New recommendations for college athletes revive an old concern: sex sells

Olivia Dunne is a gymnast on the Louisiana State women’s team.

An all-American freshman, she made the Southeastern Conference honors list as a sophomore specializing in interdisciplinary studies.

Ahead of the start of her junior season, Dunne is also at the forefront of a movement that is shaking up the old foundations of collegiate sports: a sophomore who has hard cash thanks to the passage of new rules in 2021 that allow collegiate athletes to sign names earned. Image and Resemblance or NILE, shops.

Dunne, 20, isn’t disclosing her earnings, which at least one industry analyst is predicting will surpass $2 million in the next year.

“Seven figures,” she said. “I’m proud of that. Especially since I’m a woman in college sports.” She added, “Most women’s sports don’t have professional leagues after college.”

Dunne, a petite blonde with a bright smile and the toned physique of a gymnast, makes a staggering amount by appearing on Instagram and TikTok, platforms where she sprinkles sponsored content featuring models wearing American Eagle Outfitters jeans and Vuori sportswear Her eight million strong internet followers post videos of her dubbing popular songs or performing popular dances.

For Dunne, and many other athletes of her generation, it’s empowering to be candid, flirty, and showing off your body in a way that emphasizes traditional notions of female beauty on social media.

“It’s all about showing as much or as little as you want,” Dunne said of her online persona.

Athlete compensation and entitlement rules have been fundamental to college women, particularly those who participate in so-called non-profit sports like gymnastics.

Sure, male soccer players have received about half of total compensation with an estimated value of at least $500 million, fueled by collectives of wealthy supporters who pay male athletes for everything from jersey sales to public appearances.

Women are asserting themselves more than just earners, largely due to leveraging their popularity on social media. Along with Dunne, other coeds became millionaires through the NIL Rules, including Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twins who play college basketball in Miami; Sunisa Lee, the Auburn gymnast and Olympic gold medalist at the Tokyo Games; and Paige Bueckers and Aziz Fudd, all-American basketball stars in Connecticut.

But the new flood of money – and the way many female athletes are reaching them – is worrying some who have fought for fair treatment in women’s sport, saying it rewards traditional female covetousness over sporting excellence. And while the female athletes I spoke to said they consciously choose whether to play up or downplay their sexuality, some observers say the market dictates that choice.

Andrea Geurin, a sports economics researcher at Loughborough University in England, studied female athletes trying to reach the Rio 2016 Olympics, many of them American colleagues. “One of the big issues that came out was the pressure they felt to post lewd or sexy photos of themselves,” Geurin said.

She noted that some of the athletes had decided it wasn’t worth posting such images, while others found it to be one of the top ways to increase their online popularity and earning potential.

Scroll through the social media posts of female collegiate athletes from across the United States, and you’ll see that a key point on many women’s accounts is the tried-and-true notion that sexiness sells. Posts that align with traditional ideals of what makes women attractive to men are doing well, and the market bears that out.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, the most successful coach in women’s collegiate basketball, sees the beauty-focused part of the NIL revolution as regressive for female athletes. VanDerveer began coaching in 1978, a virtual eon before the internet and social media popularized, but she said the technology perpetuated old sexist notions.

“I think sometimes we have this swinging pendulum where we might take two steps forward and then one step back. We fight for all the opportunities to compete, to play, to have resources, to have facilities, to have coaches and all the things that come with Olympic athletics.”

“It’s a step backwards,” she added.

Race as part of the dynamic cannot be ignored. The majority of the most successful women money makers are white. Sexual orientation should not be ignored either. Few of the top earners openly identify as gay, and many post suggestive pictures of themselves that seem to capture the male gaze.

Aside from the massive internet audience, none of this is entirely new. The tension between body image, femininity and the need to be taken seriously as an athlete has been part of the sports business for generations.

We can go back some 70 years, to cite just one example, to the era of top tennis player “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran, who became as famous for her form fitting outfits and lacy lingerie as she was for her tennis.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and figure skater Katarina Witt was a Playboy cover model in the 1990s, and she’s far from the only athlete to appear in risqué photo spreads.

Think Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue or ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, where artistic photos of nude athletes have captivated a mostly male audience for years. But these displays continue to attract female athletes, who see such shoots as a chance to promote their body positivity, feel boldly confident about the body they’ve honed through hard work, or challenge norms about femininity.

University athletes certainly use several opportunities to present themselves – and always have to beware of the social tendency towards objectification.

Haley Jones, an All-America guard at Stanford and a nominee for the Player of the Year award, said she didn’t want to play up the sex appeal. Her ad revenue is fueled by a social media image that portrays her as a light-hearted student athlete without an overtly provocative tone.

“I don’t post bikini pics,” she said in a recent interview. “Not because I don’t want to show my body. That’s because it’s not the top topic of content I want to post, and my audience isn’t looking for it for me.”

Welcome to the world of Haley Jones, Inc.

One of the few black college athletes who are considered top earners, Jones has learned to quickly deconstruct the ins and outs of the new era of commercialization.

She endorses Nike, Beats by Dre, SoFi and Uncle Funky’s Daughter, a hair care product for women with curly hair, among others. Rishi Daulat, her agent, said Jones has earned more than six figures since the passage of the NIL legislation, but declined to give an exact number.

Jones quickly found that female athletes can choose not to participate in social media and lose the biggest wins. Or they can participate, make money, focus on the supporting fans, and hold their breath with a kind of resignation at the multitude of online reactions – often lewd and sexualized comments on their social media platforms – that show just how objectified she is are.

“You can go outside in sweatpants and a down jacket and you’ll be sexualized. I could be on a podcast and it could just be my voice and I’m faced with the same thing. So I think it’s going to be there no matter what you do or how you present yourself.”

“This is the society we live in,” Jones added.


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