Last week, the New York Times ran a fiercely opinionated column about Lolo Jones, the photogenic, highly quotable hurdles competitor. Jones ran into the London Games as one of the more famous American Olympians. This was not because of her accomplishments. This was because of her remarkable rise from poverty and because she has a knack for pitching herself. This is the same knack enjoyed by men such as David Beckham and Tim Tebow.
Tebow and Beckham are not the best in the their chosen sports fields. They are among the best at grabbing endorsements.
There has been a storm of protest about the Times’ column, and the protest has been led by American sports columnists.
Here’s how I see it:
Many of us are still not ready for female athletes to be scrutinized and criticized at the same level as male athletes. LeBron James was destroyed daily for his inability to win a title. (I did some of the destroying.) All he did in his first nine seasons is win three MVP awards and carry two teams to the NBA Finals. That’s all. And yet he was endlessly criticized. (Not without some reason.)
You could see this one coming for Jones. She was the third-best American hurdler in her event, but she was in many ways America’s female face of the Games. I believe she’s an intensely honest person. That’s just how she approaches life. Others saw her rise in the public eye as a cynical pursuit of cash.
We, as sports journalists, often have a different approach when covering female athlete. You could call it a double standard. I’d just call it different. Usually, it’s a more gentle approach. When, for instance, the American women’s soccer team blew a late lead against Japan in the World Cup, most journalists wrote about what a great game it had been and how wonderful it was Japan’s team had delivered some comfort to their country after the earthquake. A men’s team would have been bombarded with criticism after a similar collapse.
And sometimes it’s more harsh. I think of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert, who played against Air Force Academy a few times in her career. You might remember Lambert; she violently pulled the hair of a Brigham Young opponent in 2009. The response was astonishing. She was attacked from all sides, called a thug and worse.
Lambert suffered because the general public, and sports journalists, were shocked to see such behavior from a woman. If a male player had done the same thing, there would have been a strong reaction, but nothing like the reaction that rained down on Lambert.
Lolo Jones made a nice chunk of money on endorsements. It’s silly for anyone to suggest she should have walked away from the offers.
But if the third-best male hurdler had done the same thing, he would have been criticized, too.
He wouldn’t have been endlessly defended.
Here’s a column by Geoff Caulkins of Memphis Commercial Appeal defending Jones. It’s well written. It’s also typical of Jones’ many defenders:
And here’s a column I wrote about Elizabeth Lambert before her last visit to Air Force as a player: