Role Models

The Victory Lap

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There is a very good chance you won’t make it to the end of this column.

Our attention spans are too short, too limited. Writers are taught to hook people immediately with engaging openings, because that’s what will most likely keep someone interested and leave an impression. What people see first and what is most often put in front of them will shape other aspects of life.

The NFL Combine took place this past week. An event where former and current college students of various ages parade around in logo emblazoned underwear running, jumping and lifting. If I showed you one picture of a man from any of the position groups at that event, you would immediately consider him an athlete. From the 350-pound offensive lineman to the 5-foot-6 running back, all body types fit in some form of how we view these figures.

With female athletes, the opposite seems to be true. We see the same body types over and over: lean bodies with little (or unobvious) muscle. Because the totality of women’s sports isn’t given the same type of attention, some types of athletes are given less visibility — which leaves us looking at only the most popular over and over.

In recent years, things have improved some. In this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, athletes of some diversity were pictured in suits, from Serena Williams to Aly Raisman. But I was still embarrassed to have my weekly print edition awaiting me in my mailbox with not a photo of an athlete or team, but of a provocatively, barely dressed model.

But the photos on the inside aren’t what people will remember. Most will remember that Kate Upton was on the cover, not that Williams even graced the inside. For a magazine that has been a hallmark of the the sports industry for decades, continuing to promote this provocative image as a staple of sports culture is taking away from any chance women’s teams have of changing perceptions.

In a study by researchers from the University of Louisville, it was revealed that from 2000 to 2011, 35 of 716 issues of Sports Illustrated featured a female athlete on the cover, not including the Swimsuit Issues. Somehow women were depicted on a higher percentage of covers from 1954 to 1965. And it hasn’t been much better in the years since the study took place. If supermodels can make the cover of a magazine that is supposed to be devoted to sports, then surely it should be representing the many remarkable women in athletics on its covers too. Imagine if the magazine used a male model in a tiny Speedo on its cover instead of Michael Phelps. It’s difficult to even imagine.

A step toward promoting a more representative view of female athletes was made by Nike, as it announced this week that it would be selling “plus size” women’s clothing. People who workout aren’t all one size, and Nike should have been offering a variety of sports bras and clothing sizes for years.

The response to Nike releasing these new items was fierce and terrifying. Social media trolls wrote about how those who don’t fit in “average” sizes shouldn’t be promoted by the company because they are not the epitome of health. Having “lumps” doesn’t necessarily mean someone isn’t in shape or athletic. It means they are built differently than the model on the cover of the Swimsuit Issue. A female weightlifter surely has “lumps” that social media trolls gripe about, but she can lift way more than the people hiding behind a screen ever could.

If we promoted the different types of female athletes in media and apparel the same way we do males, we wouldn’t have as many telling tales of body insecurity among female athletes. Washington’s Kelsey Plum just became the leading scorer in NCAA Women’s basketball history, and she certainly doesn’t look like Upton, who had three different covers for this year’s Swimsuit Issue (her third year). But she won’t be on the cover for people around this country to learn what it looks like to be a strong female athlete, because her sport just doesn’t bring in the right kind of money or eyes that the image on the cover is supposed to.

So thank you, if you’ve made it this far despite there being just a picture of a curly-haired nonathlete alongside an article in the sports section. Maybe if people can make it through stories like this, we can reach a place where writing them is no longer necessary.

Contact Alaina Getzenberg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @agetzenberg.