In sports, there's nothing fair about criticizing the fairer sex

May 28, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

It's certainly tempting to take a swipe at auto racing legend Richard Petty for his latest rant about the supposed inability of women to compete behind the wheel, but I'll just let Danica Patrick do the talking today in Indianapolis.

Petty was just saying what pretty much all the old-school NASCAR types probably think whenever they see a woman in a firesuit (right after they think "Ooh, nice firesuit," of course): "Auto racing has always been a man's game, little lady, so why don't you just go down to the picnic area and whip me up some cornbread?"

Cue the little bald guy with the banjo.

Anyone who reads me regularly knows that I'm not exactly the pillar of political correctness, but we're talking about a sport in which you drive around a track in a car that - the last time I looked - propels itself. If there was a point in the race when you had to get out and push it, then I'd concede that an average-size woman might be at a distinct disadvantage, but I don't think there is any physical reason why women can't compete on the NASCAR circuit or in Formula One competition.

Just my experience on I-95 tells me that women are surprisingly proficient at competitive driving. It's the guys as old as Richard Petty going 40 mph in the fast lane who drive me nuts.

Not that Petty's comments should shock anyone who remembers Formula One president Bernie Ecclestone's reaction to Danica's exploding popularity in the Indy Racing League at about this time last year.

Ecclestone summed up Patrick's fourth-place finish at last year's Indianapolis 500 with a comment so demeaning that I would have ponied up good money to watch Martha Burk kick his 5-foot-4 little rear end on pay per view.

"You know I've got one of those wonderful ideas," Ecclestone said. "Women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."

My first thought when I heard that was, "Gosh, I didn't know they had rednecks in Europe."

My second thought was, "For a rich guy, Bernie Ecclestone apparently has a very dull kitchen. You'd think with all those millions he would have gone stainless by now."

I don't doubt there are some sporting activities in which women may never compete effectively with men. That Ultimate Fighting Championship thing seems like a safe bet. And I don't really want to see Laila Ali fight Lennox Lewis. But if Michelle Wie wants to make it her goal in life to play on the PGA Tour, I'm all for it and I think she can do it.

Sure, there are those who think the whole Danica phenomenon is about her looks instead of her racing skill, but she did finish fourth at Indy last year and she already has her first book out - which, incidentally, received a tepid review from this experienced literary critic a few weeks ago.

If she wins today, they'll have to put out an updated version of Danica - Crossing the Line (Fireside, $23.95), a book that crossed the line by interspersing quotes from such noted historical figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi with several photo captions in which she asked readers whether her "butt looks too big."

(Quick side note: I was asked on the radio the other night if I could come back in another life as any historical figure, who it might be. I said Gandhi, because I know that I wouldn't have any trouble losing weight. More proof that bad taste is timeless.)

Obviously, the Petty controversy - and isn't that a perfect linguistic confluence - is just the latest skirmish in a long-running gender war that actually has added a very interesting and entertaining dimension to professional sports.

It dates as far back as the great Olympian and golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias and bubbled up in the early 1970s when 55-year-old former tennis champion Bobby Riggs defeated Margaret Court in an exhibition match to set up his famous "Battle of the Sexes" loss to Billie Jean King.

Riggs was a notorious self-promoter whose over-the-top attack on the feminist movement was met by the public with a nod and a wink, but the recent public reluctance of some male sports figures to accept female competitors (Vijay Singh's diatribe against Annika Sorenstam stands out) may actually be the proof that female athletes truly are closing the physical gap that has separated them from the men in many athletic fields of endeavor.

And here's an interesting closing thought for you. If the male pro sports actually succeed in stamping out the abuse of performance enhancing drugs, that gap could narrow drastically over the next few years. peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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