On the premiere issue of Sports Illustrated Women/Sport, a spin-off of Sports Illustrated that launched in 1997, a pregnant Sheryl Swoopes graced the cover. She was holding a basketball and wearing a Houston Comets jersey, and emblazoned on the magazine cover were the words, “A Star is Born.” The Comets, a team on which Swoopes would play for the next decade, was part of the newly formed Women’s National Basketball League that was set to launch that summer.
Swoopes had just been a part of the 1996 Dream Team, a women’s basketball team of college stars that won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta — the Games that many credit for introducing women’s sports to the world. The 1996 Games also started to bring in sponsorships, appearance fees and other perks for women athletes that up until then mostly went to a handful of women in tennis and golf.
In 2005, Swoopes come out as a lesbian, becoming the second openly gay player in the WNBA. To the surprise of many, this revelation did not cause Swoopes to lose any of her sponsorships. In fact, Swoopes’ coming out was prompted by her signing of a six-figure endorsement deal with lesbian travel and lifestyle company Olivia.
As evidenced by Swoopes, women athletes have made significant strides in gaining recognition and sponsorship dollars over the past decade. But they still struggle in comparison to male athletes. Lax enforcement of Title IX — the law that mandated equal opportunities and money for both men and women athletes in schools — has held back the development of women’s sports. Cultural issues continue to prevent women from competing in sports; the mentality that boys sweat, girls don’t has not been completely erased.
And the pervasive perception that women athletes are lesbians has handicapped both queer and straight female professional athletes. But with the gradual emergence of a number of openly lesbian athletes who have been able to keep their endorsement deals, including Swoopes, times are changing.
In 1996, however, sponsors just weren’t sure how to market the female athlete. Real women athletes, like Martina Navratilova, have actual muscles, and sponsors weren’t sure what to do with that — so they stuck waif-like models in sporty clothes and non-sporty poses, and used those for ads.
What was wrong with muscles and sporty haircuts? The issue was one that kept percolating around the women’s sports world, and the consensus seemed to be: If you look sporty or buff, you must be a lesbian. And being a lesbian is a bad thing, as was illustrated by a story inside that first issue of Women/Sports with Swoopes on the cover.
In a three-page excerpt from her book, Living the Dream, Dot Richardson, a member of the 1996 gold medal-winning U.S. softball team, wrote: “I believe that the stereotyping of female athletes as lesbians has been one of the biggest hindrances to the development of women in sports.” Richardson was so distraught at being thought of as a lesbian because she played softball that she considered quitting. She even thought about committing suicide because she thought she would never get a date with a man.
The negative stereotype that women athletes are lesbians is the issue that both Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova — two of the greatest tennis players of all time — feel killed their endorsements more than anything else.
King lost her endorsements within 24 hours of being outed by her ex-girlfriend in 1981. After Navratilova was essentially pushed out of the closet by reporters when she was dating author Rita Mae Brown in the 1980s, she did not receive any national sponsorships until 2000, when she shot her first commercial for Subaru. (In 1995, the company had commissioned a study that showed that lesbians loved their cars, which eventually lead to signing Navratilova.)
Today, a huge disparity in sponsorship money still exists based on looks, not just sexual orientation. Maria Sharapova, the tall, lanky, blond tennis player currently ranked third on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, is now the highest paid female athlete in the world, with $20 million a year in endorsements, according to Forbes magazine.
The athlete who is ranked first in the WTA, Amelie Mauresmo, came out in 1999 when she introduced her then-girlfriend to reporters at the Australian Open. Mauresmo, who is more fit-looking than Sharapova and has been characterized as masculine by some blogs, thankfully did not lose any of her endorsements when she came out. This is surely a step forward, but at the same time, the agreements she currently has with Dunlop for rackets and her part in Reebok’s “I am what I am” campaign are nowhere near Sharapova’s $20 million.