On Monday, American track and field runner turned bobsledder Lolo Jones tweeted a Vine video that mocked her paltry bobsledding paycheck: $741.84, for seven months of training. It was a move intended to advocate for higher earnings for bobsledders, who are underpaid relative to track and field athletes, she says.
But the video also unintentionally turned attention on arbitrary differences in earnings between celebrity athletes and their more-under-the-radar counterparts.
"Seven months with bobsled season. The whole season. That's it," Ms. Jones said in the video. Then, pretending to talk to her landlord on the phone: "I’m sorry, I’m just calling because I'm going to be a little late on my rent this month."
That video, which next zooms in on Ms. Jones’ $741.84 check, has not been well received, especially in the small bobsledding world. American bobsledder Steven Holcomb, the most accomplished bobsledder in U.S. history and an Olympic gold medalist, told USA Today that her video was “a slap in the face.”
"People were really kind of insulted,” he said. “You just made $741, more than most athletes in the sport. So what are you complaining about?"
Other bobsledders reacted similarly: Ms. Jones, they said, had joined a sport not known for its paychecks, but where athletes slide “for the love of the game.” Since the check in the video came from the international bobsled federation, which gives the money to the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation to divide up among the athletes based on competition results, the athletes also accused her of being downright spoiled, claiming more than owned to her as a relatively undecorated newcomer in the sport.
Mr. Holcomb received about $3,000 from the federation, plus a $2,000 a month athlete stipend for which Ms. Jones is not currently eligible, as she is not yet one of the top performers in the sport, according to USA Today. Mr. Holcomb has been in and out of debt as a bobsledder, he told that paper.
In a statement released through Red Bull, one of her sponsors, Ms. Jones defended the Vine video as calling attention to the disparity between the paychecks of much-watched sports, like track and field, and sports like bobsledders, which pull in fewer viewers and less endorsements.
"The vine of the paycheck is just showing the difference between track and bobsled, and to be honest bobsledders work more hours than track,” she said. “The bottom line is that all Olympic athletes dedicate their lives to their sports and do not receive lucrative paychecks like athletes in mainstream professional sports. So hopefully this will make people appreciate just how hard Olympians work, often just for the love of the sport."
But in calling attention to the disparity in how different sports are funded, Ms. Jones’ video also brings renewed notice to frequent criticisms that her winning public image have earned her more endorsements — including Oakley, Red Bull, Degree, and Asics — than her impressive but waning athletic achievements would suggest.
Sports endorsements have a lot to do with the sport in question. Golfers and even runners will pull down more money than bobsledders and weightlifters, since those are prime-time sports that command bigger American TV audiences. But endorsements also develop out of a complex, often deeply uncomfortable, calculation that takes into account factors like race, gender, and beauty.
Ms. Jones, a two-time world hurdling champion, is no doubt an enormously talented athlete. But some have at times expressed doubts that her fame and resulting endorsements equal her hurdling wins. In summer 2012, a New York Times article drew ire for noting that Ms. Jones was not a favorite in the 100-meter hurdles at 2012 London Olympic Games: At the 2008 games in Beijing, where she had been a favorite, she had placed seventh in the event, after tripping over most of the hurdles, the article said, noting that she had just made it on to the 2012 team with a third place finish in the trials.
So in 2012, it was her American counterparts Sawn Harper and Kellie Wells who were billed to win that year’s gold. Those athletes, though, were receiving considerably less attention, and both went on to publically deride Ms. Jones after her failure to medal at the games drew more media coverage than their wins.
What Ms.Jones had, and what her competitors didn’t have, was celebrity status, having posed almost naked on the cover of Outside magazine that year and totally nude on the cover of ESPN three years earlier, The New York Times said. Ms. Jones, who has a robust social media presence, had also told HBO that she was a virgin and a Christian.
And so a winning image for sponsorships was born: sexy, and pious. Likely, that was less her fault than that of the media and the public, which heap attention on those who meet certain ideals.
For comparison, take note of Sarah Robles, the highest ranked weightlifter in the United States. In June 2012, she drew media attention when it was discovered that she earned just $400 a month from U.S.A. Weightlifting, with no commercial sponsorships.
“You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini,” Robles said at the time. "But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.”