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Candace Parker and the Marketability of Female Olympic Athletes

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A week ago, writer Selena Roberts wrote an article about the declining marketability of female Olympic athletes, highlighted by the disheartening Marion Jones controversy.

Although female Olympic athletes experienced a brief period of popularity after the 1996 Olympics, according to Roberts, female athletes' performance on the court or field of play is no longer enough to attain stardom.

What's in Vogue? Fewer female Olympians, more LeBron James. What's a gal gotta do to get a little attention? Play a man, be a novelty. That's how Michelle Wie has flexed her endorsement power despite never winning on the LPGA Tour. That's how Danica Patrick has landed on the SI cover twice in three years. And in between Patrick? No solo act has appeared on the cover of SI without wearing a swimsuit.

But one person Roberts didn't mention is Candace Parker, who is participating in her first Olympics as a reserve on the U.S. women’s basketball team and has gotten more national media attention over the past few days. Some people have already anointed her as the star, but can she overcome the barriers that Roberts laid out?

It might seem at first that Parker doesn’t quite fit Roberts’ "criteria" for sustainable stardom. Parker did first gain mainstream attention for winning the 2004 Slam Dunk contest at the McDonald’s High School All-American Game, but that’s not exactly an example of playing men head-to-head. And although she is a WNBA rookie and the first WNBA player to dunk twice, she is not the same type of "pioneering" novelty as Patrick, who is unique as a woman in the male dominated world of auto racing.

However, Parker has something that the other athletes mentioned in Roberts' article don’t: she’s already won on a big stage once this year (the NCAA championship at the University of Tennessee under the legendary Pat Summit) and now has the unprecedented opportunity to win a NCAA title, a gold medal and a WNBA championship in one calendar year. In other words, Parker is a star in her own right with or without a strong Olympic performance.

So what can Parker gain from the Olympics? It seems as though Parker might be an exception to the recent trend observed by Roberts among Olympic athletes – it’s conceivable that even one significant performance as a reserve in Beijing combined with her pre-Olympic stardom could catapult Parker into a level of superstardom not previously inhabited by any female athlete.

The sexualization of female athletes

Roberts’ observation that no female "solo act has appeared on the cover of SI without wearing a swimsuit" highlights the sexualization of female athletes at the Olympics, which is a barrier to stardom that all female athletes must deal with. From Kayla at
Why is it that women cannot simply be strong, powerful, and athletic? Why must they be sexualized and forced in to evening gowns? And why is it that similar articles featuring men are never published? Oh, right. It's the Olympics. Of course the big, strong men will be going. But these muscular, toned women? Let's just cover up all of that masculine power with a sexy dress so we aren't too afraid to ogle their tits.
As a result of the Western beauty ideal, there is often an attempt to portray female athletes in their most "feminine" light. Women’s basketball in particular does not traditionally lend itself well to the sexualization of athletes, primarily because basketball has been considered as a "man’s sport" due to its physicality and premium on height. Therefore, women who play basketball often unfairly have their femininity, sexuality, and attitude questioned under the assumption that they are trying to be like men.

However, that has not stopped people from trying to mold basketball players to fit some elusive ideal – the much talked about make-up classes for WNBA rookies and Australia’s provocative photo shoots are examples of that. The photo shoots are particularly relevant to this topic: Australia’s Lauren Jackson and Erin Phillips participated in them prior to the Olympics as a means to draw attention to their women's basketball team. An excerpt from a Daily Telegraph about Phillips:
While basketball has traditionally struggled to create a profile on Australia’s sporting landscape, Phillips’ lingerie shoot is set to help put the Opals on the map.
So can Parker become popular without a lingerie (or nude) shoot? I think so.

As Lisa Leslie has said multiple times, Parker is attractive but she also has a college degree, she’s smart and she can play ball. Plus, she's confident without being excessively cocky. And in the words of China’s coach Tom Maher:
"She's the whole package," Maher says. "She's smart. She's bloody gorgeous. It's just not fair. God picks and chooses."
Parker is attractive enough to fit most people's beauty ideal, but she's also so exceptional as a person and a player that she's hard to dismiss.

Where are the black female athlete role models?

Not only is Parker a perfect marketing icon, but she's also a role model, which sounds like pretty standard rhetoric for a WNBA player. From Parker, via the Boston Globe:
"I'm playing so my daughter and my son would have the same opportunity. If she wants to play basketball, then she can have a career playing basketball and all the doors will be open. I think it's just about making steps."
Unfortunately, the black female basketball player role model is a rarity in the mainstream, despite the success of Parker's teammate Lisa Leslie and a number of other upstanding WNBA citizens.

Think back to Roberts’ claim about the rarity of female "solo acts" appearing on Sports Illustrated covers. Well, that track record is even worse for black female athletes, according to the Women in Mass Communication blog.
I was surprised to find when conducting research on sports magazine covers that black female basketball players were rarely present. In its 10 years of existence, ESPN magazine has never had a black female basketball player on the cover. There have however been other black female athletes on covers, mainly from tennis (Venus and Serena.) Furthermore there have been white female basketball players. Thus it seems that the problem is not necessarily with black female athletes, or with women’s basketball players, but it arises when the two combine. This suggests that the message a black female basketball player sends is thought too controversial.
With this and Roberts’ account, it’s fair to say that the two major sports magazines have a poor track record when it comes to black female athletes. So how will Candace Parker avoid the same fate?

It's hard to imagine anything that would liberate Parker (or others) from the racialized assumptions about black femininity. But Parker might have something else that mitigates the effects of racism on her star potential. An admittedly decontextualized excerpt from a 2000 Village Voice article written by Alisa Solomon (still relevant and worth a read):
...our culture's abiding racialized definitions of femininity make it that much harder to tame African American athletes as sex kittens and girls-next-door...So out come the boyfriends and body-masking flouncy skirts in a desperate effort to assure a male-dominated culture that just because a woman is strong doesn't mean that her body doesn't still belong to guys. But this is an old story. Hyper-hetero femininity has been saturating our media culture for ages. What's different now is that it's not the only body ideal out there.
The Candace Parker image right now has been crafted as the "girl-next-door" and seems to persist despite her involvement in the Shock-Sparks melee. But sadly, following Solomon's logic, the fact that Parker is so often associated with her fiancee -- NBA player Shelden Williams -- only makes her more palatable to mainstream society.

The ironic thing is that Williams doesn’t have quite the basketball resume that Parker has. And in fact, if it’s true that Parker makes more endorsement money than the majority of her NBA counterparts, Williams is very likely part of that under-endorsed majority, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the image constructed about Parker thus far comes off as "friendly" in a society that has been decidedly unfriendly toward black female basketball players.

It's certainly debatable as to whether the visibility of her spouse actually helps Parker's mainstream appeal. But the visibility of a spouse combined with extended mainstream exposure as a basketball player might just make Parker more palatable to the "unfriendly majority". In other words, it will be difficult to just dismiss Parker as less-than-feminine, homosexual, or angry when we’ve known her to be otherwise since age 18.

Beijing is just preparation for a bright Olympic future

It's hard to pinpoint one thing that will help Parker rise above the trend among female athletes that Roberts' lays out -- it really is the combination of multiple things. However, that doesn't mean Parker is transcendent or that the barriers for women are less than they were a decade ago. It means that Parker is so exceptional and likable that she is able to succeed despite the barriers. And really, it's hard not to like Parker on some level. A quote from Lisa Leslie via the Boston Globe summarizes what makes the "Parker package" so marketable:
"I think she's built to be in the spotlight. She's a pretty girl with a sweet heart and personality and a natural love for people. On the court, her skills are great and they speak for themselves."
Nevertheless, as the Boston Globe’s Marc J. Spears writes, "Candace Parker’s got next" – Team USA is not yet "her team". So the greatest value of the 2008 Olympics to Parker’s marketability may be as preparation for future Olympic stardom built upon increased WNBA visibility.

Similar to LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Kobe Bryant on the U.S. men’s basketball team, even a bad performance (2004) could set the stage for wider stardom in subsequent performances (2008). So perhaps if we exercise some patience Parker will be an even bigger star before the 2012 Olympics – she’ll have four more years of professional experience, probably a few more accolades and records broken, and still have the winning personality that makes her so marketable to the mainstream.

Imagine the headlines for the U.S. women's basketball team for the 2012 Olympics: "Can Candace Parker establish herself as the leader of Team USA and usher in a new era in U.S. women’s basketball?" Sound cheesy? Of course. But no cheesier than the "Redeem Team" that will inevitably enhance the already astronomical marketability of NBA stars Bryant, James, and Wade.

The fact that Parker is getting experience now and formally "introducing" herself to the world seems to make her marketability in subsequent Olympics even greater than some might imagine. Moreover, as unbelievable as it sounds, the potential "triple crown" that Parker could win in 2008 might not even scratch the surface of her stardom -- by the end of her career, it might even be an after-thought.

I’ll close with a dose of hyperbole from Maher (via USA Today) that rivals Michael Cooper’s hyperbolic proclamations about Parker:
"I always say Einstein was probably the smartest person in the world when he was 20," Maher says. "But he was smarter at 30. Give her time. She's going to be great."
Transition points:

More on the issue of sports magazine representation
from the Women’s Sports Foundation:
In the U.S. sports media, women of color receive considerably less coverage than their white female counterparts and are often depicted in a racially stereotypical manner. For example, of the 151 CN/WS&F magazine covers published between 1975 and 1989, only 12 pictured women of color, all Black women, and only 8% of the featured articles were written about Black women with nearly 70% of these articles focused on track athletes or basketball players (Leath and Lumpkin, 1992). In reviewing 13 editions of CN/WS&F published between 1997 and 1999, I found no women of color on the cover and only 21% shown in the photographs accompanying sport articles.
It might be interesting to pay closer attention to Williams’ games with the Sacramento Kings this year to see if Parker is mentioned as often to determine whether there is an imbalance. However, I have never heard an NBA spouse mentioned for any reason other than being attractive (and coincidentally, it’s the spouse of an unrelated Parker – Tony).

Relevant Links:

Gender and the selection of public athletic role models.

Must-read posts about Olympic uniforms and photography

Reviews mixed for Olympic gender equity

The XY Games: The Olympics and Gender.

(Dis)Empowering Images? Media Representations of Women in Sport

Recent sports articles remind us that female athletes are (sexual and maternal) women first