Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Are we in danger of seeing female athletes with first-rate bodies and faces but second-rate skills being manufactured as money-making endorsement machines?

That’s the question raised by Anna Kournikova, the blonde Russian tennis player who rakes in the money while continuing to lose–and lose and lose. She’s lost in the first round of all the Grand Slams this year and she’s never won an important tournament. Last week she lost her opening match at the U.S. Open, making 40 unforced errors to the boos of the crowd.

At Wimbledon, she blew up and walked out when a BBC interviewer asked her about her inability to win. She’s hired old pro Harold Solomon as her coach, but it’s clear that she doesn’t have to win to earn. And that’s corrosive in sports.

Venus Williams has a contract with Reebok that will garner her $40 million over five years, but she’s earned it. She has a killer forehand, the looks of an Ashanti princess and a Wimbledon title.

Meanwhile, Kournikova’s take from Berlei bras, Pegasus cell phones and others has been estimated at between $20 million and $40 million a year. The Guardian of London says, “There never has been a marketing phenomenon like this in tennis.” She earns more money than any other female athlete in the world.

The problem isn’t that Anna’s sex appeal sells; many athletes, male and female, trade on their looks. Would Tiger Woods get so many endorsements if he weren’t a hunky guy? Or Derek Jeter? Or a whole slew of NFL quarterbacks?

Anna Sells Sex and Failure

The problem is that these folks sell sex and success, while Anna sells sex and failure. In sports, you should win at least once in a while to get big bucks.

It’s hard to find a parallel to Anna in men’s sports. Maybe Andre Agassi, in the days when he had golden tresses and a “rebel” image. But even though Andre hadn’t yet won a major title when he got endorsements, he had come pretty close, and his play on the court was as exciting as his presence off it.

Sports has a certain purity. The rules say that to win, you have to have better skills than the other guy or gal. Luck may save you once in a while, but not over the long haul. That’s what makes sports different than, say, modeling or movie stardom. Either you are born with the cheekbones of a supermodel or you aren’t, and that’s it. Life isn’t fair.

But sports should be fair–at least to some degree. One reason we admire sports heroes is that they risk so much, so publicly. They are the men and women in the arena, faces covered with sweat and dust, every move mercilessly public. No spin-doctor, no PR consultant or media manager can be there at the net with you on the final point. It’s just you–with your grit, your talent, your heart and maybe a bit of luck. It’s one of the few unscripted public moments in a 24-hour media world. Maybe that’s why we like it so much.

And that’s the problem with Anna K. She hasn’t earned her riches in a place where you are supposed to. Would anyone be upset if a beauty like Anna got on the cover of Playboy, or Vogue? Not a wit. We don’t expect the people who wind up on those covers to have earned anything but celebrity. But Sports Illustrated? Ah, that’s different.

Marketing of Anna Has Retro Quality

The marketing of Anna has a retro quality to it. She’s deliberately sold as a Lolita, a pouting blonde teen-ager whose sexuality seems to be about seeking the approval of some powerful other, as opposed to a celebration of an inner, adult sexuality.

On the other hand, when Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt in the finals of the World Cup soccer match, she wasn’t thinking about endorsements or pleasing some man. She was doing just what the guys do, whooping for joy and rejoicing in a healthy, athletic body. But Korniklova, in a sex kitten pose on the cover of Sports Illustrated, harked back to the days of a joyless Marilyn Monroe, marketed like a piece of meat.


Does the fact that Anna is not only a nymphet, but one who loses, have appeal for some men? Does the fierce joy of a Chastain in full victorious stride or a Williams smashing a 100-plus-mile-an-hour serve make these women too fierce? Is Anna a throwback to the days when to be appealing, women had to be powerless?

The sad thing for Anna herself is that while she’s getting very rich, she’s becoming a joke among those who care about sports. An Associated Press story recently compared her to model Anna Nicole Smith, whose reality TV show has made her a national joke. Anna K. is turning into another Gorgeous Gussie Moran, the 1950s tennis star of middling talent, remembered only for the lace she used to wear on her tennis undies.

As a young athlete who played briefly on the junior circuit, I had nothing but contempt for Gussie. She hadn’t earned her ink, and for a true jock, that was nothing but a foul.

The marketing of Anna may, in fact, be destroying any chance she might have of really making it as an athlete. Martina Navratilova says that Anna has good hands and a lot of speed, but seems to lack certain necessary attributes. “It’s akin to kid that has rich parents,” she says. “They really don’t have the motivation.”

Agents Prowl Looking for Blonds Who Have ‘The Package’

All the attention to Anna has another sinister aspect. Today, news reports say, sports agents prowl the junior circuit, looking not for another Serena, Venus or Jennifer who will battle for the gold, but for blond, nubile young women who will have, in the words of one agent, “the package.”

But being a part of the package has its price. A “package” is utterly passive–that’s the one thing an athlete can’t be. The loneliness of the long-distance runner is the loneliness of all athletes in the end.

No coach, no parent, no mentor, can be inside your head or your body. I remember winning one grueling three-hour match and feeling, at the end, utterly exhausted but utterly wonderful. I had won it, on my own, and no one would ever be able to take that away from me. It gave me a confidence that has never left me.

Young girls need to know that this feeling doesn’t come from endorsements or agents or your own Web site. You have to earn it. In 30 years, will Anna Kournikova take much joy in the yellowing pinup pictures or the trinkets from her sponsors? (She won’t be a bag lady, and that’s a good thing.) But I would guess that somewhere deep down, Anna K. would trade most of the false gold she’s won by being pretty and nubile for just one real golden trophy at Wimbledon. Or one day in the sun of Center Court in the finals of the U.S. Open.

There, you win or you lose. You can’t fake it. And if you do win, perhaps the greatest reward is simply the doing of it. No million-dollar endorsement can even come close to that.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

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