Open To Attack

She was a star athlete at UCLA, he was a failure at sports and girls. And for more than a year, school administrators say he was obsessed with her. He wrote her letters, he phoned her, he showed up to watch her play. No matter what she did, she couldn't shake him--until her parents and university officials slapped him with a restraining order. It would be comforting to think the young woman, who graduated last year, was the only athlete threatened, but in the nine years Judie Holland has been associate director of women's sports at UCLA, she's encountered three serious stalking incidents. Now the school is as no-nonsense about sports security as it is about training. If a woman athlete gets ominous calls or letters, Holland calls in police; if the taunts escalate, so does security. Says Holland: "We're living in a different world, where some people feel free to assault people without any reason that makes sense."

They're prized for being as strong as men, as nimble and aggressive, yet women players are no more immune from attack than their less-athletic sisters. The question is, why? Are women athletes really more vulnerable than male jocks? Or are they just another target for fans obsessed with controlling every facet of the game, no matter the consequences? It's a tricky call, in part because there are no statistics on how many female athletes are harassed or harmed. No one doubts the risks are higher than ever. just a generation ago, violence against women athletes wasn't a threat because so few women played sports. Now, not only are more women on the college and pro levels. but more are drawing significant attention from the media and corporate sponsors. Along with bigger winnings and fatter endorsement contracts comes more attention, desired or sinister.

"For everyone who is going to become a celebrity today, there is an unwritten contract," says media psychologist Stuart Fischoff of California State University. "The minute you put yourself in the spotlight, you become a target for the weirdos of society." Of course, men are targets, too. But women athletes may be stalked simply because they are physically more vulnerable. No matter how strong she is, a 5-foot-4, 110-pound figure skater is still at a greater disadvantage in an attack than a 6-foot-4, 220-pound tight end. Or she's perceived as weaker, and that can mean everything. "Women athletes are an interesting mix of perceptions," says University of Indiana social psychologist Edward Hirt. "Do you view them as athletes, in the same context as males? Or do you view them as women, in terms of their femininity? That doesn't happen with men."

For Northwestern University law professor Jane Larson, last week's attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan mirrors the violence--or at least the fury-against successful career women. Extreme? Not really, says Larson, who draws parallels between the woman executive whose success may come at the expense of male colleagues and the woman sports star whose newfound money and celebrity are trophies once bestowed only on men. "The woman athlete represents a symbol of frustration and a feeling of displacement that many men feel," she says. "Many men have lost control over their work and their own life."

Kerrigan's attack, like last year's stabbing of tennis star Monica Seles, may have less to do with the battle between the sexes than the one between star and fan. Once upon a time, a frustrated baseball fan might have jumped up and screamed, "Kill the ump!" Now, in South America, soccer referees have to be protected from fans ready to kill them if it would change the score. How far removed from that are American football fans who exult any time a rival player is carted off the field on a stretcher? "It's very much a contest in which the successes and failures of sports teams are felt as personal successes and failures by their fans," says Robert Cialdini, a sports psychologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

It's still uncertain what motivated Kerrigan's attacker. But apparently the young skater had worried about a stalker. In the moments after the assault at Cobo Hall, Kerrigan told her coach's wife that she'd been frightened by two letters she'd received. One came from Ontario, Canada. "Is Ontario close to here?" she asked.

Women athletes have become new symbols of the fear of stalking. The Kerrigan episode again raises an issue that has affected ordinary women as well as superstars. Ever since the 1989 shooting of TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer by an obsessed fan, stalking stories have become frighteningly commonplace--and it has taken years for states to face up to it. When Schaeffer was murdered, there were virtually no antistalking laws on the books. Since then 48 states have adopted at least some measures, and a federal study recently proposed a model statute that led several states to begin rewriting their codes. The trick, though, is catching stalkers before they act. But how? Most commonly the stalker is a rejected boyfriend or fan whose romantic obsession flips over into hatred and the desire to harm. Often, his overtures are dismissed--until it's too late.

For now, at least, attacks on male athletes usually take a different tack. "Men are competitive with celebrities, so they pick fights and try to prove themselves in reallife situations," says media psychologist Fischoff. "They'll meet in a bar or on the street and say, 'You think you're a tough guy? Let's see how tough you are'."

World-class athletes--women and men--are tough. Weaklings don't make it to national championships--at Wimbledon or the Orange Bowl. They cope. Says Lynnore Lawton, spokeswoman for the Women's Sports Foundation: "Now, you are not only being judged by your performance, but you also have to fear for your life." It's not the sort of stardom any woman athlete wants.

By any measure, even without the attack on Kerrigan, it was a remarkable skating championship last week in Detroit. Tonya Harding skated consistently well--and did not get mired in a new personal controversy. The legendary Brian Boitano, returning from the pros, finished second to Scott Davis. But he still won a trip to Norway. And Renee Roca proved her mettle by skating with her dance partner despite breaking a bone in her left arm during practice.