Looking at Jocks: Nude Athletes Are Fine, Just Not in America
Jim Provenzano | March 30, 2005
What is it about the athletic body that fascinates so many people? Since the dawn of athletics, nudity has played a part in competition and training, as well as the representation of the athletic body through art. But in American athletics – officially, at least – nudity is the last thing fans can expect.
Former gymnast Matthew Abboud, from his Playgirl spread - Photo by Greg Weiner
Even the relatively innocuous 2004 Olympics received complaints about the content and implied (although not actual) nudity of the Athens Olympics Opening Ceremonies.
At last year's Super Bowl, Janet Jackson's exposed breast got more than its share of deserved attention. But that same Super Bowl's post-game locker-room interviews led to a series of secretively taken camera-phone images of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady partially and fully nude. The images quickly spread through the hundreds of sports-related male nudity Yahoo Groups.
While the privacy of athletes and the apparently strong desire of fans to see athletes naked takes on voyeuristic tendencies in America, in most European countries – and others like Brazil, Thailand, and Australia – attitudes are more relaxed. Pro athletes, for example, pose tastefully nude in giant billboards selling running shoes.
The French rugby team Stade France has appeared in their calendars, a book, and DVDs with increasing levels of nudity. Many of Australia's Olympic athletes have posed nude for three successive photo books published by (not only) Blue Magazine.
Other individual athletes – like soccer stars Tulio Maravilha, Bruno Carvalho, Dinei, and most recently, Alexandre Gaucho – have appeared in the explicitly erotic Brazilian magazine G with no qualms about their bodies being admired by a mostly gay male audience. Most posed while active as competitive athletes, often on playing fields and in locker rooms.
Occasionally, American male athletes have posed nude. In the 1970s, Playgirl magazine featured former NFL stars John Matuszak and Jim Brown, as well as soccer player Shep Messing.
One former college gymnast who bared all in the pages of a recent issue of Playgirl is Matthew Abboud, who started in gymnastics at age 3. "I was an energetic, spazzy kid, always bouncing around on the furniture," says Abboud. "My mom put me in a nice, safe area in the gym with my older sister. I got all my energy out. I don't remember my life without gymnastics."
Active in the sport through high school, Abboud made the junior national team in 1997, competing in international championships for the next few years, and earned a full athletic scholarship to Penn State.
While finishing a degree in international business, Abboud went to Rome for further study. Overcoming a gymnastics injury (a torn meniscus), he took up modeling, and after one shoot for L.L. Bean, his agent called with a job from Playgirl. Although off-season from gymnastics, and not in the NCAA program, he was still identified in Playgirl as a gymnast, but he didn't use his real name.
"I knew this was gonna be a huge shock to my family and friends," says Abboud, "but it would get me exposure and help my modeling career."
When news of his posing nude reached the athletics administration at Penn State, an investigation was undertaken to try to remove Abboud from the athletics program, despite his having posed after gymnastics season was over.
Abboud endured an interrogation process. "They did a background check, called the manager of Playgirl; they had to have documents proving when I posed. Because I was not an athlete at the time, there was no violation against my scholarship."
Having been a part of the team that won the Big 10 men's gymnastics national championship, Abboud was due a championship ring. Yet his former coach and the Penn State athletics department decided to revoke it.
"Yes, it's just a ring, but that's not the whole point. I just feel wronged," says Abboud. "I just wanted to leave on good terms, and have some closure…I did contribute strongly to that team."
Abboud mentions that many Penn State sorority girls posed nude in Playboy, and that the university's administration made no complaints.
As for male nudity, "It's not accepted [in America], but it should be," says Abboud. "In Europe, it's widely accepted and appreciated."
Although he says he won't be posing fully nude again any time soon, "I don't have any regrets."
Despite having displayed his body with pride, Abboud prefers to keep his romantic life private. He agrees that there is a stigma about male gymnasts being perceived as gay. "A lot of gymnasts are attractive, good-looking guys with muscles," he says. "Girls come up and ask, 'Are you gay?' You have to legitimize (yourself) first."
Abboud says he understands the sort of fan infatuation he receives. He occasionally corresponds on a Yahoo Group devoted to him, whose membership is almost exclusively male. "Being an athlete and focusing so much on your body and how it works, I think athletes should be able to portray that, whether to show it off or appreciate it. They're the model of what the human body should be."
Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org
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