When the subject of sex is broached within the confines of sports, it’s usually followed by snickering. Our false sense of what comprises proper decorum combines with the remnants of fossilized puritanism to create a nervous laughter over the outlandish tally of contraceptives given to Olympic athletes or the reported abstinence of a national soccer team before a pivotal World Cup match.
We seldom discuss the obvious. The strange relationship that sports fans have with athletes – which combines pageantry, pedestals and vicariousness in an unholy trinity – grows more peculiar when we consider the overt voyeurism inherent to the role of sports spectator. We gain pleasure through watching toned muscles and tight flesh exhibit elite physical ability in unison and competition with others.
Fortunately, the typical heterosexual male can remain blissfully ignorant to this portion of his enjoyment thanks to the overcompensation of the generally accepted norms provided by scantily-clad cheerleaders, commercials reinforcing our manly love of Kate Upton’s breasts and the general masculine bro-ness associated with cheering on a sports team.
Just in case our minds wander into the realm of uncomfortable questions, Sports Illustrated – the iconic sports news magazine – has been present since 1964 to provide an annual veil in the form of bikinis, thongs and (in later years) body paint. Their Swimsuit Issue – the brain child of editor Andre Laguerre – was originally meant to act as filler during a down-time in sports news, and consisted of only a five page spread accompanying the cover photo.
By 1997, the issue had become as iconic as the magazine itself, moving to exclusively feature models adorned in bathing suits or less. Today, the single issue accounts for 11% of the magazine’s revenue.
What do glossy photos turned online videos of attractive models baring skin have to do with sports? It’s a question that’s often asked by the issue’s detractors, and typically not asked by the ones most likely to provide a plausible answer. There’s an easy – and ignored – association for fans between the pleasure derived from watching sports and ogling attractive naked or near-naked bodies. It’s an exploitation that we can live with, comfortable in the knowledge that the physicality of the person we’re manipulating in our minds is compensated on a much higher level than the majority of us.
This subtle linkage has been made more apparent since 2009 when ESPN: The Magazine introduced its Body Issue. Less lust. More artistic. The annual issue exposes the flesh of athletes, not supermodels, flexing their bodies in positions that make sense for their professions as opposed to bent over for our pleasure. The bodies on display have been shaped – and sometimes scarred – through discipline for purposes of athletic achievement, something that we typically assign more social value to than the model stereotype of starvation for purposes of titillation and selling clothing through the association of body type.
It’s not perfect.
With the release of the 2013 Body Issue on Friday, ESPN has put together a less than tasteful slide show titled You Can Only Hope To Contain Them featuring athletes caught in compromising positions that reveal their breasts accompanied by explanatory lines like, “MMA fighter Ronda Rousey nearly flashed an entire arena after her team ordered the wrong bra for her February fight against Liz Carmouche.”
Update: The slide show has since been removed.
And don’t imagine for a minute that the impetus for ESPN’s foray into exhibitionism was born out of an altruistic pursuit for improved understanding of the link between voyeurism and sports. Special issues mean special sponsorship dollars. Advertisers want to align their products with items that get noticed, and just as the Swimsuit Issue accounts for a higher-than-normal percentage of Sports Illustrated’s revenue, so to does the Body Issue.
Despite the occasional migration to the wrong side of discernment and what seems like a clearly financial motivation for existing, the Body Issue remains fascinating. From the first issue – which featured Sarah Reinertsen, the first female amputee to complete the Ironman World Championships triathlon, and her prosthetic lower leg – to its most recent – which featured 77-year-old Gary Player in the throes of a his back-swing on one of the covers – the annual issue acknowledges and appreciates rather than gawks at the amazing bodies it displays.
The magazine’s dedication to the concept is only made more impressive by comparisons to newer imitations that serve no higher purpose and do nothing to further our thoughts on the relationship between sex and sports. For example, in Canada, Sportsnet The Magainze has made the timely decision to release its own edition of sex appeal – to be released on Monday with a television special.
Combining the worst elements of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN’s efforts, Sportsnet has chosen to sexualize attractive athletes without regard for its role in the reinforcement of potentially harmful stereotypes that such actions proliferate, going so far as to title its collection of sexualized photographs The Beauty of Sport. Adding to the implication that beauty is found only in blonde hair, Daisy Dukes and bikinis is an increased factor of exploitation due to the choice of athletes being displayed.
In the promotional materials for the magazine, Lauren Sesselmann, Kaylyn Kyle and Emily Zurrer are featured prominently. All three women are professional soccer players, toiling away in the National Women’s Soccer League, an underrepresented league that struggles to achieve notoriety, and one that is seldom to be seen on a national sports network. Surely, the women’s abilities are worth more attention than what this is likely to garner:
This isn’t the beauty of sport. It’s diminishing an athlete’s accomplishments by dressing them up as Spring breakers. There’s a strange bit of irony that a magazine selling itself on its revealing of skin would actually be all about dressing its subjects up in a setting for which their true talents are nowhere to be found.
ESPN’s approach with The Body Issue is far more mature, and less prone to making one feel as though they need a shower after leafing through its pages. Yes, there are the goofy props being used to cover genitalia and breasts as though it was a title sequence from an Austin Powers movie. However, ESPN isn’t selling sex on the cheap. Certainly, there’s a mysterious appeal to seeing athletes naked, but it’s an appreciation and acknowledgment that permeates the issue. The bodies tell us stories that are unique to the individual athlete, and after seeing them posed in the states that they are, we come away with a greater understanding of how sports work. These are the cogs within the machine that we love, and the magazine reveals to us how they work.
It tells us that appreciation of the human form doesn’t have to be overtly sexual, even if we choose to ignore the aspects that are. We can gather with friends to watch the fittest of bodies contort into shapes and perform actions that we find pleasing without arousal. There’s a magnificent beauty to sports that in our urge to protect heteronormative representation is often overlooked. The Body Issue helps us acknowledge that pulchritude, even as its competitors attempt to diminish it.
And for that, despite all the things that the sports media empire gets wrong, ESPN deserves no small amount of acknowledgement itself for its promotion of athletes as they truly are: beautiful, dominant, scarred and distinctly human.