Selling Out

Sexy images in marketing is nothing new, but their prevalence in athletics is gaining. This article looks at how to recognize and remove sexploitation from your program.

By Dr. James Conn and Dr. Dennis Docheff

James Conn, PhD, and Dennis Docheff, EdD, are Professors in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Central Missouri State University. They can be reached at: and

Athletic Management, 17.6, October/November 2005,

World-class athletes masquerade in magazines wearing skimpy outfits, if anything at all. Nude calendars feature national sports teams (male and female) to promote the team and raise money. Athletes are seen as entertainers instead of sport performers. Sex is assimilating its place within sport.

At high schools and colleges today, athletic directors market programs in a climate where the underlying thought in advertising is “sex sells.” Being sexy is embraced by many professional athletes and accepted in the media, and the attitude isn’t going away any time soon.

How can athletic directors promote their programs without overstepping the bounds of exploitation, robbing athletes of the wholesome experience athletics can provide? This article examines “sexploitation” in sport and how athletic administrators can be aware of it in their own programs.

What Is Sexploitation?
Sexploitation has been defined as a form of marketing that focuses on sexual attributes. In sport it involves people judging athletes on their physical attractiveness instead of their athletic abilities. An obvious example is a female athlete posing in Playboy to become more widely known. But sexploitation can also take subtler forms. It can mean publishing a media guide cover showing a female sport team in a pose that borders on being sexually provocative. It can mean cheerleaders doing a sexy routine that raises eyebrows.

Is sexploitation in sport really a growing problem? Consider these events and quotes:

• Jan Stephenson, a professional woman golfer, claimed that the LPGA suffers because it doesn’t use sex appeal to promote its sport. In 2003, she said, “Whether we like it or not, we have to promote sex because sex sells.”

• Last year, Federation Internationale de Football Association President Seth Blatter suggested that women soccer players wear “tighter shorts” to attract new sponsors and increase fan interest.

• The San Jose State athletic department was taken to task by a booster in March when its dance team performed a routine he called “vulgar,” which led to a confrontation between a dance team member and the booster.

• The Texas legislature recently considered a bill to curb “overly sexually suggestive” cheer routines from high school contests.

Most of today’s leaders in athletics do not support the promotion of sport through sexploitation. Donna Lopiano, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, stated, “Any exposure in a sports magazine that minimizes athletic achievement and skill and emphasizes the female athletes as a sex object is insulting and degrading.” Most of us would agree.

Furthermore, administrators are starting to recognize that a sport that condones sexploitation may be scaring away its best athletes. As the Australian Sports Commission states: “Using sex as part of a promotional strategy may limit the potential of a sport to attract a diverse range of talented girls and women. Such promotion is reason enough for some girls and women to choose another sport or even no sport at all.”

Proactive Stance
What is the role of the athletic director in defeating sexploitation in his or her department? The first step is to understand that it can be part of your program without you even realizing it. Sexploitation is such a big component of today’s mainstream marketing and advertising plans that it can creep into an athletic department without much notice. In response, athletic directors must develop a plan to ensure that sexploitation does not occur under their watch. The following recommendations can assist athletic directors in this endeavor:

Define sexploitation in your particular context. In general, a sexploitation-free environment means the overriding promotional message is “come see our athletes in action” as opposed to “come see our girls play.” But there will be subtleties in every community based on norms and history.

Produce a statement that defines the athletic department’s philosophy on what constitutes sexploitation when it comes to promoting your teams and athletes. This might entail putting together a working group to examine and write such a statement. Then, put the statement in your policy manual, explain it to all staff members, and review it annually.

From there, you may want to develop some stricter policies or guidelines to govern particular decisions. For example, when females pose for portraits for the team media guide, what is considered appropriate attire? Having a statement in place can give marketers and coaches a roadmap for what is and isn’t acceptable.

Monitor your promotions for any unintentional sexploitation. For example, a poster that shows the women’s volleyball team working out in the weightroom in short shorts and with long hair falling seductively in their faces might nicely mimic an advertisement for a fitness club, but is that how your institution really wants to promote its athletes? How about if members of the girls’ swim team wear bikinis while flagging down cars to come to its annual car-wash fundraiser?

Talk to athletes and staff about the exploitation of athletes as sex objects. Make it a topic of a staff meeting, and ask your student-athlete advisory committee to discuss it at one of its meetings. By starting a dialogue about the topic, both staff and athletes will help you recognize sexploitation now and in the future.

Review uniform choices before purchases are made. For example, if the new women’s volleyball coach wants to order uniforms that include very short shorts, is there a procedure in place to review the choice before it’s made? There may be the need to create guidelines for the selection of team uniforms.

Work with your cheerleaders and dance teams on ensuring their routines don’t cross the line into sexploitation. Take the time to sit down with these groups and go over what you see as their role, why there needs to be discussion on their routines, and what types of movements are and are not appropriate.

Putting the above ideas into place can help prevent sexploitation with your programs and, most important, it can start a dialogue on the issue. It can help your athletes think about how they want to portray themselves and why. And it can get your staff talking about how they want to market and present their teams.

Sexploitation can be subtle and can easily slip under the radar. However, if it is addressed early on, it can be an enlightening topic of discussion among your student-athletes and staff. If you take a leadership role on the topic, others will follow.