So I was perusing a recent issue of Sports Illustrated magazine when I came across a letter to the editor that made me choke on my orange juice. ... Referring to a cover story on race car driver Danica Patrick, the female letter writer wrote:

"Thank you for portraying Danica Patrick as the highly motivated and talented athlete that she is, instead of a sex symbol. I am so tired of seeing female sports stars turned into objects to be admired for their beauty, not for their ability."

Say what? Sorry, but it's not that simple, and it's mostly wrong. Do you know who's really turning female athletes into objects to be admired for their beauty?

Female athletes.

The letter writer is not alone in her opinion. Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, is among the many who complain about the so-called exploitation of female athletes — "Any exposure in a sports magazine that minimizes athletic achievement and skill and emphasizes the female athlete as a sex object is insulting and degrading," she once said.

The problem is that it's the female athletes who keep taking off their clothes, and nobody's holding a gun to their heads.

Here is the modern way: A female athlete enters the professional ranks, trains, competes and then poses for photos in a bikini or nothing at all, in about that order. The photos then turn up in calendars, magazine layouts or Internet Web sites or all of the above.

Whether they are successful or unsuccessful on the field, female athletes inevitably decide to cash in on their looks and "market" themselves, which is a polite way of saying they're trying to make money.

The new Olympic theme: Citius, altius, bare gluteus maximus.

You can barely name a female athlete who hasn't shed her clothes.

• Danica Patrick sprawled seductively across a car

wearing a tiny bikini, one of which features reverse cleavage. It was waxed, buffed and oiled — the car, I mean.

• Olympic high jumper Amy Acuff and Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard can't tear their clothes off fast enough. They have done numerous nude and semi-nude layouts. Beard and Acuff, as well as Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt and mediocre tennis player Ashley Harkleroad, among others, posed nude for Playboy magazine.

• Sports Illustrated featured a photo of Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson topless (with hands placed strategically).

• The Australian women's soccer team posed naked and turned the photos into a calendar, which sold for $20. Canadian national teams for rugby, cross country skiing, water polo and curling have done nude calendars.

• Thirteen of Australia's top female golfers bared almost all for a calendar, supposedly to support breast cancer research. The breast cancer charity rejected the calendar as too racy — and because, according to one official, it featured "perfect breasts," which was certainly cruel irony.

• Olympic pole vault champ Stacy Dragila teamed up with other female track athletes to make a calendar of near-nude photos.

• Anna Kournikova, who famously never won a pro tennis tournament, makes an estimated $11 million to $15 million in endorsements with her looks and sex appeal.

• Norwegian skier Ingvild Engesland posed nude for a porn magazine in poses that can't be described here.

• Utah Olympic volleyball player Logan Tom posed topless, with her back to the camera.

• Natalie Gulbis, a curvy pro golfer, has made a living off her looks, with sexy bikini calendars, a Golf Channel TV show, a guest column in a men's magazine, and more than a dozen corporate sponsors. Anna Rawson, another pro golfer with less talent, also makes a living off her sex appeal.

• Others who have posed nude: German speed skater Anni Friesinger, Norwegian golfer Suzann Petersen, Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, Danish figure skater Mikkeline Kierkgaard, the Brazilian soccer team (which included several pornographic photos), Olympic swimmer Brooke Hanson, WNBA Most Valuable Player Lauren Jackson, Italian volleyball player Francesca Piccinini, Dutch darts player Mieke de Boer, Olympic pole vaulter Tatiana Grigoriev, volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, soccer player Brandi Chastain (with a strategically placed ball), figure skater Jamie Sale, etc., etc.

The justification usually follows one of two themes: We worked hard to get these bodies, we want to show them off (Acuff, track's Suzy Favor, among others). Or: We did it to bring awareness of our sport. "We want to get our faces out there," said Acuff, who got a little more out there than her face. Others just do it to make money, but don't say so.

So who's exploiting whom? One side thinks it's exploitative. Another side thinks, as one athlete put it, it's "empowerment to women."

Whether you think it's wrong or right is not the issue here. The issue is that if women are being exploited, it's with their full cooperation. You can argue that the largely male media don't give female athletes the attention they deserve, and that is why women resort to these other tactics, but the women are still willingly playing along instead of continuing the struggle to earn attention with their athleticism.

"I thought as women athletes we had reached the point where we didn't have to use our bodies that way," Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee once told the Chicago Tribune.

Not yet.


E-mail: drob@desnews.com