Commentary

No easy answers to Lolo debate

Updated: August 9, 2012, 1:38 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

LONDON -- There's no easy way to discuss this Lolo Jones thing.

There's never any way to talk freely about the personal appeal of athletes, especially female athletes, about who's hot and who perhaps isn't as hot, without the conversation offending someone. And when you throw in sidebars like ethnicity, hair texture, competitive results, marketability, jealousy, mainstream media, social media and a stage as big as the Olympics, seriously hurt feelings are inevitable.

So it shouldn't be all that shocking that Jones went to tears on the "Today" show earlier this week, or that her track and field teammates, Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, flashed resentment that seems to have been festering for a while, or that young Gabby Douglas has no idea why half the world seems to have gone Don Imus on her and is talking about her hair in a way that simply no one should be discussing about a 16-year-old.

[+] EnlargeLolo Jones
Robert Deutsch/USA Today SportsLolo Jones finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles final, 0.10 seconds behind bronze medalist Kellie Wells.

Jones and Douglas are two very, very different cases, but related in that both find themselves in controversies that have little to do with sports. There used to be a time when people were too embarrassed to say demeaning things about someone's child, a young woman who in every significant way conducts herself with dignity. These aren't those times, not with people boldly signing their names to ignorant and even vile comments that reveal far more about those commenting than the object of their scorn. You hope Douglas, who a week ago won a gold medal in the gymnastics all-around and has represented her country admirably, doesn't exit the Olympic experience seeing the worst in people.

Jones' situation is more complex. I don't buy for one second that Jones, as a source implies in The New York Times, is the Anna Kournikova of track and field, because Jones' résumé puts Kournikova's to shame (and Jeré Longman, the Times reporter who wrote the piece, knows that). But it's impossible to disagree with Longman's assertion that Jones, with complete knowledge of what she's doing, takes advantage of her stunning good looks to advance her, well, brand, if you will.

I didn't know exactly where to go with this, so I called my friend and colleague Jill Montgomery, a sideline reporter who covers track and field and college sports for ESPN and quite regularly was described as "hot" when she competed with some renown as a heptathlete and pole vaulter at Kansas State.

In fact, it's the way Montgomery is described pretty regularly as a sideline reporter.

"You can't decide that as long as that conversation helps you it's OK, but when there's backlash it's somebody else's fault," Montgomery said. "I'm not even talking about Lolo specifically, I'm talking about something that any woman has to understand, that she's going to be scrutinized whether she's an athlete, sideline reporter or nurse. When you're prettier than most, there's more of a spotlight, and when you're out there wearing next-to-nothing, the equivalent of most people's bra and panties, the discussion is going to be framed in a certain way. You have to have thick skin."

I asked Montgomery how she felt at about the same age when much of the attention directed at her centered around her looks, not her performance.

"I laughed because I thought I was a tomboy," she said. "Twenty years ago, this kind of thing was talked about, of course, but it was pretty small talk. Now, with all the media platforms, with people making careers for themselves that often depend on appearance, how else do you create the buzz you need? You'd be crazy not to ... but you'd have to know that while a lot of people are applauding you for being hot or beautiful, another segment is saying, 'Honey, don't you see her ears are off-center?' "

You'd have to be naive or driven by some agenda to cover these Olympics and not hear the talk about how beautiful so many of the pole vaulters and heptathletes are, some of it coming from the competitors themselves. All you have to do is Google "hot Olympic heptathletes" and watch the stories and images pop up. The more-or-less nude photo of Great Britain's Louise Hazel will tell you she's got some career interests beyond the javelin throw.

Whether Hazel meets any public resistance from teammates is another story. Lolo Jones did. Interesting that Jones was more upset with The New York Times than with Harper and Wells, who took a chunk out of her with their public comments.

If I had to pick the most standout athlete of these Olympic Games, it would be Michael Phelps. If I picked the most dynamic athlete, it would be Usain Bolt. Athlete I'd feel most secure walking me down a dark alley? Irish boxer Katie Taylor. And if I picked an athlete I'd most want to have a four-hour dinner with, it would be Harper, the smartest, funniest, realest person you can imagine. She's a riot, the person in the room you really hope likes you. But ... she's not constantly described, not by the world media anyway, as "exotic" or "beautiful" or "hot."

From Harper's side, her comments could be interpreted one of two ways, after having enough of the media's misguided judgment or of all the attention paid to Jones. Harper told NBC earlier this week, "I feel I had a pretty good story -- knee surgery two months before Olympic trials in 2008 ... not have a [shoe] contract ... working three jobs, living in a frat house, trying to make it work, coming off running in someone else's shoes to get the gold medal. Ah, I'd say I was pretty interesting. I just felt as if I worked really hard to represent my country in the best way possible, and to come away with the gold medal, and to honestly seem as if, because [the media] favorite didn't win, all of a sudden it's just like, 'We're going to push your story aside, and still gonna push this one.' That hurt. It did."

Consider Tuesday. Harper, the defending Olympic champ, ran a personal best in the semifinal heats and another personal best in the final, only to finish second to Australian Sally Pearson. What a day at the office that is. Yet only a handful of reporters attempted to talk to Harper, a back-to-back medalist, in the media area while a horde strained to hear Jones, who despite running her best time of the season had finished fourth.

Wells took an even bigger swing at Jones, telling NBC, "On the podium tonight, the three girls that got medals earned their spot, worked hard, did what they needed to do and prevailed. That's all that needs to be said." Wow.

Jones mounted a credible and reasonable self-defense. She knocked down the Kournikova comparison, telling "Today" that although she hasn't won an Olympic medal (Kournikova never won a singles Grand Slam but won two doubles Slams): "I have the American record. I am the American record holder indoors. I have two world indoor titles. Just because I don't boast about these things, it's just a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash when I'm already so brokenhearted as it is."

The issue here, should Jones ever decide to deal with it, is how much of that backlash she might have avoided. Jones, on her own, decided to put out on Twitter details about her dating life, about being a virgin. She even told "Today" earlier in the week, "Maybe I should, like, zip it."

Or should she wear it so proudly that she'll continue to get more attention finishing fourth than Harper and Wells received after winning medals? Depends on whether she has the stomach for the criticism that, as she now knows, is sure to come. This, of course, never seemed to be of any concern to Kournikova, who was an enormous wage earner as an athlete-hottie. (Or is that hottie-athlete?)

There surely will be those out there who scream about how this never happens to male athletes, which isn't true, though it rarely happens to the same degree. The next male athlete, star or scrub who objects to being a sex symbol almost certainly will be the first. As Montgomery said, it's an inescapable condition most high-profile women encounter, and Jones certainly qualifies.

Not even Olympic competition is immune from these stories, one woman deemed too pretty and a girl criticized for not having the right hairstyle or, more to the point, the right hair. You have to wonder what might await Taylor, the boxer, if she wins gold and becomes a darling of the London Games. Then again, teammate or foe might be well served to make a comment about Taylor, good or bad, at his or her own risk.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon