You don't have to be the sharpest anthropologist on the block to know that this society loves sports. To the point of obsession. To the point that it trumps nearly every other sociological phenomenon.
For example, the success of racial desegregation has often been measured by the crossover appeal of black athletes and/or entertainers - an argument that's considered patently ridiculous by many who've devoted their lives to civil rights. Can we consider our jobs done now that Michael Jordan and Oprah would be welcome to dine at any table in Forsythe County, Georgia?
By that same token, how practical is it to evaluate women's rights based on the progress of women's athletes?
But if that's the measure, how are women doing? Depends on whom you ask.
The mouth that roared
Even if you tried, you couldn't escape the lips of "Mrs. Jones."
Last spring, Nike aired commercials that only showed extreme close-ups of Mrs. Jones' nose, chin, and mouth. She played the role of a radio DJ sitting at the mic, rappin' out one "communiqué" after another about the toughest issues in sports, including the lack of equal pay for women athletes as compared to men.
By now, most people know that Mrs. Jones was, in fact, Marion Jones, the nation's top-rated Olympic athlete who predicted she would win an unprecedented five gold medals, one each in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, two relay races and the long jump.
At press, she had won the gold in the 100 meters.
But most viewers wouldn't have known that from the Nike ad, which not only didn't reveal Jones's now-famous face, but also didn't include her name, or even mention the fact she is the world's fastest woman, and hasn't lost a race in three years.
To some, the fact that Nike created a big budget campaign before Jones even competed in her first Olympics is of great significance. Many saw it as a sign that society is at last ready to revere and reward women jocks as much as their male counterparts.
To others, however, the ads didn't do enough for women athletes; although Nike is to be commended for its efforts, they say, the company only deserves a bronze medal, not the gold.
You never see male superstars treated as half-nameless, half-faceless character actors, they argue.
The commercials were "a small stride that could have done more," says Barbara Lippert, who writes commentary on advertising trends for Adweek, a respected weekly trade magazine. "I wanted the ads to reveal more of who she was. This is the first generation of women who are comfortable in every possible way, as celebrities, as sex objects, as athletes."
A popular ad for Subaru currently features Martina Navratilova and other women athletes touting the virtues of all-wheel-drive and limited slip rear differential, and ending with an ironic, "what do we know? we're just girls."
Nancy Harrington chair of the UK department of communications says that she believes women are getting slightly more publicity. Of the Subaru ad, Harrington says, "It is relatively empowering, focusing on a woman's power to choose."
An ad for Oxygen sports, featuring women athletes, touts, "44 percent of motorcycle owners are women. 48 percent of truck owners are women. We even know a few who can wipe that stupid smirk off your face." The fine print reads, "Experience the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and see how brightly colored uniforms really clash with black and blue."
Lippert says the Nike ad - featuring Jones as "a cryptic chick" with an agenda, a "mystery mouth" with an attitude - reminds her of the 80s and much of the 90s, when sporting goods ads relegated women to objects of beauty and inspiration "as if they were from another planet."
During that era, Nike allowed male athletes like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley to hype not only the company's products, but their superstar status as well. Women had to settle for the likes of a Sigourney Weaver voice-over: "You were born and oh how you wailed."
"But she might as well have been saying, 'You were born and you had two ovaries,'" Lippert wrote.
On the other hand, some note, Jordan and Barkley are different athletes from women like Marion Jones.
For example, they were athletes who were earning top dollar at the peaks of their careers - whereas Jones was largely unproven at the time of the ad campaign.
There's also the fact that Jordan and Barkley play professional basketball where the players can be seven feet tall, weigh 300 pounds and play almost always gets far more aggressive than a non-team track and field event.
By this same token, it would be ridiculous to imply Shaquille O'Neal has the grace of a female ice skater like Nancy Kerrigan or the speed of a Marion Jones.
Given that these male and female sports deliver radically different experiences, it is possible to argue the ads reflect that.
At least that's part of the Nike party line.
Nameless and faceless... in a GOOD way
The style of the Nike ads were inspired by a 1979 film, The Warriors, which featured a nostril-to-chin female DJ trying to end gang violence over the airwaves.
Nike corporate spokesman Scott Reames says company executives debated whether to reveal the identity of Mrs. Jones in their ads, but opted against it. Their goal, he says, was to create a very stylish grassroots campaign filled with "attitude, feeling and brand awareness." They relied on the handful of truly knowledgeable fans of track and field to pass on Mrs. Jones' identity to their friends, families and colleagues.
"Marion Jones was certainly not as well-known [as other athletes sponsored by Nike]," Reames says. "It was beneficial for Marion to come up with a campaign that is memorable. We were trying to get her more in the public conscious, to let people get to know her better."
Doesn't hiding her identity contradict that goal? Doesn't the fact that Mrs. Jones the character speaks in a very rap-like style - when in real life Jones has a very articulate and poised manner of speaking - take away from her real personality?
"In the odd world of publicity," Reames rationalizes, "it actually raises their profile if you don't beat people over the head" and risk the ill-will of viewers tired of seeing the same old face saying the same old thing.
(Apparently, such concerns of overexposure didn't plague the Michael Jordan campaign.)
When the debate becomes one of entertainment values and marketing strategies, some consider it difficult to classify as clear cut gender discrimination. Rather, the matter is more subjective and those who want to read discrimination into the ads can.
Would someone watching the American Express ad with a silent Tiger Woods hitting golf balls all over New York argue white America is trying to silence a black man? Or would they just see a stylish ad showing Woods doing what he does best?
After all, Jones and Nike agreed on the content of the ads which allowed her to make many arguments- including one that women athletes are not rewarded as their male counterparts.
In one communiqué, she tells her fellow athletes they must serve as role models, whether they want to or not. In another, she talks about the lack of knowledge most Americans have for track and field stars, while in Europe the athletes are afforded celebrity status.
But as this year's Olympics coverage has observed, swimmers in Australia enjoy almost rock-star status - while most Americans would be hard-pressed to name any of our champion divers outside of the year Greg Louganis conked his head on the platform in one of those heartbreaking "agony of defeat" moments.
And the commercial is dead on about the disparity in pay that still exists between women and male athletes.
"Why are sisters makin' less when they're bustin' their butts to the max?" she asks. "Are they playin' any less hard than the fellas? Is their blood any less red? Women receive less. They deserve more. The more the better."
TV critic Ken Tucker has chided the "reflexive sexism" of this year's Olympics coverage, noting, "Women's water polo entrant Maureen O'Toole isn't noteworthy just because she remains a superb athlete at the age of 39, but because, golly, she's 'the only mother on the [U.S.] team'!! Cut to a closeup of O'Toole's daughter Kelly saying how much she misses Mommy when she leaves for a competition. (Number of children I've seen pining for their athlete daddies thus far? Zero.)"
That's show BIDNESS
But is this an issue of business in the entertainment industry rather than one of gender equality?
For example, when the NBA regularly generates more revenue than the WNBA, can the WNBA really afford to pay their players like their male counterparts?
The male and female basketball players may indeed both be "bustin' their butts to the max" (as Jones puts it), but the fact is more people are paying to watch the men do it. Shouldn't both sets of athletes enjoy those rewards proportionately?
That's the cruel world of entertainment.
No one can legislate interest among the American people. Yes, it is a crying shame the Backstreet Boys make truckloads more money than some well-meaning, thoughtful singer/songwriter who will never rise above the coffee house circuit.
Sports - for better and for worse - is all about show business. From the Olympics to the WWF. A case can be made that it's all spectacle.
When women's sports offers something that engages the public, people watch. When they don't, people tune out.
Can the media spend more time covering women's sports? Probably.
But is it a chicken or egg debate?
Media respond to interest. Newspapers put stories on the front page they think will attract readers. And of course, sports programs tend to thrive as their publicity increases.
Consequently, it is up to promoters of women's athletics to build the grass roots support for their events.
And if some women's sports promoters think they have a raw deal based on gender, they need to talk to the poor souls condemened to pushing soccer onto a country that, to date, couldn't care less (outside of those rare moments when an American team somehow finds itself in the World Cup competition).
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world and most Americans would rather watch Survivor reruns.
Instead of complaining about NBA salaries, isn't it up to those running the WNBA to make their league as successful?
The playing field
So is it theoretically sound to lump all sports together, whether for women or men?
Every few years it seems like there is some event (such as the women's soccer team triumph) that prompts breathless commentators to rave "It's a giant breakthrough for women's sports!!!"
And, then the breakthrough doesn't happen.
When women's soccer does well, is the public automatically obligated to watch everything down to neighborhood matchups of women's Foosball?
Some sports are simply more popular than others, regardless of gender.
The average attendance for UK basketball at Rupp Arena was 23, 367 in 1998-1999. Commonwealth stadium averaged 67, 756 in 1999 for football attendance.
In contrast, UK's Lancaster Aquatic Center can accomodate 750 spectators for a swim meet. The Hillary J. Boone Tennis Center can accomdate 1,500, and the W.H.H. Downing Outdoor Complex has seating for 1000. While UK did not report attendance averages, it's fair to say that these sports rarely garner standing-room-only crowds.
Swimming, tennis, and soccer also do not generate any revenue at the University.
UK's revenue forecast was $15,928,800 for football in 1999 while spending was at $11,465,000. The forecast for men's basketball was $9,976,000 , with expenditures of $9,166,000 on the program. UK planned to spend $6.5 million on all other sports combined, but forecast revenue of only $147,500.
Still, much is made over the disparity between the salaries of UK's best-known men's coaches, Tubby Smith (basketball) and Hal Mumme (football) -each make $172,120 -while UK's women's basketball coach, Bernadette Locke Mattox's salary is $101,841.
Smith brings home an extra $1,000,693 in miscellaneous income (endorsements, etc.) and Mattox a scant $21,197.
In fact, Smith has very little in common with his counterpart coaching the female basketball team beyond the fact that they both teach people how to put a ball into a hoop at the same university.
The magnitude of difference in importance the public attaches to the two basketball programs at UK is the difference between throwing a bullet and shooting it.
Smith struggles under the pressures of fans from across the state and beyond when he takes his team into a tournament or even a regular season rivalry.
If Smith drops a game in the first round of the SEC Tournament, fans will riot in the streets. If the women's team is eliminated in the first round, there is a collective sigh. The proportions are admittedly skewed, but they are skewed all the way around.
To put it another way, both Bill Gates and the guy who owns and operates the corner convenience store are in business. The difference between Microsoft and Bob's Grab-n-Pay should speak for itself.
Dollars to Doughnuts
In the particular case of Marion Jones, this female athlete who is just now competing in her first Olympics is by no means a pauper.
She has earned several million dollars since she graduated in 1997 from the University of North Carolina and, along with her husband, fellow Olympic athlete C.J. Hunter, is building an 8,800-square-foot dream house on 10 acres just outside of Chapel Hill.
Jones earns the cash as a sponsor from Nike and GM; appearance fees of $50,000 or so simply for agreeing to race at major events; more than twice that for winning; and bonuses for consistently winning several races during a season at different international venues.
If Nike chose a low-key approach to unveiling Jones, the rest of the corporate world is exploiting her likeness. NBC, which is broadcasting the Olympic games, designed a 7-story billboard of Jones that sits in Times Square. Last week, Jones appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated For Women, Women's Sports Fitness and, believe it or not, the scholarly Scientific American for a special quarterly edition on "Building the Elite Athlete."
And now that the story has broken that her athlete husband has tested positive for steroids, she's feeling the harsher sting of celebrity, along with the financial benefits.
While most of the stories this summer were puff pieces designed to sell magazines and preview the Olympics, Time's story reveals that women, no matter how fast or how strong, are still characterized in female terms. Time's story led off with a discussion of makeup, and included references to how Jones' protects her hairstyle during photo shoots and those oh-so-catty comments from her challengers.
On the other hand, Michael Jordan did underwear ads for Hanes, and no one complained about him being "objectified."
...A long way baby?
While the issue of equality for women athletes - and all women - continues, it is undoubtedly true that Jones epitomizes a new way that Americans view women jocks.
Nike ads routinely portray women superstars like Monica Seles, Mia Hamm and athletes from the WNBA. Women's sports attract hundreds of thousands at the collegiate level and millions more when their sporting matches are aired on a sports television industry hungry for quality competition.
Women's tennis superstar Lindsay Davenport told Fox Sports Biz.com earlier this year that her sport has surpassed the men's game in terms of endorsements.
"Maybe the men are playing the best tennis ever, but they really only have Pete [Sampras] and Andre [Agassi] drawing people," Davenport said. "We have such a great mix of players. A lot more kids and adults can relate to more their type of personality now because there are so many."
And the Williams sisters - Venus and Serena - have enjoyed almost as much press as Tiger Woods did when he first took the golf world by storm.
There's plenty of whining about the fact that top women athletes don't make as much money in endorsement deals as Michael Jordan or Troy Aikman. When in fact, almost NO athletes -male or female -are on the level of Michael Jordan,
A better argument to make the case for gender discrimination in endorsement pay is to compare athletes of similar stature than the lame and disingenuous tactic of stacking a little-known female athlete up against a superstar male athlete.
Title IX requires schools to give equal opportunity for men and women. It doesn't - nor should it even try - to guarantee that fans will love all sports equally.
It's a constant struggle to see that Title IX is faithfully enforced so the level playing field exists. Local school boards, faced with meager resources, often have a knee jerk reaction to dump all the funds into high school boys' football or basketball teams teams.
The local school board will vote in October on how Title IX affects booster funding.
But that's an issue distinct from the breast-beating lamentations of those wondering why the WNBA isn't as popular as the NBA.
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