Last weekend I had lunch with my mom.
These visits tend to take a rather ritualistic form. We each drive an hour to meet in the middle (usually at our favorite mall South Coast Plaza), we have lunch and my mom brings me random things she thinks I need, like socks.
This visit, she brought me a piece of Americana- the Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition.
Now, clearly I’m not exactly the demographic that this magazine appeals to, but I do love sports and my family has a subscription to Sports Illustrated, so the swimsuit edition is just part of the package. I have an open mind- female empowerment, own your body and that type of thing. OK.
So I took a look through the magazine. Christie Brinkley with the center spread- yeah she looks good, but why? Model, model, model, are there any athletes in this issue at all? Hannah Jeter- does she count as an athlete now that she tamed Derek Jeter?
On page 84, I finally come across some actual athletes- Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman and Simone Biles. And I promptly wished that this issue actually was just full of professional models.
The spread with the two of them was a little shocking, to say the least. Aly Raisman looks like she is trying to remind the world that she’s a grown woman who goes on dates with football players as she posed topless and in other rather indecent poses. Simone Biles just looks plain uncomfortable. I feel you Simone, I am uncomfortable as well.
Reason number one I am uncomfortable- I still think of these gymnasts as kids.
Obviously, Raisman and Biles are both technically adults now, Raisman slightly more so at age 22. Yet, the thing about gymnastics is that you watch the sport as these athletes are growing up. Many gymnasts hit their peak performance between ages 16-18. The Olympic qualifying age is 16, and gymnasts are often left disappointed when they qualify on skill but do not make the age cut-off. Elite junior gymnastics ranges from ages 11-15, and from there gymnasts can turn elite and make the national team at 16. From the age of 11, gymnasts can be under media scrutiny if they are really good. Personally, I don’t want to see someone I watched maneuver through their adolescent years do a spread in a magazine that is only a slightly more covered version of Playboy.
Simone Biles is 19 years old. She’s old enough to make her own decisions, vote, live by herself, etc. But she’s also been a superior competitor her whole life. Her life has been consumed by schedules and competitions. In turning pro, she is also consumed by endorsements and sponsors. 19 years old is still very young. I would not have been ready for any of this when I was 19. At 19, I was still bringing home my laundry and calling my mom to cry about how creepy boys can be (I still bring home my laundry and boys are still creepy). I imagine Simone led an even more sheltered life, consumed by training and competition. Is she really ready to be in the swimsuit edition? I can only hope Biles has a support system to tell her she doesn’t need to accept every media deal that comes her way and she doesn’t need to sell her body to stay relevant. She’s already gone down as one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Reason number two I am uncomfortable- has anyone read the news about the major gymnastics sex scandal going on?
Now, this spread would probably have made me uncomfortable either way, but it is in just very poor taste to do a spread as provocative as this one amongst the allegations of sexual abuse in USA gymnastics.
For those of you who might not know, several national gymnasts have come forward about alleged sexual abuse at the hands of a team doctor. Furthermore, the courts just released 5,600 pages of documents that detail how USA gymnastics did not properly ban coaches convicted of sexual abuse. If true, these allegations reveal decades of sexual abuse. As mentioned above, these gymnasts are competing at the elite level from the age of 11. They go through puberty with their team and coaches. It should be a safe space for them, but that appears to have been taken away.
The Sports Illustrated spread just feels like incredibly bad timing. I’m sure when the photos were taken the scandal hadn’t escalated to what it is now, but SI had plenty of time to pull those photos when the allegations were made public in December of 2016. Would it have cost them money? Sure. Would it have been the right thing to do? Absolutely.
I am a gymnastics fan and I have a ton of respect for both Aly Raisman and Simone Biles. However, I don’t think this spread was the right move for their public image or for Sports Illustrated’s.