Oh ESPN The Magazine…You Never Cease to Amaze Me.

I’ve written previously about portrayals of female athletes  in sport media (here & here) and particularly on the pattern of female athletes on the covers of ESPN The Magazine. and Sports Illustrated.

Yesterday a colleague forwarded me the new cover of ESPN The Magazine “the movie issue” as she thought I’d like to see it. On the cover appeared to be a Sharon Stone look alike from the famous interview scene in Basic Instinct. I thought it strange ESPN would have a movie issue, and didn’t really realize it was Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn until today! At the risk of asking for more criticism and being hung out to dry by those who will disagree when I write about Lindsey Vonn, I have to address (again) why this cover is just plain problematic. To see video of Vonn’s shoot and why she decided to do the piece, click here.

Reason 1: Females athletes are under represented in the media. Less than 5% of all sport media is dedicated to female athletes. A new report states that number is generous as coverage of females athletes on major networks has declined to an all time low of 1.6%!!!

Reason 2: When female athletes are given media coverage it is usually in ways that highlight their sexuality, rather than athletic competence. (latest ESPN cover as Exhibit A, B, C, D,…..). ESPN The Magazine is the worst culprit of this pattern. In five years (2004- March 2009) females athletes have appeared on 5 of 168 ESPN covers (3.6%…less than the average) and when they do….well see for yourself.

I joke in class with my students that whenever female athletes are on the cover of ESPN they are in white (except for Danica Patrick because she is usually always in black for some reason as part of the media’s construction of her as a badass, sexy vixen…even when she’s “refueling” and promoting Got Milk?). White in U.S. culture connotes purity, chastity, cleanliness, and innocence but when coupled with sexy images of female athletes it has a much different meaning I’m still trying to figure out. This pattern is not coincidental and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Reason 3: When female athletes are consistently portrayed like sexy vixens it become increasingly difficult for most everyone to take them seriously AS ATHLETES. This does little to promote women’s sports.

Reason 4: It sends the wrong message to girls and young women, and heck any female!, that it is more important what your body looks like and how it can be used and gazed upon as a sexual object, than what your body can do athletically. An entire body of literature provides many reasons why the continual sexualization of females is harmful to girls.

This ESPN cover and the countless other images are not proof of female enlightenment, it is as Susan J. Douglas argues in her book it is unfortunately an example of how far we have to go until females are free of sexist practices packaged as post feminist empowerment that undermines female achievement and serves to keep women a sexualized objects, rather than promote them as equal members of society.

5 Replies to “Oh ESPN The Magazine…You Never Cease to Amaze Me.”

  1. It’s okay to be both an accomplished athlete AND a beautiful, sensual woman. But I have to agree that women who are just as accomplished in their sport but not as beautiful or as sensual as these ESPN “cover girls” aren’t likely to make it to a cover. But it was sensuality that brought the bigger audiences and better paychecks to the LPGA 30 years ago. Is the end justifying the means? Or, is the objectification by virtue of sexy covers working at cross-purposes?


  2. I disagreed with your assessment of the Lindsey Vonn SI cover for the Olympics AND the NY Times article with the female tennis players, but damn, you’re right on the money with this cover.

    It’s ridiculous to have her on the cover of ESPN Magazine in the infamous Basic Instinct pose.


  3. Hey Nicole, this is Mark from your session at NASSS. I am enjoying your blog, it is a refreshing read. I think you’re dead on about how this sort of media coverage completely delegitimizes the athletic talent of female athletes. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about how female hockey players could receive more recognition outside of the Olympics (which in Canada is quite well covered, though not nearly to the extent of men’s). The Hockey Hall of Fame admitted its first women this year, which is a huge first step – but one of many that need to be taken.


  4. I have to admit… I cracked up when I saw this issue’s cover. First of all, the way they positioned her makes it look like she has a crick in her neck or slept on a rock. And that’s not just a casual leg crossing there Mr. Vonn… it looks like you are trying not to pee your pants. Er.. turtleneck dress.



  5. I shared this cover with my students at Purdue and asked them to, “Write down how a sociologist would analyze this picture.” A few of my students mentioned how the copy “Back to the Basics”, although clearly a reference to the film, reminded them of going “back to the basics” in terms of gender relations, to a time where women knew their place (as sexual object) and didn’t play sport. I thought that was a really smart analysis. Made me happy to be a professor that day.

    The fact that ESPN chose this film, and this scene in the film, is very interesting since this scene caused so much controversy at the time for its highly sexualized content.

    NML I appreciated your analysis of the use of white on the covers. I’m not sure what to make of this either, but it is an interesting trend. I’d echo your comments about the symbolism of white as innocent, pure, and virginal. Perhaps its the madonna/ whore dichotomy at work. Let’s put women in white, but in hyper-sexualized poses (although that is only true for some of the covers…).


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