The naked truth: Beard not hurting sports
Michael Rosenberg / FOXSports.com
Posted: 18 hours ago
Can we talk about naked women? Is that OK? We'll try to keep it mature and intelligent ... but not so mature and intelligent that you forget we are talking about naked women.
Three-time U.S. Olympian Amanda Beard will pose nude for Playboy. Or, more likely, she has already posed nude for Playboy. In any event, the pictures will hit newsstands soon.
Quite a few people will condemn Beard for setting a bad example. Many will scurry to see pictures of her. And some folks will do both.
Beard can do whatever she'd like, of course. This is a free country. Posing nude might not be as noble as teaching a college physics class, but I suspect it pays better, and you don't have to hold office hours. Anyway, Beard's choice is just that: her choice.
Yet it is fair to wonder what, if anything, this means for female athletes in the United States.
Do they have to pose naked to become famous? Of course not — most famous female athletes have not posed nude. But are good looks a prerequisite for female athletes to become famous? Yeah, pretty much.
Granted, good looks are usually a prerequisite for most people to become famous — anybody except athletes.
And maybe that is what this tells us: We see famous male athletes as athletes, but we see famous female athletes simply as famous people. Most sports fans know who Amanda Beard is, but I would bet that at least 95 percent have no idea what her best stroke is. Michael Phelps is famous for being a great swimmer; Amanda Beard is famous for being an attractive swimmer, even though she has won seven medals in three Olympics and is preparing for her fourth trip to the Summer Games.
Female athletes have as high a profile as they ever have — I would wager there are more famous female athletes now than at any time in history. But to the extent that those athletes have been able to cash in on their fame, it has been as endorsers more than as athletes. There are exceptions, of course — notably tennis players. But even that exception comes with a caveat or two, because Maria Sharapova, as talented as she is, is still more famous for being beautiful.
It would be easy to pin this on male sports fans, but since there are 150 million women in this country, that isn't entirely fair. Culturally, we have embraced women's sports more on principle than as spectacle.
Being attractive helps female athletes become famous. This is indisputable. But it is also indisputable that being an athlete helps attractive women become famous. Beard has a large male fan club not merely because she is good-looking, but because she is a good-looking swimmer. Somehow — even when she poses for Playboy — her athletic feats give her innocence. They make it OK to ogle her.
As Michael MacCambridge points out in his excellent book, The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, one of the keys to the success of SI's swimsuit issue was that the model's name appeared in the captions.
This seemingly insignificant detail made a world of difference.
Amanda Beard, second from left, has already posed in her bathing suit for FHM. Now she'll be posing sans suit for Playboy.
Readers were not just looking at scantily clad babes — they were looking at Cheryl and Christie and Paulina, and they felt like they were getting to know them. (How can a man convince himself he knows a hot woman simply because he knows her name? If you are really asking that, I must counter with: have you ever met a man? This is how we operate.)
Playboy features beautiful naked women every month. People who don't normally buy Playboy will buy the issue with Amanda Beard on the cover, even if they would normally find one of the other Playmates more attractive. They feel like they know Amanda Beard in large part because they've been watching her compete for the last 11 years.
This is why the notion that Beard is "hurting" women's sports falls flat. She has posed previously in FHM, nearly naked. She has appeared in SI's swimsuit issue (and not in her competition Speedo). Beard is not exchanging her athletic fame for the fame of a model — her athletic fame is the fame of a model.