Female athletes like Amanda Beard, who just posed for Playboy, can't win. It's not just because the media only portrays them in extremes: men or sex objects. But those who decry decisions like Beard's in the name of women's rights are missing the point.
Amanda Beard is 25 and on the tail end of an Olympic swimming career that includes seven medals (two golds). She has chosen to use her beauty to increase her fame with spreads for Maxim, FHM, Sports Illustrated, and now Playboy. She's trying to turn herself into a brand before her shelf life expires. As her spread in Playboy reads, "At 25 she also happens to be a businesswoman, a spokesperson, a brand name and a mogul in the making."
Woman in sports have always faced tough problems. Whether they are demeaned as not as good as men (the WNBA), portrayed as undesirably masculine (Venus and Serena Williams), or objectified as sex symbols (Anna Kournikova), there seems to be little room for them to be simply good. Nevertheless, this is the landscape Beard faces, and she has chosen to embrace one of those images, to take control of it, in an effort to further her career.
And those who would ostensibly support the cause of women in sport are speaking out against her. Carol Slezak, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times compares Beard to a prostitute, writing "I realize that getting paid for naked photos that sell the idea of sex is not the same as getting paid for sex. But it's not all that different, either."
Slezak argues that Beard is setting the cause of female athletes back by trading on her sex appeal, that Beard is "selfish." What does Slezak and those who espouse similar views expect? For Beard to become a martyr for the cause of women's rights in sports, to pass up her extraordinary opportunities for a career of commentating on swim meets once every four years? We revere athletes as role models for their power and fitness and determination then decry them for virtues it would be a lucky coincidence if they had: far-sightedness and brilliance.
But I think those who speak out against Beard miss the larger point as well: change is not going to come about in coverage of women's sports from a boycott of sexy spreads by female athletes. You have to change the rules from within, and that means being in the public eye.
Look at Jackie Robinson (although I hesitate to compare Ms. Beard to Jackie Robinson, one of my and America's greatest heroes). He agreed that for the first few years of his playing career, he would stay silent in the face of the abuse and let his bat and legs do the talking. After Jackie had gained the love and acceptance of his team and the nation, he fought back, bringing the civil rights cause to new heights. In that way, he mirrored the careers of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, the former of whose "acceptable" silence made the first inroads for America's embrace of black athletes, paving the way for Ali's outspokenness.
The point is, you can't make a difference if nobody is listening to you. And the way to get people to listen is to play their game. The real question is, what will Ms. Beard do with the platform she is establishing? Her website says that she is interested in both "creating her own line of health care and beauty products" and "impact young swimmers throughout the United States about overcoming obstacles and setting high goals." It is what she does with her platform, more than the material she uses to build it, on which we should ultimately judge her.