Beauty in sports: Why looks shouldn't come first for female athletes

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Beauty in Sports: Why Looks Shouldn't Come First for Female Athletes


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By ALEXANDER GOOT
The Cauldron

When is a fig bar a positive step for feminism? When it becomes a NASCAR sponsor, of course.

Tuesday brought the news that Nature's Bakery, a Nevada and St. Louis based snack company of 420 employees, will be the new sponsor for Danica Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet in 2016 and beyond. The new corporate support is good news for Patrick's racing career, good news for her Stewart-Haas racing team, and very good news for anyone tired of childish, idiotic, sexist marketing.

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Because for anyone in that group, the best thing Nature's Bakery has going for it, is that it's not GoDaddy.

Dating back to 2010, when they first became the primary sponsor of Patrick's racing career, then back in the IndyCar Series, GoDaddy and their internet domain emporium has been a challenging test of whether, in this life, the ends truly justify the means. On the one hand, they have spent millions of dollars in supporting, and promoting, one of the most accomplished and trailblazing women in auto racing. Danica Patrick is an IndyCar winner, a NASCAR pole-sitter, and a consistent fixture in the sports world. None of that would have been possible without the dollars and cents provided by GoDaddy.

Of course, those dollars also provided for a lot of nonsense, each and every Super Bowl, and beyond, when GoDaddy consistently delivered marketing campaigns based on cheap titillation, sophomoric bro-ism, and turning Patrick, (and plenty of other women who played supporting roles), into nothing more than eye-candy for a male audience. And so, as Patrick trades in GoDaddy's garish neon green for a far more pleasant shade of blue, any truly progressive fan of female athletes can't help but be encouraged that Danica Patrick, racecar driver, continues to move forward, while Danica Patrick, "GoDaddy Girl" is retired to the dustbin of history.

"I feel like our brands align so perfectly, it's kind of amazing," said Patrick at the press conference to announce the Nature's Bakery deal. "I think that journey is going to be really fun. I think there's going to be lots of exciting things that we can do together in the future." And indeed, Patrick, who has shared her deep love of Yoga, CrossFit, and eating well, seems a perfect fit for a company selling itself as a healthy snack option.

But, even as her sponsor changes, it seems overly optimistic to assume that the days of Patrick being seen, and labeled, and judged, based primarily on her appearance, are truly over. She is still a female athlete, being covered by a predominantly male sports media, after all. Which, if history is our guide, means she'll continue to be seen through a certain prism, no matter what turns her career takes from here.

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Beauty in sports: Why looks shouldn't come first for female athletes
VANCOUVER, BC - JULY 05: Abby Wambach of USA celebrates after winning the FIFA Women's World Cup Final between USA and Japan at BC Place Stadium on July 5, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Stuart Franklin - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Kerri Walsh Jennings (R) and Misty May-Treanor of the United States celebrate winning the Gold medal in the Women's Beach Volleyball Gold medal match against the United States on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Horse Guard's Parade on August 8, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: Serena Williams of United States celebrates with the trophy after winning the Final of the Ladies Singles against Garbine Muguruza of Spain during the day twelve of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 11, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Dec. 28, 2013, file photo, Ronda Rousey, left, of Venice, Calif., punches Miesha Tate of Yakima, Wash., during the UFC 168 mixed martial arts women's bantamweight title fight in Las Vegas. Rousey has announced she will fight the world's former No. 1-rated female boxer next. Rousey told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, that she will defend her title against former world-champion boxer Holly Holm in Las Vegas on Jan. 2. (AP Photo/David Becker, File)
PHOENIX - OCTOBER 9: Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury poses with the WNBA Championship Trophy and her WNBA Finals MVP Award after the Mercury defeated the Indiana Fever 94-86 in Game five of the WNBA Finals played on October 9, 2009 at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - FEBRUARY 18: Cheryl Miller receives an award and talks to the crowd during the NBA Legends Brunch February 18, 2007 at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2007 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
2 Jun 2000: Mia Hamm #9 of Team USA runs to control the ball during the game against Team Canada for the First Pacific Cup at the Sydney Football Stadium in Sydney, Australia. Team USA defeated Team Canada 9-1. (Photo by Adam Pretty/AUS /Allsport)
Tennis player Billie Jean King of the United States in action at the Women's Singles Final, Wimbledon, 8th July 1967. King went on to beat Ann Jones of Great Britain 6-3, 6-4. (Photo by Reg Burkett/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1988 SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES -- Pictured: Gold Medal winner, American Florence Griffith-Joyner, Number 569, on the field during the Games of the XXIV Olympiad in Seoul, South Korea -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank
Lindsey Vonn of United States reacts as she crosses a finish line during the women's giant slalom of the FIS World cup on March 11, 2011 in Spindleruv Mlyn.Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany won this race ahead of Denise Karbon of Italy and Vonn took 3rd place.AFP PHOTO / MICHAL CIZEK (Photo credit should read MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)
US swimmer Missy Franklin poses on the podium with the gold medal after winning the women's 100m backstroke swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the Aquatics Centre at the Olympic Park in London on July 30, 2012. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/GettyImages)
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2015 has been hailed, understandably, as a banner year for women's sports thus far. And indeed, there has been much to celebrate, as female stars have come to the forefront, and achieved unprecedented levels of success professionally, commercially, and financially. But for every undeniably positive story of growth, and progress for female athletes, also come caveats, and reminders that sexism and patriarchal thinking still dominate the sports world in ways big and small.

In just a few weeks at the U.S. Open, Serena Williams will bid to complete the calendar Grand Slam, attempting to cap perhaps the greatest season in what is already one of the most incredible tennis careers in history. Of course, this season also saw a somewhat problematic New York Times column on physique and body image in women's tennis. The article, which drew plenty of criticism upon publication, was an attempt to, in Public Editor Margaret Sullivan's words, "illuminate a pervasive problem in women's sports, the old and troubling notions of what a female athlete should look like." And whole the goals may have been noble, the addition of a number of unchallenged quotes about what it means to be "feminine", to "be a woman", unfortunately seemed to suggest that there are right and wrong answers to those questions.

But such is life, sadly, for Serena Williams, who has been the subject of some truly ghastly conversations about appearance, and image, and personal style, from basically the moment she arrived on the sporting scene. Thankfully, for fans of truly once-in-a-lifetime athletic greatness, Williams has proven strong enough to block out the noise, and fashion her own career, on her terms, both on and off the court. But the noise is ever-present, from these very problematic discussions of feminine "ideals", to the thorny question of why the most successful female tennis player of her generation is not the most highly endorsed.

There is no lack of endorsements, of opportunities, of exposure, meanwhile, for another of 2015's most successful female athletes, UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Indeed, Rousey's growth into not only one of the promotion's most dominant champions, but also one of its biggest draws, has been something to celebrate, particularly given the fact, frequently cited, that UFC President Dana White was resistant to the idea of women's mixed martial arts for quite some time. Ronda Rousey changed that attitude through sheer success, and her ability to breakthrough as a mainstream star in a sport that was often perceived as "a man's domain" just a few years earlier, should be incredibly encouraging to women across the sporting landscape.

But then, of course, her breakthrough has not been without bumps in the road. Even as she strives for equal footing with her male counterparts when it comes to her spot on the card, her place in the UFC's pecking order, her gender undeniably affects the way she is covered, and interviewed. It's something Rousey herself has come to realize on a frequent basis.

"I'm definitely asked different kinds of questions," Rousey explained in a recent interview with the Huffington Post. "I don't see guys being asked about their personal lives all the time. You know what I'm asked all the time? 'You're single? Explain yourself! You have to explain yourself!' And I'm like why? Did I offend someone, am I doing something wrong?" Thankfully, Rousey is always as prepared with a takedown in an interview setting as she is in the Octagon, noting that when asked why she's single, her response is direct.

"Because I'm busy running a multi-billion dollar corporation."

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While Rousey was making her millions of dollars, the U.S. Women's National Team was drawing millions of viewers. 22 million, to be precise, for the World Cup Final, which saw the United States defeat Japan and claim their first World Cup since 1999. The match was the highest rated soccer game in the country's history, making the Cup an unqualified success for women's soccer in America, not just competitively, but from a commercial and financial perspective as well.

Of course, just weeks after the celebrations completed and the ticker-tape was tidied up, women's soccer in America was faced with another big challenge, one that female athletes across a variety of sports are far too familiar with: How to turn the momentum and passion that came from this international victory into a viable, sustainable, effective domestic league. Here, the National Women's Soccer League will look to succeed where other attempts have failed. But there is no denying the size and scale of the challenge ahead.

The WNBA is approaching its 20th season, something the NWSL would no doubt, in many ways, strive to equal and emulate. Women's professional basketball continues to show progress, in many ways, with a new television deal, a growing audience, and an impressive crop of "star power", from newcomers Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, and Skylar Diggins, to veteran mainstays like Candace Parker and Maya Moore. It is impossible, however, to ignore the fact that one major star is not on the court, with point guard Diana Taurasi sitting out the season, after her Russian Premier League team offered to pay her more than her WNBA salary to rest up for more overseas play.

Such is the reality not just for the WNBA, but for women's sports across the country, which often struggle to draw the same attention, support, and airtime, as their male counterparts. (It is also worth noting, as David Berri demonstrated at Vice Sports, that WNBA players also receive a smaller piece of the much smaller pie, compared to their NBA peers.) While some have suggested that these realities are simply a reflection on "what the market will bear", the reality is that that market is built, and shaped, and changed, by sports media decisions on who is a priority, who is worthy of attention, and who is simply an afterthought. The result is a frustrating "chicken or egg" feedback loop. Do women's sports get less coverage because there is less interest? Or, perhaps, is it possible that there is less interest because women's sports are so poorly and infrequently covered?

The Women's World Cup should, hopefully, be seen as an answer to that question. Women's athletics will undeniably draw, provided that the audience is given a reason to stand up and cheer. And even if fervent patriotism is only available as a selling point every four years or so, there is no reason why sports media can't strive to create arcs, build rivalries, and tell the stories of these female athletes with the same energy and resources that they devote to their male counterparts. While it's not realistic to expect this sort of sea change to happen overnight, in a world where live sports are becoming an ever increasingly important draw, there's no reason why growing these women's leagues shouldn't be a priority for networks and digital outlets who are always looking to build more content.

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So what's the takeaway, when examining the state of women's sports in 2015? Incredible success stories, on the field, on television, and on Madison Avenue. But also the continuing reality that "female athlete" still means something different from just plain "athlete", sometimes for better, but quite often for worse. For women in the world of sports, it's not enough to simply build a career, and achieve between the lines. It also means having your looks, your body, your femininity, dissected far too frequently. It means being asked frivolous, disposable, sexist silliness, simply as a matter of course. It means that even as the bar is raised, finding an economic foothold in sports, for individuals, and for leagues themselves, is far more difficult.

So what's to be done? Well, anything but throw our hands in the air and resign ourselves to the current realities. It's time for everyone to take a cue from the "Ask Her More" movement, and check themselves when it comes to how we interview female athletes. It's simple really. Is this a question we'd be asking Chris Weidman? Then it probably shouldn't be thrown at Ronda Rousey.

It's time for the entire sports media industry to understand, and appreciate their role in not simply covering stars, but also creating them, because make no mistake, that's a power we possess. Television networks, print publications, digital concerns, they all make commitments, make concerted efforts, to building the sports, and the athletes, that they have relationships with, from the NHL to NASCAR to MMA. It's time for women's sports to receive that same energy, that same concentrated push. Don't simply wait for the next Carli Lloyd to emerge, go out, find her, and tell her story.

Above all else, it's time to make the sports media space more friendly and more open to women. In part, that means ridding it of some of its most troubling and chauvinistic tendencies. Let's see fewer slideshows of scantily clad women, some magazine covers devoted to female athletes, rather than simply the male gaze. But even more critically, the single most important thing that can be done to change the sexist tendencies of sports coverage, is to literally, and figuratively, bring more women into the room. Broadcasters, beat-writers, television and talk radio producers. In studios, in remote trucks, in media centers, the best way to make sure that the industry moves forward in a way that is fair and equal for women is to make women a bigger part of that industry. As articulated quite brilliantly by Molly Knight in her recent essay for espnW, having diversity in all areas of the business isn't just a "good cause", it's also good business.

None of this is going to happen overnight. But more importantly, none of it is going to happen by itself. An industry left to its own devices will continue to practice the same bad habits, falls into the same ruts, and continue to hire the same men it's been hiring, for no real reason other than, quite simply, because it's easier that way. Truly changing the game takes an incredible effort, not just from the athletes on the field, but from those charged with covering them.

The first seven months of 2015 have provided plenty of proof that our nation's female athletes are doing their part. Now it's time to meet them halfway.
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