The soccer strip-down

The Women's World Cup doesn't begin until the end of the month, but a few players are already turning heads after posing for the German edition of Playboy magazine.

The five scantily-clad players all have represented Germany at some level, but none will be competing with the national squad at this year's Cup.

Kristina Gessat, 20, is a member of the German U-23 team and FSV Gutersloh in the German Bundesliga. She said of the Playboy shoot, "The message is, look, we are normal -- and lovely -- girls."

This certainly isn't the first time a female athlete has bared all for the mag, and it likely won't cause much of a stir amongst free-spirited Europeans, but it does bring up an oft- posed question: Are female athletes as sex symbols bad for women's sports?

On a strictly monetary level, the answer is, of course, no. Women with both talent and beauty -- such as Maria Sharapova, Gabrielle Reece and Danica Patrick -- are offered more endorsement deals than the average female athlete, and their presence at events increases not only awareness, but also ticket and merchandise sales for their sports.

But while it might be good business sense for someone like Amanda Beard to pose for Playboy, some argue that sexy photo shoots and suggestive ads featuring female athletes put the focus on appearance and not ability. But whether we like it or not, society views women first as objects of beauty, with other qualities or skills viewed through a veil of sexuality.

Photo shoots featuring male athletes tend to depict them demonstrating the skills that earned them their fame, like dunking a basketball, hitting an overhead smash or swinging a bat. The photos are a direct complement to the stories discussing how strong and tough these men are.

(There are, of course, exceptions, like David Beckham's underwear ads, Rafael Nadal's shirtless spreads and Tom Brady's inexplicable goat-cuddling photo. In a similar vein, Vanity Fair ran a spread featuring several men's soccer stars in their underwear just before last year's FIFA World Cup.)

When women are profiled, the accompanying photos tend to highlight their femininity and sexuality off the field, and not their strength and skill on it. The grit and toughness that earned them success are stripped away and replaced by a softness that is more fitting with society's expectations for women.

The truth is, many women want to be respected for their talent but also appreciated for their beauty. Young girls who grow up wanting to compete but fear that they'll be viewed as tomboys can look up to women like Candace Parker or Hope Solo to see that feminism and athleticism can co-exist.

One of the players in the German Playboy piece said she hoped posing helps put to bed the idea of a stereotypical "unattractive football player."

Should women have to be beautiful in order to be accepted as athletes? Of course not. In fact, the suggestion that women's sports are only enjoyable if the players are attractive has inspired Neanderthal ideas such as FIFA President Sepp Blatter's 2004 call to put women's soccer players in "tighter shorts" to create a more "female aesthetic." This absurd proposal is the result of society too often being unable to view women as anything other than sexual beings.

The key is to allow ferocity on the field and femininity off of it. To be able to admire a woman's beauty when she's not competing, but not expect the field or the court to be a place to showcase that beauty.

Not all women would feel comfortable posing for Playboy, nor should they be expected to. Plenty of beautiful female athletes have kept the focus on their game and not their gams. But if more people follow women's swimming because they like the looks of the women in the swimsuits, or watch racing because they've got a crush on Danica Patrick, then why not embrace the bigger fanbase rather than resenting the motives for their interest?

Heck, if the whole German national squad wanted to strip down to prove they're babes as well as ballers, well, then more power to 'em. If they defend their World Cup title this year, it'll be because of their skill and not their looks -- and that's what makes sports so beautiful.

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