The Sports Illustrated Cover vs. The Female Athlete
Something amazing happened on the way to this year’s summer Olympics: a Sports Illustrated cover didn’t have any men on it.
Under the headline: “Five Stars: America’s Game Changers,” SI’s Olympics preview issue cover featured the five members of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team, including its captain, Bay Stater Aly Raisman (of Needham, Massachusetts). The team went of to win the gold medal, of course, with both Raisman and Gabby Douglas winning individual golds as well. An amazing and historic feat, to be sure. But maybe not as amazing, or historic, as landing the cover of SI.
Which begs the question: what is more difficult for a world-class female athlete: becoming a champion in one’s given field, or making the cover of Sports Illustrated?
Maybe the former. Because in the past 10 years, only 20 Sports Illustrated issues have exclusively featured women on its cover. Half of those were swimsuit issues. And remember, SI is a weekly, not monthly magazine, and prints over 50 cover annually (an amazing 500-plus in the past decade).
“Sports Illustrated’s newest low can be traced directly to [Terry] McDonell’s 2002 arrival as SI’s Editor in Chief,” C. Modiano writes at Popsspot.com. “He arrived with much-needed tech-savvy, but also an editorial history dominated by men’s magazines. His previous two stops at the tabloid US Weekly and Men’s Journal would noticeably influence SI’s direction.”
“Under Terry McDonell,” Modiano continues, “SI’s depiction of women has never been worse. SI is a prime case study in the Title IX paradox: The 1972 legislation has helped bring sports participation of women to historic highs, but related sports media coverage has dropped to all-time lows.”
Modiano goes on to “remix” Eleanor Barkhorn’s “9 Ways Women Get on the Cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’,” which ran in The Atlantic last year. As with Barkhorn’s article, Modiano’s breakdown is filled with disheartening, though not always surprising, statistics and analysis.
A few facts that really stood out for me:
- “The significant majority of female athletes with [SI] solo covers have also posed as swimsuit models within its pages,” Modiano writes. “While each athlete certainly has that right, a disturbing pattern has emerged: [Serena] Williams, [Jennie] Finch, [Danica] Patrick, and [Lindsey] Vonn were all rewarded covers within a few months after posing for the swimsuit issue.”
(Maybe after seeing them in a bikini, their respected athletic successes became more visible to McDonell?)
- “In a sports era dominated by African-American women,” Modiano notes, “only Serena Williams has been featured by herself – besides Beyonce. SI ignores women of color today as it once did Black men before 1968.”
Notable snubs include: the UConn Women’s Basketball team and their astoundingly impressive 90-game win streak, as well as the US Olympic Women’s Basketball, with their team’s far-from-shabby 35-game win streak. Not to mention Brittany Griner, Sheryl Swoopes, Candace Parker, Venus Williams, and so forth.
Which isn't commentary directly concerning the lack of female athletes featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but is absolutely confounding nonetheless, and does speak volumes about our perceptions of, and imposed rules regarding male athletes, especially white men, and female athletes, especially black women.
And if there’s anything that the Sports Illustrated cover pattern fiasco shows, it’s that the misconduct of insult, intentional on whatever particular level or not, grows far worse with repeated offenses.