What Does a Woman Have to Do to Get on the Cover of Sports Illustrated?

Candace Parker is the truth: She can score, rebound, dribble, pass with ease, play all five positions, and was dunking by age 14. When not kicking men’s butts in pick-up games, you might find Parker acing tests while earning the University Division Academic All-American of the Year in women’s basketball for 2008.

Candace Parker is a leader: She is the only two-time award winner of the USA Today High School Player of the Year. In March 2004 she won the Slam Dunk contest of the McDonald’s High School All-American Game, beating out five male competitors including future 2005 NBA Slam Dunk contestant JR Smith and champion Josh Smith. She was the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game and the first woman to dunk twice in a college game. Not surprisingly, last Wednesday she became the first pick in the WNBA draft.

Candace Parker is a winner: She led her team to back-to-back state titles in high school. Last week she led the Tennessee Volunteers to their 2nd consecutive NCAA Women’s basketball championship. This summer she will look to add to her trophy case by participating as an Olympic team member and then as player of the Los Angeles Sparks.

Candace Parker is a warrior: The summer after her junior year in high school, she tore her ACL in her left knee. Year-long recovery process? Naaah. She returned in December of her senior year and led her school to its second consecutive state title Last week’s college championship came one week after she scored 16 consecutive points for her team before dislocating her shoulder. When this happened to NBA Superstar Dwayne Wade last year he had to be carted off in a wheel chair. Parker? She shook it off, had the shoulder popped back in its place, got it wrapped up, came back in the game, and helped lead her team into the Final Four.

After her tailor-made-for-media Final Four appearance, Sports Illustrated took magazine liberties and issued two separate covers of that weekend’s Final Four ­ one with North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough and one with UCLA’s Kevin Love. These were curious choices as both Hansbrough and Love already received an SI cover within the previous month. Love’s previous cover was part of a 6-ISSUE “March Madness” special that finally gave the Tennessee Volunteers some basketball cover play–men’s player Chris Lofton.

After all of the injuries, all the gutsy performances, all the individual accolades, and all the team championships, there is only one thing that Candace Parker can’t do: land on the cover of a Sports Illustrated regular issue. And for at least one time, Parker is just like any other womanIn his blog former SI editor Roy Johnson adds some marketing reality: “For Candace the pivotal question isn’t whether she’s good enough, but this: Will her sweetness (or hotness) be enough?” Johnson was referring to Parker’s ability to elevate the WNBA, but may as well have been discussing SI’s cover. While in a perfect sporting world Ms. Parker’s “sweetness” or “hotness” should make no more marketing difference than it would for Larry Bird coming out of Indiana State in 1979, she also seems to have that department covered. Parker’s cover absence raises a question that has been asked many times:

What exactly does a woman have to do to land a regulaissue of Sports Illustrated*?

The answer, of course: “Wear a bikini” So far in 2008, only one woman has made the SI cover: Swimsuit model Marisa Miller. What about 2007? Yup, just one woman again. Her name?: “Beyonce”. 2006? Well, one winter Olympics issue had 6 athletes with three of them being women. In the year’s other multi-female issue there were 8 half-naked supermodels. So who was the last female athlete to grace an SI cover by herself? That would be softball player Jennie Finch in 2005. Finch sported a miniskirt as the title read: “SI Throws a Party: Jennie Finch Will be There” From the article, it is unclear whether Finch remembered to bring her own beer. One would have to go back nearly three full years, 10 bikinis, and one miniskirt before finding a female all by herself on the cover who was recognized for her athletic achievements (Danica Patrick in June 2005).
So how did we get here? During the 1950’s, the decade of Sports Illustrated’s inception and hardly a period of progressive feminism, it was quite common to have about an average of five issues per year where a female athlete graced its cover. By the 1990’s that figure had been reduced to about 2 or 3 per year. In The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, Michael McCambridge wrote in 1998:

“The magazine might have deflected some of these complaints [about the Swimsuit Issue] if it had done a better job covering women in sports. But it became a truism that the only time a woman was on the cover was when she was, in the words of one staffer, ‘a victim or a babe or both’. Monica Seles made the cover alone after she was stabbed in a tournament in Germany, but not after any of her 8 grand slam women’s titles. (She shared a cover in 1990) Nancy Kerrigan graced the cover after being clubbed, but not after winning the U.S. Figure Skating championships. Vader’s column put the blame on the entrenched sexism she’d encountered in the building”.

With few exceptions, that alleged “entrenched sexism” has led to a one solo cover quota for most female athletes and a two-cover cap for legendary athletes. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova won 18 Grand Slam titles, nine Wimbledon Finals, but garnered two solo SI covers. Steffi Graf broke big ground by landing three cover shots. Since 1990, the Williams sisters COMBINED (3) have not received as many covers as Ted Williams–who retired in 1960. In contrast, at least five swimsuit models have graced the cover three times. The record for most SI covers by any woman is five–held by Elle MacPherson.

Considering such history, can it get worse? Yes, it can. Since 2000, SI responded to previous criticism by scaling back to about an average of one solo female athlete cover per year ­ its worst of any previous decade. And while the female athletes face cover extinction, the swimsuit issue continues to be SI’s greatest moneymaker. And here goes the logic: half-naked women and soft-porn can be used as a cash cow, but none of those profits can ever be used to help promote the achievements and popularity of female athletes.

This year marks the silver anniversary of Billie Jean King’s landmark “Battle of the Sexes” victory over Bobby Riggs (transmitting subliminal message to SI). King’s victory signaled a new era that demanded that women’s sports be taken seriously. And in large part it has–except by Sports Illustrated itself. Through the 2008 lens of SI, it seems that King may have only won the battle, while Riggs may have won the war. In 1973, SI had five women on their cover including an expose cover story on how “Women are Getting a Raw Deal”. Twenty five years later, that raw deal continues as SI refuses to give proper recognition to the likes of Candace Parker, Diana Tarausi, Pat Summit, the Williams sisters, and many others. If the last couple of years are any indication, they may have less of a chance in landing a future SI cover than one day running for President of the United States of America.

* SI does have many separately sold “commemorative issues” (including one for Candace Parker) that is not part of their regular circulation. Such issues and “small insert photographs” are not counted as covers and amount to extreme tokenism at best.

CHARLES MODIANO writes for the sports media watch website COSELLOUT and can be reached at modi@cosellout.com .