Posted by: thefourwinds | August 20, 2008

Is this really discrimination?!

First check out this video on Olympic Double Standard? (3:29)

In short, this nominally professional journalist Campbell Brown of CNN tries to make the case that female athletes are being discriminated against (i.e. sexism) because they’re not receiving endorsement contracts on the same par as male athletes.

This journalistic effort strikes me as being incredibly shoddy in at least three ways:

1.  The only real factual comparison Brown makes is between Michael Phelps’ reported potential $50 million in endorsements and the few female tennis athletes at the top of the endorsements list.  This is such an outrageous comparison it boggles the mind:  Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in one olympics, something no one has ever done in all 114 years of the history of the modern Olympic Games.  People were saying it wasn’t possible that he could accomplish it.  Give a nod to the guy on the video (Ken Sunshine – an American PR consultant) who actually tries to explain what an outrageous comparison this is.  Yet with no other data backing up the assertion of discrimination, he blithely agrees that this is indeed sexism.

2.  Endorsement contracts are not just some award or gift for your performance.  They are a marketing tool for companies who want to sell products and want celebrities to endorse them so that more people will want to buy the products!  Hello, why should a company pay millions of dollars to someone who they don’t think will be able to bring in buyers for their products?  It’s not discrimination, it’s simply business.  (As for what that says about our culture, keep reading).  I mean, I’ve been a “local TV celebrity,” and no one is throwing millions of dollars at me to endorse their products.  Why not?  Because nobody is going to buy anyone’s products just because they saw me on TV!  Well, ok, maybe someone would (thanks, Mom), but not enough people to warrant creating a marketing plan around me.  Is that discrimination?  No, it’s just the way business works.

And is it discrimination that the females who do make top dollar in endorsements are not the top performers in their sports (Maria Sharapova in tennis as the video shows, and Michelle Wie in golf, a dismal performer in comparison to the leaders in her sport) while the men are almost always the top performers?  No, it’s simply what the companies know will sell.  And it’s not as if men are out there buying the female apparel and sporting equipment being hawked by Sharpova, the Williams sisters, and Wie, etc. 

3.  Finally, Brown complains that the money in endorsements doesn’t match up to the attention those athletes receive.  Duh, it’s that very media attention that brings the potential for the endorsements anyway!  She may as well blame herself for Michael Phelps’ incoming millions.  And, last time I checked, female Olympic athletes have done very well for themselves because of all the attention they’ve received in the media.

Think back to the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles.   Carl Lewis won four gold medals, an amazing feat, and later proved himself one of the all-time great Olympians by winning a total of nine gold medals over the course of his career, but Lewis hardly received any endorsement contracts after the ’84 games, likely because of some controversy in his long jump win, but also possibly because he was seen as too arrogant.  Companies didn’t think he would represent them well.  Who holds the most endearing image in your mind from those games?  It has to be Mary Lou Retton, after her all-around gymnastics gold medal.  And 24 years later, she’s still making a career (as a motivational speaker) out of all that attention from one Olympics.

So, all in all, is it lamentable that our culture pours so much money into the top male athletes, while much of the endorsement money (though certainly not all) for women goes to those who are the most attractive?  In some ways, yes.  But if we’re going to say that, we may as well go all the way and ask why these athletes (and music celebrities) get all that attention in the first place?  You don’t see this year’s spelling bee champ pulling in endorsements like Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) is pulling in, do you?

It’s business, and it’s lamentable in more ways than Brown even suggests, but it’s not discrimination.  Now, if you’d like to talk discrimination, I wonder how many less attractive but higher quality journalists didn’t get the high profile job Campbell Brown now holds (as well as the accompanying salary)?  But even that is just more marketing…because it’s all about ratings, right?


  1. I agree with the overall tenor of your post, but would disagree with the notion that what you are describing is not discrimination. I believe that it is discrimination. The problem is that discrimination is a politically incorrect notion in this country, and therefore all parties vehemenantly deny discrimination. The fact of the matter is that the ability to discriminate is part of why humans are successful in a variety of endeavours. Imagine if you went just one week without using a discriminate mind. You couldn’t choose to wear a suit to work vs. sweat pants. How would you decide whether to tell your boss what you’re really thinking? Would you hire the plumber who your friends highly recommend, or choose a name at random from the phone book and hope for the best?

    You have described business decisions which intelligently and predictably used descrimination to achieve their goals. You want a good return on your multimillion dollar investment for marketing purposes? Choose the athlete who will make the biggest positive impact on sales, company image, etc. A distinction needs to be made between discrimination in general, and bad discrimination, which would be discriminating, not based on useful information (I should wear a suit to work since it is expected of me, I should bite my tongue since I may get fired if I don’t, Michael Phelps is regarded as a sort of national hero right now, we should put him on our Wheaties box), but instead using personal prejudices that have no base in actual facts (I’m not going to take this bus because it has a woman busdriver, and women are terrible drivers, I’m not going to hire this guy because he looks latino and is probably an illegal immigrant, etc). Discrimination of this sort is foolish, and often illegal in areas of employment, housing, and the like.

    A separate debate would be whether the govenrment should get involved in regulating and outlawing forms of discrimination that most of us agree fall into this second category, or whether individuals should have the right to make their own decisions, even if they are bad ones. I personally believe the government’s intervention should be limited to public agencies. All private businesses should be free to make their own decisions. Consumers will likely punish those businesses who are foolish enough to embrace negative descrimination.

  2. I don’t have a trackback function, but I wanted you to know that I thought what you wrote here was spot on. I especially like the 1984 comparison.

  3. Sarah,

    Thanks for the plug on your blog. I didn’t think my posts would get any attention that quickly!

    I wish I knew how trackbacks worked. Always more to learn….

  4. Brad,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Of course, you’re correct about the word discrimination. I was certainly assuming the use of the word that Campbell Brown et al were using, that of discrimination that is, or borders on being, illegal.

    Very interesting, and surprising, comment you make at the end. Do you really think, for example, that there should be no prohibition of racial discrimination in, say, housing or employment in the private sector? Your last sentence leads me to believe you have an awful lot of faith in our society and culture.

    I have to say I don’t nearly have this much faith in mankind (see John 2:24-25). I believe there would be huge segments of society that would relish the opportunity to act with such discrimination, and we would all suffer the consequences in various ways.

    Many people state that the Biblical role of government, according to a summing up of Romans 13, is “to restrain evil.” I more or less agree with that, though how far that goes is certainly debatable. Certain types of discrimination, it seems to me, are evil enough that they ought to be illegal, and racial discrimination in housing and employment is one of those areas.

    Of course, other groups try to elbow their way in to try to shout “discrimination” when there is none, but you’re correct, it’s a longer, separate debate.

  5. I wouldn’t say I have that much faith in our society and culture, but keep in mind that government is a reflection of that society and culture, but in the hands of the few, has a greater ability to abuse that power. I am a fan of very limited government (I found out recently that my views align quite a bit with libertarianism), and as such, would rather the government stay out of private individual’s business as much as possible.

    Making discrimination illegal is in essence illegalizing one’s thoughts and feelings, more than your actions. If I don’t hire you, how do you know it was due to the fact that you’re a (fill in the blank with whatever trait you feel is causing discrimination – sex, race, religion, sexual preference, etc)? And even if you are right, do I as an individual not have the right to discriminate as I see fit when deciding whom to provide employment, for example? I believe a sexist has the right to not employ women (or men, if the individual is a woman), and potential customers have the right to withold their business from said individual if they find this behaviour unacceptable. In the short run, this may lead to more discrimination, but in the long run I believe people will come around better if they are allowed to change naturally, rather than have the government force change upon them. Compare the level of racism against blacks in Great Britain to the southern states of America, for example. The civil war forced a legal change in this country, but it did not change minds, and there is still much deep-seated racism in the south. In Great Britain, the people changed their own minds, rather than the government changing the official policy, and they do not suffer from the bigotry and racism that we have in the States. As a caveat let me say that the freeing of the slaves was a decision that couldn’t wait for public opinion to shift (and should have occurred much earlier in our nation’s history), and as such I am not advocating that it was not a justified conflict. I am just comparing the effectiveness of government induced, rather than societal induced, change of heart.

    As a second point, I personally find race-based discrimination detestable, but then, I also find racist language reprehensable, but believe it is and should be protected by the 1st amendment. The problem I see with allowing the government to dictate what is acceptable to say, or think, is that it removes individual rights in order to provide “protection” that doesn’t really exist. The cure to racism is not forcing racists to hire minorities, it is changing racists hearts and minds (which the government cannot do, as alluded to above). More importantly, where does Big brother’s oversight find its bounds? Should a Catholic charity be forced to employ a couselor who believes abortion to be ethically and morally acceptable? Should a women’s shelter be forced to house men? The answer may seem obvious, but once you give power to the few to make the obvious decisions (race based discrimination is bad), what is to prevent them from making the less obvious (to you) but as obvious (to them) decisions? Do you want the government to arrest you because you refused to rent your house to an unmarried or gay couple? What about a church being sued because they didn’t hire a female minister? You get the idea.

  6. Brad,

    I agree with some of what you say, but not all. I too agree with a lot of what libertarians stand for. However, most libertarians I’ve met have no belief in evil, so I don’t believe the standard libertarian solution (limit government as much as possible) is really the most Biblical way. It flies in the face of the way the Bible says our world is (cursed and filled with sin and in need of the sword of correction, whether that sword is wielded by believers or not). Remember, Paul’s letter to the Romans (in which he tells them to obey their civic leaders) was written when Nero was the emperor, not exactly a godly government, right? But God still called believers to obey the laws that didn’t outright contradict God’s Word (as if they were obeying God Himself).

    Now, the other point you bring up (about just how far Big Brother is allowed to go) is a valid point that I agree with, but I believe it needs to be addressed case-by-case (the inefficient way), rather than just by an ideological sweep of the hand, because, as I said just above, I don’t believe the ideology that less government is always better is Biblically accurate.

    I agree that we cannot force people’s hearts to change by changing their behavior. That’s the same reason I don’t support teaching creation in schools, because most teachers are just going to misrepresent it (because they don’t understand it properly or believe it themselves). It’s better to teach people as you come across them and let the Lord open their eyes. But I don’t believe that rules out the Biblical avenue for the state wielding the sword to restrain evil in some circumstances. Even if that power is abused by leaders, God still granted it to them. We merely have the obligation to obey, unless it contrdicts His clear command.

    From what I understand of your logic, it would be fine to do away with laws against murder. Heck, we can’t make someone not feel like murdering in their heart, but since society will punish them if they actually do murder, we won’t legislate against it…. Sometimes you have to look at the reductio ad absurdum (reduction to the point of absurdity) to see where logic leads. I don’t think God gave the power of the sword to the society itself, He gave it to the leaders of the society. If our society has the power to choose its own leaders, we have a responsibility to influence those leaders in Godly ways.

    Now please notice I don’t think that’s our first obligation as Christians (many Christians seem to believe that). But, if I write about all that here, I won’t have any material left for more posts!

  7. Good analysis, Greg. I guess my comment isn’t so much about discrimination, but about the fleeting nature of fame.

    I’ve followed the Olympics as long as I can remember. I can name pretty much every host city since 1968. I LOVE the Olympics (to my husband’s chagrine!)

    Many of those at the top of their game DON’T get the top money endorsements, or else the endorsement money dries up very quickly. I don’t think gender has anything to do with it. Marketability appears to be the only driving force.

    Eric Heiden, 5 time gold medalist speed skater comes to mind. He was the *star* of Lake Placid in 1980. But post games, he may have been on a Wheaties box. I’m sure he endorsed speed skating equipment after that, but skating blades are hardly a mass consumer item. But, unarguably, he’s one of the great sportsmen.

    Remember Kari (sp?) Strugg? She was the star of Atlanta (Summer 2000)…in some ways, the Michael Phelps of those games, not because of medal count, but because of the media attention. She was THE interview of the Games. In the wake of a serious injury, she continued to compete (the wisdom of that choice is arguable), and she won gold. Her little mushroom haircut-head was everywhere. Again, Wheaties box. I bet she endorsed lots of leotards and gear; again, limited audience.

    Every Olympics has its media darling for varying reasons, male or female: Nancy Kerrigan, Apollo Anton Ohno, the Jamaican Bobsled Team, Carl Lewis (Carol Lewis, his very talented sister who also competed in LA 1984, is actually a track and field commentator for these Games), the 1980 US Hockey Team, the 1984 Women’s Softball Team, etc. They are all we can talk about for….days.

    I say Michael Phelps should take advantage of the attention as long as he can. It unforunately is not going to last. Swimming just does not have a huge following outside of the Olympics, at least here in the US. He’s the premier swimmer of our lifetime, and an athlete for the ages. But I hope people remember him even a year from now, let alone 4 years. Who remembers last year’s Superbowl winner, anyway? Let him have his moment of Olympic glory.

  8. Great comment, Steph. Wow, I can’t believe you mentioned Eric Heiden. Every time I strap on a pair of ice skates, I wish I could have gone back and been a speed skater.

    Olympic fame certainly is fleeting, and you mentioned some great examples (especially the Jamaican bobsled team!), but I’d have to say the 1980 US Hockey team’s attention, success and fame has been the exception to the rule. Their accomplishment was voted by Sports Illustrated to be the top sports moment of the 20th century, both for the accomplishment itself and for its political ramifications. Heck, Disney even made a movie about it (Miracle) – a pretty good one at that.

  9. oops, my age is showing…Atlanta was 1996! Sydney was 2000, Athens 2004, and now 2008 already. Good gravy, I’m getting old.

  10. Gravy? Mmmmm…

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