Nothing like a little skin to get the controversy rolling. This one I’ve had my eye on since it was announced, waiting anxiously to see what reaction it generates.
Bold and Artful or Distasteful?
The Body issue is a yearly project that ESPN Magazine produces where it showcases various athletes in poses reminiscent of their sport genre, totally and completely nude. The idea, is that you see and appreciate the exceptional physique that these athletes have created with all of their hard work.
Many famous athletes have taken part over the years. In the racing world, Helio Castronieves was among the athletes featured. Two years ago, NHRA icon John Force was featured after his critical accident in Dallas. The gritty spread showed John’s scars from the accident and the years of abuse he has seen in his career.
But this year, John’s 25 year old daughter Courtney Force dons the cover of the ESPN Body Issue, and this has started a media frenzy backlash. The issue has barely been out a week, and already the internet is swirling with commentary around her photo spread. Some label it an “objectifying publicity stunt”, while others are appalled that their children’s role model would appear like this and called it a “huge lack of respect for the sport”. The crowd is divided, with just as many quick to defend it as great exposure at the mainstream level as those condemning it a desperate and feeble marketing attempt. The Body issue began in 2009, and has been a very popular edition for ESPN Magazine. Yet despite coming from such a respected news outlet and its overall acceptance in the sports world, the racing community is up in arms about Courtney’s involvement.
Some very well respected, elite athletes make up the list of both past and present participants. Household names such as NBA Center Dwight Howard, NASCAR’s Carl Edwards, Heismann winner Herschel Walker, speed skater Apolo Ohno, UFC’s John Jones among many. The women include a wide range of athletes: US Olympic Soccer Keeper Hope Solo, Track and Field’s Lolo Jones, Tennis champ Serena Williams, Professional snowboarder Elena Hight, Roller Derby star Suzy Hotrod, the ENTIRE US Women’s Water Polo team, even a very pregnant olympic volleyball star Kerry Jennings Walsh. Do each of these athletes catch near the amount of backlash? Seemingly not. So why is it such a problem with the drag racing community?
Public Image Scrutiny
Its a precarious line that women involved with motorsports walk. On one hand, you are marketed and heralded for being uniquely feminine in a masculine-dominated sport. The media immediately sees a public interest story in the “pretty girl” behind the helmet, with driving and talent often taking a back seat. The obvious advantage is that marketing partners see instant coverage, where women receive attention and press regardless of finishing order. In a fiercely competitive and expensive arena like racing, drivers will use whatever assets they can to obtain sponsorship deals.
But there is a fine line to that. The pretty-girl dressed up with her helmet photo collage has been played out time and time again. (See, I’m guilty too.) Posters of hot girls in front of high horsepower cars line the walls of shops and tool boxes across the country, but put the girl DRIVING the car in that very same scene, and suddenly we have a problem.
Danica took endless heat for this bikini photo shoot.
This isn’t the first time this problem has presented itself. Think back to this FHM spread with Danica Patrick. To me, it looks great. Hot girl, cool car, and added bonus that she can drive the wheels off of just about anything. Yet, the release of this photo spread created a massive wake of those who felt it discredited her as a driver and made her just another “novelty”.
Specialty vs. Novelty
The attention gets even more critical once the initial story wears off. Women then are subjected to microscope-like scrutiny, and pressures mount for every rookie mistake they make. Danica had countless demanding her firesuit because she failed to win a race in her rookie IRL season. When has any other rookie been subjected to that type of ruthless benchmark?
Remember Ashley Force’s Seattle incident? It was her first pedal experience in a Funny Car, one of the most difficult vehicles to control in drag racing, and it got away from her while it was spinning the tires. Any other driver would have been told to chalk it up as a learning experience and shake it off, but scores of people questioned her driving capabilities and were calling her a danger to all racers, and whether she even had enough upper body strength to control the car.
That leaves the women involved in racing a tremendous burden to bear: you must constantly prove yourself over-qualified just to be present. I have seen personally how women are first regarded as nothing but a novelty, not taken seriously and pushed aside with a pat on the head regardless of how much tenacity and talent possessed.
A Double-Edged Sword
The age-old question still applies: why the double-standard for women in sports? Courtney has more than proven herself in the NHRA Funny Car ranks. She won races in an ultra-competitive class, was voted rookie of the year for her first year, and lead the points chase at several points this season. Why, after all of that, is a photo spread calling to question whether she belongs in the sport of NHRA Drag Racing?
The answer is that the “Good Ole Boy Network” is alive and well, and very difficult to break. Women often are passed up for much needed sponsor support. Lack of sponsor support equals sub-par equipment. Sub-par equipment results in lackluster performances, and lackluster performances equal lack of sponsorship dollars. So the vicious circle lives on. The idea behind coverage such as this is to break the circle, gain exposure for sponsors and thereby attract more support.
John Force Racing viewed the Body Issue as great coverage and exposure for their sponsors. They asked each of their sponsors prior to her involvement if this was a decision they would approve of, and all signed off on the idea. But what about other potential sponsors?
What do you think?
Was this a good choice for Courtney or could this potentially hurt her image?
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