The decision by three LPGA players to pose semi-nude in a magazine will undoubtedly draw some attention. But is it the kind of attention the tour wants?
One of the double standards under which the LPGA has long had to operate is the criticism it endures any time one of its players promotes her sexuality in any way. Jan Stephenson in the bathtub full of golf balls and nothing else comes to mind, and more recently the calendar Natalie Gulbis debuted at the 2004 U.S. Women's Open that the USGA banned from its merchandise tent.
The women's tour will no doubt get a triple-whammy of attention -- both wanted and unwanted -- next month when three of its players appear in ESPN the Magazine in tastefully covered states of undress. An LPGA executive said Sunday that Sandra Gal, a second year player from Germany by way of the University of Florida, Anna Grzebien, a second year player from Duke, and Christina Kim, who is in her seventh year on tour, will appear in the Oct. 19 "Bodies" issue of ESPN the Magazine.
The special theme issue, sort of a response by ESPN to the highly successful Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, will celebrate both the male and female athlete. A source familiar with the issue says Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic and tennis star Serena Williams will be on the cover. The three LPGA players will appear with golf-themed items -- carts, clubs etc. -- covering strategic parts. But as always happens in these cases, more attention will fall on the female athletes and they will somehow be seen as undermining the credibility of their sports, a charge never leveled at male athletes in beefcake poses.
The LPGA is already taking a proactive position to deflect any criticism. "ESPN The Magazine is one of the premier sports publications in the world, and they will put extensive promotional muscle behind this issue," said LPGA chief communications officer David Higdon. "So unless we get surprised by the nature of the shoot and/or feature positioning, then I expect this issue and our involvement in it will provide considerable exposure for our sport at a time when we are ramping up for an exciting finish to the 2009 season."
Higdon was a frequent writer for ESPN the Magazine before he was hired by the LPGA earlier this year to help provide a consistent media voice for the tour amid the controversies surrounding then commissioner Carolyn Bivens, who was replaced after a player revolt following the loss of several tournaments. Ironically, the ESPN photo shoot is exactly the kind of attention for the tour of which Bivens would have approved. She was all about increasing the profile of the brand, even when it risked going against some of the traditions of the game -- like wearing clothes.
"We have not seen the photos nor will we see them in advance, per ESPN the Magazine policy," Higdon said. "However, we were briefed on the concept by the editors, and felt comfortable with it given the fun idea as well as the fact that numerous other leagues and sports also participated." Asked if appearing nude in the magazine would undermine the credibility of the LPGA Higdon said: "No, and I suspect the numerous male athletes who will be featured will not have to field the same questions/concerns."
Higdon said ESPN approached the three players individually and coordinated directly with them and their representatives. The tour did not speak with any of the players in advance of the photo shoot, nor did a tour representative attend the shoot, which was conducted last week during the CN Canadian Women's Open in Calgary, Canada. Gal, Grzebien and Kim were all competing in the Canadian Women's Open and were not immediately available for comment.
There will no doubt be divisions among the other players about the value of the photo display. There always has been in the past. The issue of how to market sexuality has always been a hot-button issue for the LPGA. Many players fear that doing anything that takes the focus off them as professional athletes will provide ammunition to those who like to poke fun at the tour. Several players, speaking anonymously, were troubled by the fact that Kim is a player representative on the LPGA Board of Directors, feeling her involvement sent the wrong message and implied member support of the photos. While the players may be divided on the matter, the tour hierarchy apparently is not.
"We support and encourage all our appealing, personable athletes to promote themselves and their sport in the process," said Higdon, who most likely was speaking with the approval of acting commissioner Marty Evans. "No group of pro athletes in all of sport offer fans a more diverse range of interesting personalities, and we want to showcase this huge asset to not just golf fans but sports fans worldwide. Working with ESPN The Magazine and their world-class editors and photographers was a tremendous opportunity that we're glad our players carefully considered and then chose to pursue."
The LPGA is at a critical juncture in its 59-year history. A perfect storm of expiring contracts, a troubled economy and alienation of some tournaments owners in the wake of the Bivens' regime has left the tour with only 16 tournaments, as of now, for 2010. It would be very easy to argue that anything that brings exposure to the tour -- no pun intended -- is a good thing. It is also a risky thing, but trouble times usually require risks.
The photos will almost certainly provide fodder for those who like to criticize the LPGA. And those who do so will unleash their venom with no regard for the double standard embodied in their thinking. Left unanswered is only this: How come NBA commissioner David Stern won't have to field similar questions about the involvement of Howard undermining the credibility of his league?