What The NYT did to Livvy Dunne is a travesty — Other gym news — Thoughts from Ari Saperstein
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Nov. 12, 2022
I know I said I was going to discuss worlds event finals. And I will, just scroll down to Other Gym News below. Because I have to talk about this New York Times article first.
Often when I read things like this, I first envision the pitch meeting where it came about. I’m sure someone saw the list of Action Network’s predictions for the top individual NCAA NIL earners and Opendorse’s list of top female NIL earners and decided, rightly, there was a story there. In my head, that person was likely a man, and not a gymnastics fan or follower of the sport, because that’s how most Big Media Institution sports sections work.
That person noted Olivia Dunne’s tremendous social media numbers and saw her name second on the Action Network list – after Oklahoma football’s Spencer Rattler, who has a mere third of Dunne’s Instagram following – and thought, who? So now we have a story to tell the large part of the sporty world that doesn’t follow gymnastics. Who this Olivia Dunne is and what she is doing at the top of the NCAA NIL earner’s list? Great!
But then the story gets written, and it’s about how Olivia Dunne is effectively selling her body to make money.
I know Dunne primarily as a gymnast, and I gather I’m in the minority there because girlfriend has about as many followers on Instagram and TikTok combined as there are people living in New York City (that is, roughly 8.5 million).
That makes Dunne one of very few female NCAA athletes who are able to make money off her name, one of the three pillars of NIL earnings and the one female athletes benefit least from. I’m going to guess that there are more people who know the name Livvy Dunne than realize that Dunne is a gymnast, that she competes in the NCAA, or that she’s on the scholastic honor roll at LSU.
Because gymnasts don’t wear jerseys with their names emblazoned on them, as do men’s football and basketball players (the top NIL earners by sport in the NCAA), Dunne’s name recognition online gives her an edge when it comes to earning money.
A company that might not otherwise take a risk on a gymnast – like, say, Vuori, the athleisure company – knows what it’s getting with Dunne. Which is to say, she will bring them clicks and she looks good in their stuff. [NGL, I bought Vuori joggers because of their partnership with Dunne, and they are my new favorite pants.]
But then we come to the I and the L of NIL, and this is where the author of this article goes after Dunne for “selling sex.”
Any woman who has done gymnastics or who spends time in the gymnastics world is well aware that there are a lot of people who sexualize leotards. Every NCAA season, a certain Facebook group of gymnastics pearl-clutchers goes after college team leotards for being too revealing or near-pornographic in their eyes.
When German gymnasts debuted unitards at 2021 Euros, Elisabeth Seitz said they were intended for any gymnast “who may feel uncomfortable or even sexualized” in leotards. Unfortunately, unitards remain rare in elite gymnastics competition, and nonexistent thus far in college gymnastics.
Now, leotards aren’t mentioned at all in the article. Nor is any indication of what Dunne is wearing to “sell sex.” But two out of three photos of her that accompany the article are of her in LSU leotards and the third is in some pretty tame Vuori clothes in a shot from her Instagram – a cropped tank top and leggings or sweatpants.
So what is for Dunne just suiting up for practice, warming up, or competition is now her being “sexy.”
This means Haley Jones, the Stanford University basketball star quoted in this article as saying a woman could put on a puffer coat and sweatpants and be sexualized, is right. Dunne is wearing her work uniform and has become the face of an article about making NIL money off her body.
I was always told, in journalism class and newsrooms, that I needed three examples of something to write a trend story. The author of this story uses one: Dunne. Jones, for her part, is the sole example of an athlete who refuses to post what she calls “bikini photos,” and the article points out that she has endorsement deals with Nike and Beats by Dre, among others.
So it seems Jones is not hurting for NIL cash, though she does not appear on the list of the top 20 moneymakers in the NCAA on which Dunne is number three. One other gymnast (Lee) and four other basketball players are mentioned in passing. The rest of the quotes in the piece are from Jones’ coach at Stanford, Tara VanDerveer, and a researcher in England.
And thus, with very little evidence to support “sex” being the primary source of earning potential in NIL markets, the author of this article has chosen to objectify Dunne and the clothes she wears to work, whether she is modeling for Vuori or competing on the uneven bars.
If I were the editor of this story, I would have sent the writer back to his desk empty-handed.
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Other gym news
So, how about those event finals?
I personally enjoyed the unintentional world peace moment in which Jade Carey’s denied inquiry gave Rebeca Andrade the opportunity to share bronze with Carey on floor, and believe that the 1-2 result of Jessica Gadirova and Jordan Chiles there was correct. Don’t at me. Happy to see Carey feel redemption on vault, delighted for Chiles’ silver there, but over the moon about Coline Devillard’s bronze and hope we see her on every French team forevermore. Beam was…beam (see Ari Saperstein’s interview below for his feelings about poor Skye Blakeley here, which I share), but thrilled for the podium of Watanabe Hazuki with gold and Miyata Shoko with bronze for Japan, and the marvelous Ellie Black with the silver. Shilese Jones’ bars silver was the big thrill for me there, with a gorgeous routine (but can we fix her dismount mat before we lose her ankles please?), and happy for China with Wei Xiaoyuan’s gold. Nina Derwael’s bronze there was a bit of a surprise, despite her dominance in the event in the past.
The best of the rest
Suni Lee inspired Liz Lee (no relation), a new Minnesota House Representative and the first woman ever from her district to win the seat, to run for office, Lee told Minnesota Public Radio after Tuesday’s midterm elections.
A good article from Slate that recaps a chaotic worlds in a positive light. (Props to Rebecca Schuman, a fantastic fellow gym writer!)
Loved seeing the worlds welcome-home parties!
Jordan Chiles and Melanie De Jesus dos Santos at WCC, courtesy of Cecile Landi:
Skye Blakeley with WOGA:
Rebeca Andrade at Brazil’s Clube de Regatos do Flamengo:
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Five at The IX: Ari Saperstein
This is Ari’s second appearance in Five at The IX; I interviewed him back in June as part of a Pride series. Ari is the host of the podcast Blind Landing, which this week dropped a new episode all about newly crowned world all-around
queen gold medalist Rebeca Andrade. I wanted to talk with him again to discuss how the episode came to be, Andrade’s significance for Brazilian gymnastics, and what is next for Ari himself.
What made you want to create an episode of Blind Landing all about Rebeca Andrade’s story?
AS: It comes back to the 2016 Olympics. This was one of the first times I started paying attention to gymnastics and, of course, with all-around qualifications there was all of this focus on Gabby Douglas, the reigning champion, not making the final. Which was big news but not all that surprising that Aly made it in ahead of Gabby. But it really overshadowed Rebeca’s coming in right behind them. And it was like “what?????” I mean, Rebeca had barely competed as a senior, was coming back from an ACL tear, had done one all-around competition in the year beforehand and here, in her home country, she was pulling out an Amanar and in medal position. That alone is an amazing journey and comeback story.
But then having stuck with it six years later, gotten two Olympic medals, and now become the world champion after two more ACL tears… I think if we got a room of sports historians together, they would agree that this is one of the most amazing and successful comebacks of all time. But I don’t think non-gymnastics people know her story, and even folks that follow the sport might not know every part of it, so it just seemed like a no-brainer to us to hop on the mic and put this new episode together.
What did you learn about her that you hope listeners take away from the episode?
AS: I was aware of the significance of her being an Afro-Brazilian woman on such a big stage, but I don’t think I understood just how intentional she has been about putting her identity front and center, both on and off the floor. The way that her floor routine is an ode to a culture and identity that’s marginalized in Brazil is much more profound than I had realized.
Do you have any other stories from the world of gymnastics coming up on Blind Landing?
AS: Well, I’m in the works right now on a story that I can’t talk too much about, but it is very much in our style of putting a spotlight on little-known stories. Outside of that, I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be interesting to follow gymnasts over the course of a few years and really track peoples’ journeys over time. I think there’s something about gymnastics that really lends itself to that kind of format because one year you could be the world champion and the next you could be retired and just a normal high school junior. I’m probably more interested in following the stories of gymnasts who don’t make it all the way to the Olympics than the ones who do.
What did you think was the most memorable moment
– Rebeca-centric or otherwise – of the Liverpool world championships?
AS: Ribbongate was a really wild moment. It was very reminiscent of that time Vanessa Ferrari’s hair tie came undone during a floor routine.
What Beyonce song should Rebeca do a floor routine to?
AS: There’s a correct answer and that answer is “Alien Superstar.”
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