Five-Ring Circus

That New York Times Piece on Lolo Jones Got a Lot Right about Women in Sports

Lolo Jones
Lolo Jones at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP/GettyImages.

I am showing up late to the Lolo Jones party to raise an eyebrow over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s rebuke today of Jere Longman, the writer of a weekend profile of Jones that’s been widely denounced as a nasty-gram. Brisbane now agrees that Longman’s piece was “too harsh.” Maybe, but Longman was also correct to focus on an obnoxious aspect of how attention gets doled out among female athletes. And who says that every piece of analysis in the Times has to be staid and polite?

Yes, the Lolo profile was mean. Longman argued that the Olympic hurdler “has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be—vixen, virgin, victim—to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.” Longman believes that Jones has gotten far more attention than she deserves as an athlete because of her “exotic beauty” and “sad and cynical marketing campaign.” Examples: posing nude for ESPN the Magazine and for Outside in a bathing suit made of ribbon. And another example: trumpeting herself as a Christian virgin. While Jones snapped up all of her endorsements, Dawn Harper, another American, won the 100-meter hurdles in Beijing wearing borrowed spikes.

There is nothing fair about how companies decide which athletes to pay for product placement. And to a point, I agree with Alyssa Rosenberg’s vigorous defense of Jones: There’s no shame in taking an endorsement deal because you need the money. I also don’t fault Jones for talking about her dysfunctional, impoverished family background, a decision that Longman suggests was in poor taste. You can talk down your family in a way that exploits and cheapens them, sure, but you can also just decide to be honest about where you come from so fans, including girls growing up like you did, will find inspiration in how hard you worked to get there.

But what Longman is right about is the outsized value for female athletes of being gorgeous. It’s unfair to the women who are working their asses off and who get passed over by magazines and TV shows and advertisers, and by the rest of us, too. This doesn’t happen to male athletes: When was the last time a pretty boy who wasn’t at the top of the pack got all the attention? And that’s my problem with the nude and near-nude magazine covers Jones did: You can fault the editors for asking her, but it’s also fair to hold her accountable for playing their game.

All of that said, good for Jones for placing fourth in the 100-meter hurdles this week, and I say that without the slightest scoff. She was seventh in Beijing four years ago, and Longman wrote before Wednesday’s race that “19 hurdlers internationally have posted faster times this year than Jones’ best.” So if you block out the hype, she didn’t fall short—she outdid expectations. And when Jones said she felt like a “big disappointment,” she won my sympathy for the first time. She sounded human, and also like a real athlete who cares about competing, and winning, most of all.