Two premiere female sports figures made big news this week.
Danica Patrick is going to NASCAR. Pat Summitt is going to be lucky if she coaches another year.Danica Patrick will be a full-time NASCAR driver in 2012. (AP Photo)
Tennessee's women's basketball coach was diagnosed with early onset dementia, an Alzheimer's type disease. Summitt declared that she does not want a pity party, and I don't intend to throw one here. It's just the intersection with Patrick makes you appreciate Summitt even more.
Both women faced challenges getting to the top. One has tackled them with style.
The other conquered them with substance. Unless I somehow missed the Maxim cover featuring the Lady Vols wearing only bikinis and coonskin caps.
Patrick is hardly a pin-up pioneer. It's just that she's raised cheesecake marketing to a Kournikova-like art form. Her fame far surpasses her accomplishments.
I don't blame Patrick for preying on the male libido. If I could make $12 million a year posing in bikinis on car hoods, I'd gladly volunteer. I only wish so many female athletes didn't want it both ways.
They long to be respected, not objectified. Then they go topless and gripe when the public calls them out on it.
I was going to list a few examples, but it'd be easier to list notable females who haven't posed for Maxim or FHM or Playboy. If they've got it, they usually end up flaunting it.
Frankly, that's fine with me. But it doesn't promote their sports; it promotes them.
Take the 1999 U.S. women's soccer team. The combination of talent, looks and Brandi Chastain's jog bra led to the creation of the Women's United Soccer Association. The league lasted about 15 minutes.
At least Mia Hamm & Co. had a real accomplishment. Patrick is not a fraud, but she also has one win in 109 IndyCar starts. When you look like her that doesn't matter.
The Gal Racing the Good Old Boys will be a media spectacle. The lines in this Battle of the Sexes are already being drawn. Or did you not see Brad Keselowski's Twitter feed on Thursday?
"Her assent up the ladder of the sport thru various branding ???techniques' (swimsuit ads etc) only serves to undermine the ... future credibility of female racers who wish to make it based on skill, mental toughness and a never give up attitude."
For that, we have Summitt.
Sports were not a socially acceptable pursuit for young girls in the 1970s. In most states, including Tennessee, high schools played six-on-six.
There were three players on offense, three on defense, and neither group crossed mid-court. Girls were too fragile, you see, for full-court games.
Summitt was 22 when she got the Tennessee job, largely because nobody else wanted it. She made $250 a month, drove the bus and washed uniforms. Uniforms bought with proceeds from a doughnut sale.
Fast-forward 37 years, eight national championships and 1,071 wins. The Lady Vols have led the nation in attendance 14 of the past 15 seasons. They averaged 12,599 fans last season, a figure most men's programs would die for.
It's all due to Summitt refusing to compromise the values she learned growing up on a dairy farm in Henrietta, Tenn. You want resolve?
Summitt was in labor and went on a recruiting trip to Pennsylvania. She did cut the visit short because she was determined to get back and have the baby in Tennessee. She barely made it.
Summitt requires players to sit in the first three rows of class. She patrols the sideline looking like Bobby Knight after a bad meal, but her players almost universally adore her.
To be fair, Summitt has probably never been asked to pose in a bikini. But if ESPN the Magazine showed up wanting the Lady Vols to strip for its Body Issue, Summitt would run them off campus.
"I don't coach women," she once said. "I coach basketball."
The way she's done it has helped change the way we view women. They are more than delicate flowers or sex objects. They are athletes worthy of sporting respect.
Patrick also deserves respect for making herself into a multi-million dollar name brand. But her popularity is a house of cards that, sans more than one win, will collapse when her looks fade.
Summitt's legacy will last long after she fades away. She showed that women athletes can be successful, famous and achieve all their goals.
And they don't have to take off their clothes to do it.