Swimsuits and Other Issues

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 featured the five members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, including Bay Stater Aly Raisman (of Needham).

The team went on to win the gold medal, 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 gives rise to the question: which 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 latter. Because in the past 10 years, only 20 issues of the nation’s premier sports magazine have exclusively featured women on the cover. And half of those were swimsuit issues. (Remember, too, SI is a weekly, not a monthly, magazine, and prints more than 50 covers annually—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 U.S. 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 last year in The Atlantic. As with Barkhorn’s article, Modiano’s breakdown is filled with disheartening, though not always surprising, statistics and analysis.

“The significant majority of female athletes with 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 [sic] within a few months after posing for the swimsuit issue.”

Could it be that after seeing the women in bikinis, their athletic successes became more visible to McDonell?


Despite the fact that the magazine has covered a sports era dominated by African-American women, only Serena Williams has appeared solo for Sports Illustrated under McDonell’s watch.

And Beyonce, of course.

Notable snubs include the UConn Women’s Basketball team and their absolutely amazing 90-game win streak, as well as the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, with their far-from-shabby 41-game (and counting) sweep—not to mention Brittany Griner, Sheryl Swoopes, Candace Parker, Venus Williams, and others of the same ilk.

But this stat is truly shocking: for her first-ever outburst, Serena Williams received a record fine for the U.S. Open of $82,500, which on its own totals more than legendary bad boy John McEnroe had to pay for his first 20 vocal tantrums.

That is simply confounding, and speaks volumes about our perceptions of and imposed limitations on male athletes, especially white men, and female athletes, especially women of color.

And if there’s anything that the Sports Illustrated cover pattern fiasco shows, it is that the ongoing insult of underrepresentation, whether intentional or not, grows far worse with repeated offenses.

Author: Pete Redington

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