The reaction to Jeré Longman’s story on American Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones in The New York Times Sunday was as swift and harsh as his piece that slammed her for waging “a sad and cynical marketing campaign” around her sex appeal, in lieu of what he claims are any significant athletic accomplishments:
“Women have struggled for decades to be appreciated as athletes. For the first time at these Games, every competing nation has sent a female participant. But Jones is not assured enough with her hurdling or her compelling story of perseverance. So she has played into the persistent, demeaning notion that women are worthy as athletes only if they have sex appeal. And, too often, the news media have played right along with her.”
This is one of the most sexist things I’ve seen written about a female athlete in quite a while, and it comes from a journalist who professes to care deeply about women’s sports. Unfortunately, Longman doesn’t seem to respect the individual choices of female athletes to do, and be, as they damn well please.
Deadspin’s Isaac Rauch jumped all over Longman in a flash, pointing out that he “pretty explicitly calls her a traitor to her gender” for risqué magazine poses, including ESPN The Magazine. More than that, however, the Times writer — whom I first met covering the Women’s World Cup in 1999 — is guilty of missing what has made Jones a hot media commodity. It’s not necessarily her body, or her looks. Writes Rauch:
“As it has with many other athletes, the media has allocated attention to her because she’s more interesting than most of her peers. She’s comfortable talking about a troubled childhood in public; other athletes aren’t.”
This is the most surprising thing to me about the diatribe by Longman, a talented reporter and storyteller who specializes in the kind of human interest profile that’s tailor-made for the Olympics.
However, his complaints about the alleged “sexualization” of female athletes are nothing new.
As one of the few mainstream journalists in the country exploring the cultural parameters of women in sports, Longman has fallen under the spell of a small handful of women’s sports “experts.” They are mostly academic feminists, lawyers and activists he approvingly cites in stories that rail against the “stereotyping” of female athletes. Some of them he quotes repeatedly, without any critical eye at all.
(I examine them, and his stenography of their arguments, in my recent e-book, “Beyond Title IX,” specifically chapters 11, 13, 15 and 19.)
Longman has parroted their singular critique often, on topics ranging from college basketball star Brittney Griner punching an opponent in a game; a female college soccer player, Elizabeth Lambert, getting in a fight with a foe; and Alex Morgan, a rising star of the U.S. women’s soccer team, who has no qualms about displaying her attractiveness for cameras.
In that last piece, published in April, he takes Morgan to task for posing, like Jones, in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue:
“Presumably, Morgan wanted to show that she was strong and feminine. Instead, she reinforced the unfortunate notion that to be successful, female athletes must position themselves as sex objects. And endure more undercoating than a Toyota Corolla.”
Yet that all seems tame compared to his hatchet job on Lolo Jones, who, by the way, won her first heat in the 100 meter hurdles Monday morning.
Who made Jeré Longman the arbiter of what’s a sex object, and what’s a “persistent, demeaning notion” about how female athletes make themselves worthy?
Why is a middle-aged male sportswriter taking it upon himself to instruct a younger generation of female athletes how they should portray themselves?
He’s succumbed to the same impulse that has driven his “experts” to assume they know what’s right for female athletes. When they reject that patronizing, as Brandi Chastain, Lindsey Vonn and Amy Acuff have done, among others, these young women are then declared either to be brainwashed by the spotlight or powerless victims of a sexist media culture. But Longman’s breaking new ground here with his heavy-handed allegations against Jones.
I don’t like writing this. Longman’s a nice guy, has always been kind to me, is mild-mannered and funny. But he’s really gone off the rails here, following the tiresome sports feminist line that female athletes should not be about themselves, but the greater cause of women’s sports.
And the cause cannot be advanced if they take their clothes off, play to the desires of heterosexual males, or present themselves to the public as they choose.
For women athletes to be scolded this way is to defy everything that the women’s movement was supposed to be about: Allowing them the legal and cultural freedom to be themselves, and to direct the courses of their own lives. Nothing more, certainly not a brain-dead devotion to a cause.
What Longman and his “experts” represent is a new kind of sexism, feminist style, that dismisses women as individuals, and the choices they make.