Women Olympians Still Anonymous?
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 predicts she will win an unprecedented five gold medals, one each in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, two relay races and the long jump.
But most viewers wouldn't have known that from the Nike ad, which not only didn't reveal Jones' 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. It shows that society is at last ready to revere and reward women jocks as much as their male counterparts.
"It's the final validation for women sports," says Ron Rapoport a veteran sports reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of Jones' new biography, See How She Runs (Algonquin Books, 207 pages, $21.95).
"It used to be parents didn't encourage their daughters to participate in sports," Rapoport says. "Girls did girl things, boys did boy things. All that has changed during Marion's [career]. Both the public and corporate America is waiting for someone like her. We're ready for this. We're hungry for this."
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.
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."
Lippert says the ad -- featuring Jones as "a cryptic chick" with an agenda, a "mystery mouth" with an attitude -- reminds of 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 commented in a June 12 column.
The style of the Nike ads -- which aired in May and June -- 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? Isn'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 says, "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.
Jones and Nike agreed on the content of the ads. 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.
Another 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."
Jones is by no means a pauper, although she doesn't earn nearly as much as a Michael Jordan, a Mark McGwire or a Troy Aikman. 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."
While most of the stories 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.
The story even raised the question of whether Jones, who is 7 years younger than her husband, views CJ as more of a father figure than a soul mate. Jones' father abandoned her when she was an infant and her stepfather died when she was 11. In contrast, male locker rooms across the nation are filled with boasting of last night's sexual conquests (remember Wilt Chamberlain's claim of bedding 20,000 ladies), but you never see the media asking if the guys have a daughter fetish.
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 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.
Although Brandi Chastain is still noted for yanking off her shirt after the U.S. Women's Soccer Team won the World Cup last year, most people in reality marveled at the skill of the team and celebrated when the women won.
Rapoport, the sports writer and Jones' biographer, remembers that it wasn't so long ago when this attitude toward female athletes was unheard of. He covered Florence Joyner Griffith when she took the 1988 Olympics by storm.
"Attitudes toward women have changed," Rapoport says. "We didn't know what to make of Flo-Jo. Madison Avenue certainly wasn't interested. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. She was never on TV selling soap. If she came along today, she'd be huge, just huge."
You can just imagine how wealthy Wilma Rudolph would have been if she became the first American woman to win three gold medals at this year's Olympics instead of 1960's. She would have been rich; instead, she took a job as a schoolteacher when the flames of the games four decades ago died out.
Or, as Jones told Rapoport, "I came along at the right time."