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.