Tight Shorts

brandi chastain
Brandi Chastain celebrates victory.

At the 1999 Women's World Cup, before a sold-out crowd of 90,185 fans and an estimated 40 million television viewers, American soccer defender Brandi Chastain celebrated victory by throwing off her jersey and running excitedly around the field in a black sports bra. This moment is arguably one of the greatest moments in women's sports, not only because it provided the country with a ready-made debate about women's sports and sexuality, but also because the tournament garnered unprecedented support from well-versed fans and relative newcomers.

The dramatic conclusion -- after 90 minutes of regulation play, 30 minutes of overtime, and a series of penalty kicks, Chastain scored the winning goal -- was the perfect way to pique the general public's interest in women's sports, showing that female athletes were made of the same grit and determination as their male counterparts.

Women continue to blaze trails in sports, particularly in sports that historically have been dominated by men. In May 2003, golf star Annika Sorenstam was the first woman to play alongside men at the Bank of America Colonial in 54 years. The New York Times recently reported that women's college basketball is gaining more attention and growing attendance levels, while the men's game is suffering from a statistical drop in performance and only slight increases in attendance numbers. Nearly eight years after it was founded as the first women's professional athletic league in the U.S., the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) still thrives, and enjoyed a global television audience of over 60 million in 2001.

The success of women in sports is no doubt the result of a combination of factors, including a 1972 law (Title IX) that mandates equity in federally funded sports programs, the popularity and star power of accomplished female athletes like Billie Jean King, Mary Lou Rhetton, and Serena and Venus Williams, and the growing marketability of women's sports. Despite the advances of the past three decades, however, female athletes still struggle with how to present their sexuality on and off the field.

serena williams
Serena Williams

Though it spurred an international dialogue, Chastain's victory dance -- not unlike those in the men's league -- seems like ancient history now, especially at a time when female athletes actively capitalize on their good looks to carve out careers as actresses or models. In addition to the obvious example of tennis star Anna Kournikova, Serena Williams, with six major tennis titles under her belt, has not played in eight months due to an injury, but has been spotted in a Nike commercial as a volleyball player (a deal that netted her $40 million), modeled a bathing suit in Sports Illustrated, and appeared in an episode of "Street Time." While many female athletes struggle to prove their legitimacy by not flaunting their sexuality, others embrace it for personal, professional and financial reasons.

Recently Sepp Blatter, head of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) which puts on the World Cup, opened this Pandora's box when he remarked that American professional female soccer players should start wearing "tighter shorts" in order to revive their indebted league. Players from the American women's league sounded a loud refusal in response to Blatter, and critics briefly meditated on his observation while passing it off as old-fashioned rhetoric.

sepp blatter
Sepp Blatter

Blatter's blabbering may have come as somewhat of a surprise since in October of 2003, he expressed candid support for a serious women's professional league and even attributed difficulties of achieving this in Europe to an "overloaded men's calendar." Blatter tried to explain his logic: if women appealed to audiences on a sexual, or perhaps more "womanly" level, major sponsors would line up with the advertising dollars necessary to keep the league afloat.

Clean & Clear, Coca Cola, McDonald's and Dasani, among others, already sponsor the league, so it's hard to imagine just what kind of high powered companies Blatter wants to attract for women's soccer. Perhaps in Blatter's eyes women have a great advantage: they have the ability to uniquely sell sex -- and sex does sell very, very well. For the female athletes who see an opportunity in putting sexuality before their sport, this formula is effective.

Yet, for the athletes who enjoy the relief a sport offers from the constant pressure to be sexy and attractive, the expectation to intertwine sex and sports can be maddening. To tell dedicated female athletes that they have to actively market themselves as sex objects in exchange for better business or higher ticket sales is not the way to go about raising money or encouraging sincere interest in women's sports.

Instead, the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) came up with a far better plan. Though the American soccer league folded in September of 2003, even after investors sunk $100 million into the enterprise, WUSA launched a new sales plan in February to gauge and build interest in reviving the league for a full season in 2005. The "Keep the WUSA Dream Alive" multi-year ticket campaign aims to encourage its grassroots supporters -- including soccer clubs -- to commit to buying a minimum of $1,000 worth of tickets per year for three consecutive years. WUSA also encourages individuals to pledge money, and representatives say they have already received an outpouring of support from across the globe.

Blatter's remarks, while they sound simply foolish, are indicative of a larger issue: business people, female athletes, fans, and the general public continue to wrestle with how to handle sexuality in women's sports. For some, it is a tool that may be empowering, and almost always is profitable. For others, it detracts from the sport and the legitimacy of the players.

In this society, where crossover ventures and multi-talented entrepreneurs are the keys to profit, there will always be athletes who want to be more than just sports stars (think of Michael Jordan's foray into movies). Hopefully, this trend will belong to the individual, and not be forced upon a team or franchise. It is heartening to see that WUSA had no interest in actualizing Blatter's vision of professional athletes running around in tight shorts to make a quick buck. The true visionaries in this case, are those who honored the sport and its players by not making it a spectacle.

Rebecca Ruiz is a freelance writer and executive assistant at a non-profit research and advocacy think tank in New York. She's played soccer, competitively and recreationally, for 16 years.

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