?
Yes he is, but he's a swimmer, and the last time I checked those trunks are his uniform.  Does that mean he doesn't have females drooling over him, of course not, but individual objectification of a person that's done on a personal level is not equal to media objectification.

For example, Kobe Bryant is one of the best players in the NBA.  He's won three NBA titles.  He is the face of the Laker franchise and is a brand all by himself. 
I don't know that I have ever seen Kobe shirtless, in a swimsuit, or on the cover of GQ minus his dignity.
If he ever was, it was hardly repeated from cover-to-cover or poster-to-poster.  It was an isolated event. 
Actually, it is entirely possible to have Kobe come up in a discussion and never hear any mention of his being good-looking, muscular, or any other trait that deals with his non-basketball appeal.
That feat would be hard to duplicate with Anna Kournikova, Danica Patrick, or Candace Parker unless the persons talking about them simply aren't attracted to their type. 

The women I named above as well as others, Maria Sharapova and Amanda Beard,  are simply revered more for how they look than the stats they create.
Some might say that these women "could just choose not to show their bodies.  They could play the sport and be anonymous.  They could not take the millions of dollars in ads and endorsements, there is no gun to their head."

All true.

However, if a woman chooses to toil in obscurity, she risks having no exposure at all and if she is the face of her sport and wants it to gain a bigger audience, she may feel the sacrifice is worth the perception if it means better revenue for her league and herself in the long run.

She may not feel she has a choice even if she does.

In the end though, it's not really about whether or not the woman has to choose to bare some or all to make her career worthy of a look by the media. It's about the fact that she has to make the decision at all.

Most male athletes get judged on their own merit. It's time that female athletes get the same.