Out of bounds

If the question is whether women really have made strides in athletics over the past few decades, then the immediate reply is the obvious one: Define your terms.

More opportunities for women in sports? Expansion of the women's tennis tour and increases in purses, the lift enjoyed by the LPGA, the creation of the WNBA and the ABL and the late WUSA, and of course the slow-to-take-hold effects of Title IX in collegiate athletics all argue to the good here.

Ability to connect with a mass audience? It was established by the U.S. women's soccer team at the World Cup final in Los Angeles, when the Americans' skill and enthusiasm -- and the big Brandi Chastain finish -- seemed at the time to mark a sea change in terms of the possibilities for young female athletes in this country.

Purchasing power? Clout? You can certainly make the case in isolated pockets. The sisters Williams, Venus and Serena, have not only taken turns dominating women's tennis, but along the way struck some of the richest endorsement deals in the history of women in sports, a clear nod to their marketability and implied cross-sectional popularity.

The future looks bright. It's all but impossible to argue that this isn't the best time ever for a woman to be an athlete. But that is only part of the picture.

The rest is hazy, if almost by design. The tennis tour that gives us the athleticism of Venus or Serena Williams also gives us the straight-ahead cheesecake of Anna Kournikova. The golf tour that produces dominators like Annika Sorenstam and heralds the promise of young Michelle Wie also sees Sorenstam appearing in Sports Illustrated wearing spikes and a bikini.

Sexism, whether overt or subtly disguised, remains a constant, not that there is any reason in the world as we know it to expect otherwise. But sexism toward female athletes specifically has made for some recent high-profile cases, as when Vijay Singh took the occasion of Sorenstam's invitation to the Colonial in 2003 to state that no woman should appear on the PGA Tour -- and that he'd walk off the course rather than play a round with arguably the greatest female golfer on the planet.

Sorenstam went on to become the first woman in 58 years to play in a PGA Tour event, and the phenomenon of Wie has virtually assured a female presence at many Tour stops to come. Still, the walkup to last year's Masters tournament at Augusta, with club chairman Hootie Johnson declaring he would not be bullied "at the point of a bayonet" into admitting a female member, provided a forum through which women were reminded they're not going to be welcomed in certain circles no matter how they perform.

With Katie Hnida relating the details of the ways in which she was shunned and ostracized by her Colorado teammates as a walk-on place-kicker (and, Hnida alleges, sexually assaulted by one player away from the field), women have a specific if potentially unique circumstance of the continued resistance of many men to their presence in traditionally male-dominated sports arenas.

And Chastain? A brilliant athlete, she gained more notoriety for ripping off her soccer shirt to reveal the sports bra underneath than she and her teammates did for months and months of sustained excellence. In many corners of the athletic globe, Chastain's act was interpreted as a stunning declaration of the power and strength of the modern female form. In others, alas, it was just a woman taking off her top.

We remain in an in-between state in women's athletics. Sports mixes routinely with sex, which mixes routinely with sports, as leagues and whole enterprises openly struggle with the right marketing approaches for their products -- that is, their athletes. Sex still sells, and so you're still going to see it. And where sexual orientation is a question, you're still going to see that downplayed as well.

If the day ever comes that sex doesn't sell, of course, it won't matter anyway, because the world will have come to an end. In the meantime, women's sports must wrestle with the identity crisis that is inherent to any such marketing approach.

Kournikova really represents the most interesting extreme fringe of the discussion. She's good enough as a professional tennis player to warrant at least some attention on purely athletic terms, but she is known almost exclusively for being the calendar girl of current choice. It puts Kournikova a full rung below the Wiliamses and great hitters like Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne on the tennis ladder, but then what Anna represents is barely tennis, and even then only some of the time.

Still, Kournikova is useful in illustrating the larger challenge facing women in sports, which is how to achieve broad popularity without sacrificing athletic integrity along the way. This is a separate discussion, obviously, from the ones about whether people like Kournikova have the right to do what they want with their images and whether, in the end, money equals power in sport no matter how it is amassed.

I don't think we're anywhere near a clear answer, but to look at Sorenstam and Wie -- and pole vaulter Stacy Dragila, and sprinter/long jumper Marion Jones, and perhaps a soccer player like Mia Hamm -- is to glimpse some of the reasons for optimism.

Sorenstam took flak from several sides for accepting an invitation to play in a men's golf tournament, but in the end she did no damage either to the PGA Tour or her own credibility. She raised the sense of possibility, though, and almost certainly bulldozed a cleaner path for the likes of Wie in the process. It didn't hurt that Sorenstam was telegenic, but at some point over the years she has become so celebrated for her ability as a golfer that her physical appearance is a purely secondary issue, the lamentable decision on how best to display her striking physique in SI duly noted.

Wie, too, may change female athletes' senses of what can be accomplished, in the way that Tiger Woods has done for some of the previously disenfranchised in golf. Odds are, you won't come close to being either Woods or Wie, but on so many levels that isn't the point.

Jones and Hamm are on the cutting edge of the new female athleticism; they're jocks who became glamorous only after being recognized as elite sports talents. For many if not most women in sports, that is the preferred order of events, and it's the one you're likely to see more and more frequently in the years and decades to follow.

Women's sports is not so much coming out of a dark period as through a fog. Opportunities for women have expanded, which isn't at all the same as saying the old sterotypes have died off or that sexism isn't alive and well. Of course it is; sports operates in this world, not some other one. And as long as sex is an issue in sports, you can count on people exploiting and profiting from it on both sides of the gender fence.

But the notion of what is possible for women in sports -- that much has changed, and not just a little. If you're marking progress or trying to define terms here in 2004, it isn't a bad place to start.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com