Beyond Bikinis: Sports Illustrated’s Nine New Rules to Land a Cover

Updated: February 11, 2013

We, at, decided to re-published this article by C.Modino, which originally appeared on on July 31, 2012 after the uproar surrounding the Sports Illustrated 50th anniversary swimsuit edition  featuring Super model Kate Upton on the cover.

By On July 31, 2012

Before today’s big Olympic victory, the US Women’s Gymnastics Team already won their media gold medal by landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated (SI) [1]. Does this represent a new SI era after a well-celebrated 40th anniversary of Title IX or merely Sports Illustrated’s yearly one-and-done women’s cover quota?

Under Terry McDonell — current Sports Illustrated Group boss — 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.

Criticism of SI and women is not new: A 2012 study[2], “Where are The Female Athletes in Sports Illustrated?” updates a 30-year chorus of studies from 1979[3], 1988[4], 1991[5], 1994[6], 1996[7], 1997[8], 2002[9], 2003[10], 2008[11], 2009[12], 2010[13], videos [14], and you get the point.  According to must-see documentary “Not Just A Game”[15] and TV studies[16], ESPN The Mag and Sports Center are not much better[17].

Sports Illustrated’s newest low can be traced directly to McDonell’s 2002 arrival as SI’s Editor in Chief. 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.

Last year, The Atlantic’s Eleanor Barkhorn kindly treated readers with the nine ways a woman could land an SI cover. In this year’s remix, her special spirit is applied to McDonnell’s 10-year tenure.  Under the new rules, breaking the cover barrier is less about “what you play” than “who you are”.


The Problem: Skin trumps skill. ”Bikinis or Nothing” isn’t just a swimsuit cover slogan, it’s a cover policy.  With this month’s Olympic Cover, the score is now tied. Since 2002, ten covers have been devoted to swimsuits models, and ten depicted as actual athletes (*excludes shared covers or “commemorative” issues not mailed to subscribers[18]).

Before McDonell: SI was heavily criticized in the 1990’s, but still had more than twice as many covers of women (non-swimsuit models). With just the slightest reinvestment of swimsuit profits back into women’s sports, SI could easily exceed its 1950′s average of five covers per year.

Big Picture: McDonell counts on “naked women” to move copies, and SI’s swimsuit issue– a multi-media cash cow — sold more copies in 2011 than all other issues in the first five months combined [19]. While these profits have always deafened SI to past well-documented criticisms of sexism, the absence of female athlete alternatives only intensifies that impact which is well-summarized at “Beauty Redefined”:

“SI Swimsuit Issue profits from a philosophy of constructing men as active, women as passive; men as subjects, women as objects; men as actors, women as receivers; men as the lookers and women as the looked-at; and I argue, men as consumers and women as the “to-be-consumed”


The Problem: Country even trumps champion. While last year’s “one and done” solo cover went to USA Soccer goalie Hope Solo, The Japanese Women’s World Cup Champions and heroics of Homare Sawa were “Do You Believe in Miracles?” material.

With their supreme underdog status, incredible grace, and context of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, they also should have been SI’s 2011 easy choice for “Sports Person(s) of the Year”. But they were just sooooooooo – Japanese.

Before McDonell: Roberto Duran (7), Bjorn Borg (5), and Steffi Graf (3) all received  multiple covers for their brilliance.

Big Picture:  Unless wearing an American uniform, SI doesn’t care much for foreigners anymore – women or men. The greatest victim has been Roger Federer whose legendary tennis career produced one solo cover and several Sportsperson of Year snubs. Boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao?: Nothing. Same goes for soccer phenoms Lionel Messi and Marta, and the golfing brilliance of  aAnnika Sorenstam and Yani Tseng.


The Problem: Hair trumps heart. Long is good, blond is better, flowing is preferred, and bleach is a legal performance enhancer.   Rule #3 can trump rule #2 but not rule #4. At least Maria Sharapova won a Grand Slam title unlike previous Russian cover tennis princess Anna Kournikova whose 2000 cover predated McDonnell.

“But Women Can’t Sell!”: In 2004[20], Sharapova was a top-seller who  even doubled single-copy sales of  Derek Jeter and Kevin Garnett.

…Is it because blondes have more fun?…

Big Picture: Softball great Jennie Finch was covered in a mini-skirt, and skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn’s derriere was bent up high. Unlike the standard tuck position, Vonn is smiling with head cocked sideways, and seems to have forgotten her helmet. Oops.

In “Sex Sells Sex, but Not Women’s Sports”, sports media scholar Mary Jo Kane writes:

“A major consequence of the media’s tendency to sexualize women’s athletic accomplishments is the reinforcement of their status as second-class citizen in one of the most powerful economic, social and political institutions on the planet. In doing so, media images that emphasize femininity/sexuality actually suppress interest in, not to mention respect for, women’s sports.”


The Problem: White trumps right. In a sports era dominated by African-American women, only Serena Williams has been featured by herself[21] – besides Beyonce. SI ignores women of color today as it once did Black men before 1968 [22].

Venus Williams’ seven grand slam titles?:  Not grand enough. Venus and Serena on a cover together, or Laila Ali’s fists?: No storylines there. The hoops dominance of Candace Parker and Brittany Griner in college, or Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes in the WNBA-Olympics? Not dominant enough. Historic women’s hoops win streaks of UCONN (90-games)or Olympics (35 and counting)? Not long enough.

Before McDonell: In the previous 10 years, SI featured a young Serena, a young Venus, Michelle Kwan, Marion Jones, Jamila Wideman, the Women’s Olympic Basketball team, Gail Devers, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

…Is it because black women are too angry?…

     July 12, 2010                   July 19, 2010

Big Picture: All Serena Williams did to receive a 2003 cover was win four consecutive Grand Slams. After 13 Slam wins, another came in 2010 entitled: “Love Her, Hate Her”.  Why would SI “hate her”?: For berating an official? Should John McEnroe burn in hell? Or at least not profit from it? Let’s debate.

Just how big is the gender-race compound bias facing women of color? Just one week later, SI issued an IPad cover entitled “An Appreciation“[23]  for George Steinbrenner – a man who turned boorish behavior into an Olympic sport when not collecting two felonies. Why can’t SI just “love” Serena?

Serena’s first-ever outburst in 2009 received a US Open record fine– more than the combined total of McEnroe’s first 20 tantrums. The Crunk Feminist Collective summarizes the broader issue that stretches from mass media to mass incarceration:

“White anger is entertaining; Black anger must be contained”.


The Problem: America’s best two female athletes the last two years went coverless. Abby Wambach doesn’t quite fit SI’s definition of “feminine enough”, Brittney Griner definitely doesn’t, and both violate previous rules.

Before McDonell: SI’s Sexist-Heterosexist-Eurocentric femininity box is not new, and past rule-breaking sports legends like Martina Navratilova and Jackie-Joyner Kersee did not get the attention they warranted — but they still received three covers each from SI.

Big Picture: Concerned citizen Sarah Thomas wants SI to shatter all “artificial barriers” and “corporate beauty standards” by putting Sarah Robles, Holley Mangold, and the U. S. Women’s Weightlifting Olympic team on SI’s cover. In her petition she writes:

”Sports Illustrated would be making a strong statement confirming their commitment to their true mandate; celebrating the achievements of great athletes… And maybe, just maybe, young girls who don’t resemble swimsuit models either can be inspired by these women’s stories to be physically active, have positive self esteem, and even – who knows? – nurture dreams of future Olympic success.”

RULE #6: GET A MAN! (especially if you play hoops)

The Problem: Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore each led the UConn Huskies to multiple championships, but can’t land a regular edition cover without male validation. Pat Summit too! Shared covers would be a great thing if they served as additions and not replacements for solo covers (commemorative issues don’t count[18]).

Under McDonnell, a regular SI issue has never been solely devoted to college, WNBA, or Olympic basketball (also see rule #4). Diana Taurasi stated last week:

“I think it’s funny. We’re a team that’s won four [Olympic] gold medals in a row and yet we’re still fighting for respect in our own country. I think it’s a little sad.”

“But Women Can’t Sell!”: The 2003 and 2008 shared college basketball previews (CBP) both had great success[24], and the 2003 Taurasi-Okafor cover was clearly the highest seller of nine CBP issues studied.

Big Picture: Brittany Griner still can’t crack a 5-part multi-cover college preview, and sports media scholar Michael Messner sheds light in “No Hype for Women’s Hoops”:

“When big games are shown on TV, people tune in: … The 2010 women’s title game between Connecticut and Stanford attracted 3.5 million TV viewers, up 32 percent from the previous year. Despite this increasing fan interest, though, viewers of sports news and highlights shows still experience what novelist Tillie Olsen called “unnatural silences” about women’s basketball.”


The Problem: Danica Patrick is the only woman to land more than one positive SI solo cover under McDonnell, but competing against men is not the easiest path to emulate.

“But Women Can’t Sell!”: Patrick’s 2005 cover outsold the previous seven issues including Tiger Woods, Steve Nash, Randy Moss, Shaq, the NFL Draft, and every single baseball and basketball issue that year (non-previews).

Big Picture: If Tim Tebow can receive six college covers without having to compete against the very best men in his sport (i.e. NFL), women should not have to either.


The Problem: With this month’s Olympic cover preview, Rule #8 has just been cautiously reinstated. In 2008, SI completely ignored women for the first Olympic year in SI’s history[25] despite dominance by US Olympic hoop team, gymnast Shawn Johnson, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin. SI is not alone.

“But Women Can’t Sell!”: Sales of the 2004 Women’s Olympic Softball team not only edged out Michael Phelps from previous week, but also outpaced 2004 covers by men named Brady, Vick, Clemens, Griffey, Kobe, Armstrong, and Mickelson.

Big Picture: In 2008, those four separate Olympic covers went to Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps, and Michael Phelps. The Women’s Foundation helps explain why:

Researchshows that the primary factor in determining what sports get covered in newspapers is the sports interests of the sports editor. Many sports editors grew up in a time and culture in which the abilities of women to play sports were devalued.


Jennie Finch - Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2005Danica Patrick - Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2009Lindsey Vonn - Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2010

The Problem: The significant majority of female athletes with solo covers have also posed as swimsuit models within its pages[26]. While each athlete certainly has that right, a disturbing pattern has emerged: Williams, Finch, Patrick, and Vonn were all rewarded covers within a few months after posing for the swimsuit issue.

Vonn reflected on her 6-month old swimsuit photo shoot: “Back then I had no idea I was going to be on the cover of the regular SI”. By now, all SI cover aspiring women get the unspoken deal: “If you really want the cover – it really helps to get uncovered.”

Before McDonell: In different decades, Marion Jones, Michelle Kwan, Florence Griffith Joyner, Chris Evert, and Peggy Fleming all made covers without posing in bikinis for SI.

Big Picture:  In”Does Sexy Mean Selling Out“, Laura Pappano clarifies:

“Much of the [right to be sexy] debate is a distraction to the fundamental challenge of getting to a more fair place… Seeking real equity for female athletes means learning to appreciate female athletes’ performances on their own.”

This debate has also distracted from SI’s reality that one’s “right” has morphed closer to “requirement”, and individual choice into institutional force. The full scope of Sports Illustrated’s sexism and McDonnell’s mantra becomes clear:

Objectification of women isn’t a swimsuit thing — it’s the only thing.

Terry McDonell President of Sports Illustrated Group Mark Ford and Editor of Sports Illustrated Group Terry McDonnell attend the SI Swimsuit Launch Party hosted By Pranna at Pranna Restaurant on February 15, 2011 in New York City.

Mark Ford (SI Group President) and Terry McDonell (Editor of SI Sports Group) At 2011 Sports Illustrated Launch Party.


The Stronger Women Get, The More SI Loves Swimsuits. In the 1990’s, past employees cited Sports Illustrated’s “entrenched sexism”[27], past fans cited its racial “sensationalism”, and in her 1997 landmark study on SI’s swimsuit issue, sociologist Laurel Davis concluded (p. 120) that SI creates

“an atmosphere of hegemonic masculinity… [that] tramples over women, gays/lesbians, people of color, and people from the (post)colonized world” and is “built on the backs of these others”.

With all due respect to Dr. Davis, SI’s 1990’s era now seems like a human rights movement since McDonnell’s debut cover of Charles Barkley in chains. In 1994, Salwen and Wood’s SI cover study clearly warned:

“If sports journalism does not improve its coverage of women and girls, it runs the risk of becoming a bastion against change and progress in the field of journalism. Future research should investigate what factors account for the possible resistance in sports journalism to improved coverage of female sports.”

Investigating factors of “possible resistance” includes my mirror. For too long, I not only accepted that corporate profits justify sexism, but also the “women can’t sell” myth itself. I wasn’t just wrong, but I had the privileged audacity to confidently believe this myth without doing a stitch of research (see previous examples).

But my gender bias didn’t stop there: I was perfectly fine with a male athlete routinely bombing on cover sales without holding him and all other men hostage to those failures.

But my male privilege didn’t stop there:  After some soul-searching, I realized that I wasn’t detecting blatantly sexist media practices because I didn’t really want to detect it. Besides, such talk was disturbing my very important fun and games.

But white male privilege didn’t stop with me: 94% of all sports editors are men and 97% are white[28]. These decision-makers range from folks like me with good intentions and flawed blind spots to those quite content to flex their “isms”.

Stir into that pot some powerful corporate interests, and a sports media recipe results that ignores women sports, villianizes athletes of color, promotes white men and is far more willing to protect Penn State and Paterno than to embrace the great American success story of the Williams sisters.

Should Serena Williams lose her cool, corrective coverage is left largely to websites such as  Colorlines, Crunk Feminist Collective, D.K.Wilson Island, Crunk Feminist Collective, The Nation, New Black Man, and the Starting Five. Title IX celebrations are nice, but for in-depth articles and analysis, go to On-the-Issues Magazine. When mainstream sports media looked the other way, it was left to a local 24 year old reporter named Sara Ganim to break the Penn State scandal.

A diverse and independent sports media won’t simply provide better coverage, it can also protect children from being molested.

Title IX Cover - Sports Illustrated May 07, 2012

While recent Title IX 40th anniversary tributes by SI and others are still noteworthy, back-pats come with caution. If you grow up fatherless, and Dad pops in for your 40th birthday party bearing gifts and newfound love, wouldn’t you ask: “Where have you been?”  Assuming you even let him in the door, wouldn’t you also wonder “will I ever see you again?”

For the past 10 years, Terry McDonell has been that deadbeat Dad – but far worse.

SI celebrates Title IX’s words, but ignores its meaning. Women in bikinis pay SI’s rent, but those in uniform are refused as tenants. McDonell has never publically uttered the words “nappy-headed-hos”, but his cover policy screams it.  If McDonell looked more like hip hop, there would be town hall meetings and congressional hearings.

Instead, he amasses many accolades and a 2012 induction into the Magazine Editor’s Hall of Fame. Some even believe that “Sports Illustrated has always been progressive when it comes to the portrayal of women in sports”.

It is an incredible magic trick. SI’s sexism is so thoroughly normalized that it no longer seems sexist.

Will SI ever reinvest some of that swimsuit cash into promoting women sports? Will he move beyond the dainty-white-blond-Barbie box? Or will last week’s rule-breaking cover simply be this year’s “one and done?”

McDonnell claims to embrace change, but it will be left to the purchasing public to help guide Sports Illustrated into or out of the 21st century.

Terry McDonell - 2010 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Celebration - Inside

The author can also be reached at

A special thanks to all those below who have contributed past research on SI and women as each study makes it easier for the next person to build on. If a key study is missing below, please email and the information below will be updated.

One Comment

  1. Chad Dixon

    February 12, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Incredible article!!
    Sharing this content on FB and Twitter ASAP.

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