I know it’s GQ. I know it’s a magazine written for barbershops, cigar bars and massage parlors. I know it assumes that men are men and women are scenery. But the magazine’s list of “The Coolest Athletes of All Time” truly sets a new standard for phallocentric panic. Gentleman’s Quarterly has given us twenty-five athletes they see as the coolest of cool, and not a single woman makes the cut.
This isn’t about feminism, tokenism, or quotas. It is about ignorance and a national magazine not having an even basic knowledge of sports history. “Cool” should mean grace under pressure with a soupçon of style. By that definition, here are the first six women who come to mind when summoning my inner-CM Punk and pondering true transgressive coolness.
How could there be any list without Billie Jean King? In addition to her twelve Grand Slam singles and sixteen doubles titles, Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes match in front of a packed house at the Houston Astrodome and one of the largest national television audiences in history. As she said years later, “I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” She had the weight of the women’s movement on her shoulders and still dispatched Riggs in three straight sets. Her signature early-’70s mullet and Gloria Steinem glasses were part of the deal.
Or what about Cheryl Miller? Miller dragged women’s basketball into the spotlight by virtue of her own brilliance at USC in the 1980s. She was college player of the year three times and a two-time champion. Miller also did it with a style and attitude that forced people to reconsider their own ideas of what women could do on the court. I remember playing ball in NYC growing up and if a woman shook you on the blacktop, you were “Cheryl Millered.” She made women’s hoops appointment television.
If Cheryl Miller brought true swagger to the women’s game, Diana Taurasi took that swagger and used it as a club. The Phoenix Mercury WNBA MVP was a two-time player of the year at UConn but also played with a smack-talking sneer backed by the sweetest jump-shot in the game. Before the 2004 finals, her coach Geno Auriemma predicted victory with a simple theory: “We have Diana, and you don’t.” That’s more than cool. It’s Jordan-esque.
But cool should also mean possessing the power of reinvention, and no one has ever represented that in sport quite like tennis great Martina Navratilova. Martina started her career as a profoundly talented but poorly conditioned and painfully shy Czech teenager. In the span of a decade she defected to the United States, came out of the closet, had her lover Judy Nelson sitting courtside in the family section, dyed her hair blond and transformed her body into a new standard for women athletes: all corded muscle wrapped with pulsing veins. And all with Reagan in the White House.
Martina’s musculature was reflected in her play: a fast, powerful serve-and-volley game that she rode to six straight Grand Slam victories. She also found her political voice in this time, and has been a consistent and public presence against homophobia and intolerance. Martina once said, “The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the US manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result.”
Connie Chung challenged Martina’s statement on CNN, saying to her, “Go back to Czechoslovakia…if you don’t like it here. This a country that gave you so much, gave you the freedom to do what you want.” Navratilova responded, “And I’m giving it back. This is why I speak out. When I see something that I don’t like, I’m going to speak out because you can do that here. And again, I feel there are too many things happening that are taking our rights away.”
Martina is so cool, she is known by just one name. So is the tennis player who plays the most like her: Serena. Serena and her sister Venus Williams have both dominated tennis for the last fifteen years. But only Serena has done it with a style that matches or even exceeds her substance. That’s quite a statement considering that Serena has won more Grand Slam titles than any active player, male or female. But we’re talking about cool, and only Serena has ever warmed up at Wimbledon in a white trench coat. Only Serena showed up to play at the US Open in a denim skirt and knee-high boots. (Officials intervened to prevent playing in the boots.) Only Serena is a certified nail technician. Only Serena wore “the cat suit.”
This is just a taste of some of the cool that GQ left off their list. I could go on about Florence Griffith-Joyner with the speed and the fingernails, or Oksana Baiul, winning the 1994 figure skating gold under the weight of the Kerrigan/Harding drama. But if there is one other name I’d leave you with, it’s Wyomia Tyus. Tyus became the first person to retain the Olympic title in the 100-meter dash, winning in 1964 and 1968. But her cools came in 1968, after winning another gold by running anchor in the 4×100 dash relay. That was the year John Carlos and Tommie Smith electrified the Olympics with their black-gloved salute. Their movement, with its emphasis on “reclaiming manhood”, didn’t involve women athletes. Wyomia Tyus recalled many years later. “It appalled me that the men simply took us for granted. They assumed we had no minds of our own and that we’d do whatever we were told.” But Carlos and Smith had been expelled from Olympic Village and were being torn to shreds across the media and Tyus saw that there was a bigger principle at play. In front of the press, and standing with her team, Tyus said, “I’d like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommie Smith.” That took guts. That took cools. That took the kind of grace under pressure the listmakers at GQ chose to ignore.
I hope people read the GQ piece. But read it as a statement of the kind of narrow, myopic gender segregation best located in a museum. In other words, GQ might be slickly produced. It might have Mark Sanchez on the cover. It might have ads that smell like the latest cologne. But one thing it’s absolutely not, is cool.