The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association didn’t do its homework. The group invested in an athlete, three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton, banking on her wholesome runner’s athletic image, forgetting that the Olympics and ancient mythology share a birthplace.
The association’s most recent weekly newsletter, Tater Talk, said it invoked a moral-turpitude clause and voided Favor Hamilton’s contract after she confirmed that she had been working as a $600-an-hour prostitute for an online escort service.
How could they ever have known, or even imagined, that a 44-year-old wife and mother could be selling her body? She had everything: a lovely home, no hint of financial strain, a healthy 7-year-old daughter, a husband who had shared her life since college and a reputation that still resonated in her home state and in running circles.
But the hints sat out in the open, both the general sort and the very specific.
Maybe the sponsors didn’t think a woman could swim in the same sexual-mores cesspool as Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus and … well, how far back do we have to go? To Wade Boggs’ sex addiction, Marv Albert’s bite marks, Wilt Chamberlain’s boast that he had bedded 20,000 women, the bumper stickers saying “Honk if you’re carrying Steve Garvey’s baby’’?
The pool might not be so polluted if we just skimmed off ridiculous expectations. Each time, we act shocked anew, even though the behavior rarely rises to the basest level of originality.
When Woods’ sponsors started bailing out, the silliness of sports-star endorsements became a lot plainer than the sleaziness of his approach to matrimony. Was Accenture, an international consulting company, naïve enough to believe that his single-mindedness on a golf course augured monogamy in his personal life? Or did the athletic excellence simply suggest that he was too disciplined to get caught?
Either way, the company bought into a farce, and should have known before the first commercial aired. A corporate executive doesn’t have to try very hard to keep up with this brand of cynicism.
Favor Hamilton’s story challenges even the most jaded of realists not to be shocked. She risked prosecution as well as shame. She is ostensibly settled and -- here enters the most jaded realism -- at an age when the typical woman’s sexuality does not command more than Apple’s stock price.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Favor Hamilton is not typical, never has been. Running made her an outlier, an oddity. Her blonde good looks allowed her to be the right kind of freak. So did the presence of Mark Hamilton, the baseball player from the University of Wisconsin who became her husband.
For men, athletic success is its own reward. For women, it must come in the right package -- conventionally alluring. The media insist, and not just the males who dominate sportswriting.
The most appalling debate I’ve had with an editor involved a close-up picture of a high school girl in a hurdles race, her face fiercely scrunched as she ran. The editor, a woman, hated it. She said the girl looked ugly. That was beauty in the eye of a bad beholder. The girl looked determined.
A friend who coached both men and women at a fairly high level once said that he found it far more difficult to coach women. “The men go home after winning, and they’re loved for it,’’ he said. “Half the women have to go home and almost apologize for their success because it might make their boyfriends insecure.’’
Favor Hamilton came of age in the 1980s, and the coach made that comment to me in the mid-’90s. I see signs that the culture is changing, but too often, female athletes who lead with their sexual appeal receive more attention than those who lead on the field.
The 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team became icons as the World Cup made its way around the country. The Americans were the best team in the tournament, but winning wasn’t enough. They had to be hailed as babes, and the editor of Mia Hamm’s book felt compelled to say: "They're wholesome, all-American, fabulously heterosexual and damn proud of it.’’
In fact, many of the players found this attitude patronizing. “Are we still there?’’ Julie Foudy said in bemused exasperation.
Eight years later, Don Imus weighed in on the appearance of the Rutgers women’s basketball team. “Nappy-headed hos’’ was identified primarily as racist, obscuring the fact that Imus and his crew said the team looked like the Toronto Raptors and that the Tennessee players, by comparison, “all look cute.’’
A lot of female athletes have the confidence to ignore these judgments. Others allow their competitiveness to turn into toxic perfectionism, complete with body-image distortion and attendant eating disorders.
Favor Hamilton, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel five months ago, described her own eating disorder, which began in high school, and battles with depression and anxiety:
"Your whole life, you're told how great you are, from your coaches to your friends to your parents' friends," she says. "I had to be the perfect child, in my mind. It wasn't anybody's fault. I never blame anybody. It's just the way society is. So you feel you have to be perfect. Or, at least, I did."
She also admitted to falling deliberately near the end of the Olympic 1,500 meters in Sydney because she knew she couldn’t win and follow through on a vow to honor her brother, Dan, who had committed suicide the year before.
She said she had finally learned to run for enjoyment and fitness, but Favor Hamilton had already drawn a clear line between her competitive ambitions and emotional fragility.
She was not unique among her peers, as a 1986 piece in the Los Angeles Times indicated. Kathy Ormsby of North Carolina State had left the track of the 10,000-meter final at the NCAA championships in Indiana, run from the stadium, found a bridge and jumped. She survived with permanent paralysis. The L.A. Times story looked at the reactions of coaches and other runners.
"No one asked why," teammate Connie Jo Robinson told the Times. "No one. They just said, 'We're praying for her,' and gave us cards. They didn't need to know why. They know why. We're all in the same boat. We feel the same pressure."
None of this explains why Favor Hamilton turned tricks. It illuminates the harrowing extremism of her sport, at least in her era, and unravels the mythology.
She turned to Twitter to explain herself last week after The Smoking Gun revealed her connection to the escort service. Favor Hamilton made a surprisingly eloquent case for understanding. She said she’d had problems in her marriage, felt depressed and had recently started psychological counseling. She said she didn’t want to portray herself as a victim, and she didn’t expect anyone else to understand.
It would have been unthinkable for her to say that she sold her body because she wanted to do it, and that making $600 an hour for sex at age 44 validated her in ways that are explicitly forbidden but implicitly sanctioned. No, she offered up a reply both heartbreaking and perfect.
But the perfection seemed real this time, because it rose from a cesspool, all messy instead of mythical.