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Looks conquer skills

By Lora J. Mackel
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
June 14, 2000
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Women have begun to hold their own in the world of sports, right? It has been 20-plus years since Title IX, and the sports world is different. Women like Mia Hamm, Rebecca Lobo and Marion Jones have won the loyalty of fans and signed lucrative endorsement contracts. One might get the impression that things are all rosy for women in the arena. That is, until you pick up a recent issue of Sports Illustrated.

On it is the recognizable face of Anna Kournikova. In the magazine is an overwhelmingly positive article about Anna's attributes - physical that is. This cover only illustrates that even though women have made tremendous strides in the world of athletics, how a women looks is still more important than her skill level.

So what exactly is wrong with Anna Kournikova? She is young, beautiful and a legitimate member of the Women's Tennis Association. And in addition, financially, she is one of the most successful women tennis players around. Still, that is no big deal, until you learn what she is ranked. At 19, middle-aged for a women's tennis player, she is ranked 15th in the world. In the WTA, she is settling down into a pattern of permanent mediocrity.

To what then, does Ms. Kournikova owe her success? To put it quite crassly, to her ass. It is not her skill or her public demeanor that is pulling in the contracts, but the way she looks in her tennis whites that has made her a big star. No big deal if she was a model, but she is a tennis player, and a mediocre one at that. Her success demonstrates exactly what is wrong with women's sports today.

Anna Kournikova is certainly not the first popular female athlete. In the 1970s, everyone in the nation fell in love with the tiny Nadia Comaneci, and in the 1980s, the most bankable female star was Mary Lou Retton. There have been popular swimmers, tennis players and ice skaters known and loved by millions. But those who remained popular in the public eye all shared something important with Anna Kournikova, they were encouraged to appear to the public as demure, ladylike and fragile instead of strong and muscular.

In the world of women's sports, the most feminine take home the checks at the end of the day. For a long time, women in sports were also seen as secondary because it was assumed that the sports consumers were male. For years, women's athletics was seen as a financial risk, and women's professional leagues had no hope of serious corporate sponsorship. But after women's liberation and Title IX, things are slowly changing.

Girls are being encourage to join in all kinds of sports, from gymnastics to boxing. College athletics for women are getting more funding and, more importantly, public support. Because of this movement of girls onto the playing fields, women finally have professional associations like the WNBA. But things have not changed that much.

And in this age of political correctness, legitimate sports sources like Sports Illustrated and "Sports Center" are increasing their coverage of women's sports, but the difference in coverage and enthusiasm of men's and women's sports is noticeable. Just one example would be the difference in coverage of the NBA finals and WNBA finals. NBA finals often pump prime-time programming on network TV, while WNBA finals get bumped to cable channels like Lifetime. Women in sports get coverage, but not the kind that male sports traditionally do.

Sports Illustrated, Forbes and Anna's commercial sponsors are reinforcing the old paradigm. They are stating by their actions that if a woman is to be successful at sports, they must be decorative. By rewarding her mediocrity and playing up Anna's beauty, the sports world is telling millions of girls that their worth does not lie in their skill, but rather in the ability to pull off a mini-skirt.

Anna Kournikova does for women's athletics what Jane Fonda in "Barbarella" did for women's liberation - one step forward and 400 steps back. Ultimately, this is not just an issue of sports. Sports is a medium through which cultural ideas are passed and reinforced. If there are more instances like Kournikova's, women's struggles to be seen as whole people instead of objects will be never ending.

To put the issue in perspective, think of how our culture would react if a male athlete was rewarded for his looks instead of his skill. His career would be very short-lived. We must reward women's talents, not beauty, if our culture is to improve and evolve.

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