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Shimabuku’s criticism of Patrick ignites debate over addressing female athletes’ sex appeal

I was on the telephone interviewing the leader of a women’s advocacy group on another matter, when Ross Shimabuku’s name came up.

Shimabuku, you may remember, is a sports anchor for the Fox affiliate in San Diego who got in major hot water for voicing a tart commentary on race car driver Danica Patrick which skewered her complaints about journalists calling her sexy above a headline reading “Danica Patrick: I’m sexy and I know it.”

His conclusion? She was “a word which starts with a ‘b’ and it’s not beautiful.” (Funny enough, the word I thought best described this commentary also started with a b: “boneheaded.”)

It’s important to confront sexism when it appears, and I was happy to see so many alert viewers and groups call Shimabuku on his crude mistake, which eventually prompted an on air apology and earned him a week’s suspension without pay, according to USA Today.

But, I asked the advocacy group’s leader, did you know about Patrick’s hypocrisy here, too?

That’s because Shimabuku’s ill-advised commentary was sparked by this quote from Patrick during a NASCAR media day, which he aired during the report.

“I don’t quite understand, when you’re referring to a girl – a female athlete in particular – that you have to use the word sexy,” she said. “It there any other word you can use to describe me?”

A quote in USA Today refined the issue further: “If there is a pretty girl, (reporters) don’t know how to describe her other than being sexy. It has such a negative connotation to it. You don’t say those kinds of things to frame it like that for a guy…But it seems like with female athletes, if they are pretty, (reporters) only know how to describe them in a sexual way.”

It’s an understandable frustration. But Patrick confuses the issue herself by appearing in so many sexy advertisements and magazine pictorials, that it seems a bit hypocritical to complain when the adjective is applied to her.

A quick Google search reveals a series of photos featuring Patrick perched on the hood of a sleek Ford, clad in a revealing black bikini for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

Another click pulls up a different pictorial for SI, where her racing suit is pulled down to reveal a white swimsuit and a small tattoo of an American flag on her lower back. She has also posed in a sexy pictorial for FHM magazine.

And there’s the playful ads she’s starred in for GoDaddy.com; one featuring her in the shower, turning the tables on guys ogling her via their laptop and another implying she and co-star Jillian Michaels were about to do a photo shoot in the nude (they weren’t).

Playful and pretty as these appearances may be, there is no doubt they are also sexy – and that the point of every one is to leverage her sex appeal for attention.

So it’s tougher to fault journalists for using that adjective on her, because Patrick has made that quality such a part of her own public persona outside of the sport.

But that is a nuanced idea, requiring careful language, because Patrick also has a point: too many female athletes are reduced to sex objects in media coverage.

Shimabuku’s biggest mistake was trying to tackle a subject that requires nuance and sensitivity in such a brusque, insulting manner. Calling Patrick names does nothing to illuminate the issue at hand, derailing an interesting discussion with a sexist term, which seemed to prove her point.

I hope, once the dust settles over Shimabuku’s comments, that sports media finds a way to have this deeper conversation with Patrick. The driver has always seemed a bit ambivalent about her sex appeal, despite the sexy endorsement ads and photo shoots; perhaps she would be open to a discussion about the objectification of women in sports.

(I’m kinda wondering why a journalist at the press conference didn’t just ask: “Haven’t you helped create the sexy image you’re now complaining about?”)

I also hope the advocacy groups that complained so loudly about Shimabuku’s comments also contribute. Because the issue of addressing female athletes’ sex appeal in coverage without insult – especially when the woman herself has helped build the sexy image she later finds limiting and insulting – ain’t going away anytime soon.

And we should be able to talk about it without anyone flinging around any insulting b-words.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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