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Patrick Hruby

A Nipple Ain't What It Used to Be

Nude curling calendars and the death of overexposure


Once upon a time in America -- like, say, two years ago -- a little aureola went a long way.

Show us your bits. We'll show you the money. Some beads. Or at least take a quick look. Such was the unwritten social contract that made our nation great, a tacit agreement that anyone getting naked for the sole purpose of getting noticed -- Janet Jackson, Girls Gone Wild, Halle Berry in "Swordfish" -- would warrant a second glance, if not a hype avalanche and an entry in the Celebrity Nudity Database.

Sadly, this grand bargain is now fraying. Which has me fretting for our future.

And, of course, the kids.

Case in point? The women of curling. Yes, curling. Last week, the Canadian press reported on an upcoming calendar featuring 12 international female curlers in various states of undress, including an Austrian, Claudia Toth, who previously turned down an offer to pose in the German edition of Playboy.

"I think it's going to change the image of the sport which is not so nice," Ana Arce, a photographer and curler who created the calendar and also poses in it, told the Canadian Press. "I've been playing for eight years and there are so many beautiful girls playing and nobody knows it.

"I doubt that anyone is going to be shocked. Everybody's going to enjoy and like it."

Arce is half right: No one is shocked. In fact, no one seems to care. Curling is still, well, curling. Hence my concern. By exposing themselves for scant exposure, female curlers have inadvertently called attention to a creeping social ill.

Namely, the increasing difficulty of calling attention to anything.

Don't take my word for it. Ask Ron Artest. The aspiring rap mogul and NBA agent provocateur appears on the cover of this month's Penthouse, a magazine best known for baby oil bodysuits. America's response? Giggles. And yawns. At the time, I argued that the predictably wacky Artest had taken up residence on the isle of misfit celebrity toys, forfeiting his capacity to shock through standard, run-of-the-mill transgressions.

As it turns out, the rest of our culture has largely followed suit.

From the Minnesota Vikings' nautical shenanigans to a man's requesting a 33-year prison sentence to match Larry Bird's number, the bar for noteworthy aberrance isn't merely high -- it's circling in low Earth orbit. Modern truth really is stranger than fiction.

The result? Public interest is tough to draw. Impossible to hold. More slippery than Tom Benson's commitment to keeping the Saints in New Orleans.

To put things another way: Terrell Owens has a personal publicist.

Terrell Owens.

Personal publicist.

Not the most superfluous job in America.

Think about this.

Anyway, back to the nude curlers. Laudable effort. Lousy idea. Truth be told, something involving bar brawls, bathroom stalls and alleged girl-on-girl action would have gotten more play. Why? Stripped athletes are passé. Even the Canadian women's cross-country ski team -- quick, name one member -- has jumped into the cheesecake calendar pool. As such, there's no novelty to naked curlers, nothing to lift the sport from the late-night netherworld of professional arm wrestling and John Basedow infomercials.

More to the point, there's nothing to earn Arce and company anything beyond a passing mention on "PTI."

Fact: The attention marketplace has never been more overcrowded. And that's quite a feat. After all, the 24-hour news cycle requires a steady stream of fresh material, titillating outrage and outrageous titillation.

Fortunately for network executives (and media vultures such as myself), both are in ample supply.

Brent Barry kissing David Stern. Mike Tyson performing a carwreck cover of "Monster Mash." Theo Epstein ducking reporters in an ape costume. Pete Carroll faking a player's death. Battling for eyes and ears, nude curlers squared off against all of the above oddities, all in the span of a few days. Is it any wonder their sexy, yet tasteful exhibition slipped gently into the good night of the Google archives, alongside Fisher DeBerry?

Uh-uh. Also fact: Our collective attention span has become shorter than the broadcast run of the "Emeril!" sitcom.

The ceaseless parade of strange news -- dude, a man killed a buck with his bare hands? -- has the same effect as heroin, as well as can-you-top-this touchdown dances. Each successive hit makes us crave a bigger high, all while limiting our capacity for enjoyment. Diminishing returns give way to numbness. When Kenny Rogers attacked a cameraman, Jesus nearly wept; when Benson did the same, it barely made the news. Abu Ghraib transfixed the country. The CIA's secret overseas prisons? Not so much.

In both cases, the thrill had evaporated, just as it has with naked athletes. Seen one hardbody in artsy black-and-white, seen 'em all. Yet it's hard to fault the women of curling for trying, especially considering the alternatives.

Homemade Internet sex tape? Paris Hilton has it covered.

Wear flip-flops to the White House? Beaten to the punch by the Northwestern women's lacrosse team.

Go blonde, the time-honored way of attracting attention? Good for a few days, lousy until your hair grows out. See Woods, Tiger, or Collins, Doug.

No, the only way to keep and hold public interest these days is through a coordinated campaign of continuing escalation. Send in the clowns today? Send in the clowns and elephants tomorrow. Take Owens. First, he "prays" on the Dallas Cowboys' midfield star. Then he whips out a Sharpie. Next comes a racy embrace with Nicollette Sheridan. Salary griping, driveway crunches and publicly stepping on Donovan McNabb's neck follow. Through it all, the underlying narrative hasn't changed -- self-aggrandizing diva doesn't play well with others -- yet Owens continues to make headlines, as if something new is actually taking place.

Really, the marketing whizzes at Apple Computer couldn't have rolled out a new iPod more effectively. Yet even this tactic wears thin. To wit: What's Dennis Rodman doing these days? When was the last time anyone cared? Madonna once produced "Sex," a pretentious, softcore coffee table tome; today, she writes pretentious children's books. Give her credit: She had the good sense to quit the what-will-she-do-next? game while still ahead. Once you've kissed Britney Spears, there's nowhere to go but England.

Ultimately, that may be an attention-seeker's best bet: Move to another country, someplace where your shtick still matters. Or else wait things out. Over time, formerly-surprising, now-trite gimmicks are abandoned and forgotten; at that point, they can be recycled. Why do younger pop music fans embrace Justin Timberlake's shameless looting of Michael Jackson's legacy? Because they only know Jacko as a disfigured courtroom ghoul. Everything old is new, provided you're not old.

This gives me hope. Someday, perhaps, athletes will tire of nude calendars. Exposed nipples will once again mean something, outside of an obligatory Janet Jackson joke.

In the meantime, all isn't lost for Arce and company. Canadian curling champ Colleen Jones once said that women "would have to curl naked" to draw a crowd. Actually, she has things backward. If the women of curling truly want to stand out, they should zip up, hit the ice and let their sport speak for itself. Now that would be unusual.

Read the original article at ESPN.com