by Meghan Reilly
Terry Francona, manager of the Boston Red Sox from 2004-2011, recently published an excerpt from his book, Francona: The Red Sox Years, in Sports Illustrated. His book, co-written with Dan Shaughnessy, a journalist for The Boston Globe, focuses on his experiences managing the Red Sox.
In this particular excerpt, Francona and Shaughnessy concentrate on the past few years, when the Red Sox went into a slump. According to Francona, in July 2012, they met with officials from NESN to find out why the team’s TV ratings were so low. After hiring a team of consultants, and studying the results, one of the primary reasons NESN felt people, women especially, were losing interest in watching the team play was because the players were not sexy enough. They felt as if the team needed to add some sex appeal.
Theo Epstein, the Red Sox’s general manager at the time was “insulted, amused…and angry” with this finding. However, “In direct response to the pressure from his bosses and the sagging ratings, Epstein went to work to build a sexier team for 2011.”
What is not to be overlooked in this situation is how absurd these men felt it was that women were not watching the Red Sox because the players were not sexy, when, in fact, the exact same problem has plagued women’s sports for years. In many cases, female athletes are not recognized by society and the media unless they exhibit sex appeal. As athletes, women do not only have to prove their athletic ability, but they also have to be attractive to gain respect and attention from male, and female, spectators.
The sexualizing of women in sports is evident in the actions of the media. Usually, athletic achievement can be found on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a magazine that has existed for the past 57 years. The magazine comes out with 56 issues a year, few of which have a woman on the cover. According to theatlantic.com, by 2011, excluding the swimsuit issue, a woman had only appeared on the cover 66 times or just over once a year. Several of these covers honor women for their athletic accomplishments, while others call into question the intention of the photograph.
For example, in 2000, tennis star Anna Kournikova appeared on the cover in an orange blouse, wearing her hair down and staring into the camera while hugging a pillow. Nowhere on the cover is there a visual indication that she is a tennis player; it only sports the suggestive headline, “Advantage, Kournikova.” Similarly, Jenny Finch, an Olympic softball pitcher, appeared on the cover wearing a denim skirt and a tank top, exposing her midriff and lower back. The cover declared that SI was throwing a party, and “Jenny Finch will be there.” Although SI spoke to their athletic prowess inside the magazine, the blatant sexualization of these women on the cover of the magazine cannot be overlooked.
Furthermore, female athletes who are not feminine enough are instantly singled out, and their athletic achievements are pushed aside in the sudden onslaught of media attention. For example, Caster Semenya, an Olympic mid-distance runner from South Africa, was forced to undergo gender testing because of her appearance.
According to cnn.com, after setting a record at the world championships in Berlin in 2009, Semenya’s “masculine build, chiseled abs and deep voice fueled rumors about her gender, sparking an international outcry.” She had to undergo tests conducted by the International Association of Athletics Federation after her performance in order to continue competing and was sidelined for a year. The fact that a female athlete in her prime was forced to sit out a year for gender testing because she did not appear feminine enough is absurd, and only outdone by the basis of the accusation: that she was too fast.
Although Semenya’s case is the farthest the accusations have gone, other female athletes have also received negative reactions from society based off of their physical appearance. According to thedailybeast.com, Serena Williams was called a “shemale” and a transsexual early in career because of her success in tennis.
In addition, Brittney Griner, a freshman at Baylor University, who led her team to an undefeated season and an NCAA basketball championship, has suffered constantly from accusatory statements concerning her femininity. Griner, such a spectacular athlete that she was named Athlete of the Year at ESPN’s ESPY awards, along with LeBron James, is taunted by her teammates in practice to prepare her emotionally for away games and the comments she will receive from fans about her appearance, according to espn.com.
Unfortunately, the acceptance of athletes that do not meet society’s qualification of femininity is not helped in by the suggestive appearances of female athletes in the media. Although the semi-nude or suggestive appearances of female athletes in various magazines and advertisements garner attention for that particular athlete, it is only detrimental to the future of women’s sports.
Individually, female athletes can prosper financially and become more popular, but as a whole, the negative exposure sets the progress of female athletics back even farther. By posing nude or in a sexually suggestive manner, female athletes are only encouraging the attention of society, not the respect. Furthermore, by promoting their bodies, female athletes are submitting themselves for judgment solely based on their appearance, conforming to the mold that fellow athletes have been working so hard to break away from.
Over the past few years, female athletes have become more widely recognized by society and have garnered a significantly larger fan base. However, it is unfortunate that a large percentage of the initial support is credited to the attractiveness and sexualization of the females. Also, it is unfair that a certain athlete’s achievements are hidden under the society’s disapproval of their appearance.
In this day and age, where hundreds of world records are broken a year and millions of members of society tune in to watch their fellow citizens represent their country during world championships and the Olympic Games, athletes, male or female, should be noticed and appreciated for their abilities and accomplishments. The athletic achievements of women should not be undermined by the appearance of the achiever.