The objectification of women in sports

LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is at the center of criticism for her social media presence

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photo of a woman posing in front of the camera.
PHOTO: Miriam Alonso / Pexels

By: Simran Sarai, Sports Writer

In 2021, after years of pressure from the public, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) changed their rules to allow athletes to make money from brand deals and advertisements. This big shakeup was a massive shift from the organization’s previous regulations, which prohibited athletes from using their name, image, or likeness — commonly referred to as NIL — to make money. The rule change opened up opportunities for NCAA athletes of all levels to pursue advertising partnerships. 

Unsurprisingly, many NCAA athletes with large social media followings on apps like TikTok, have been greatly impacted by the rule change. Since NCAA athletes don’t get compensated for their performance, and therefore are not considered pro athletes, endorsements can help support an athlete in their life outside of sports. It can help prop them up in popularity to land a job in their sport in the long-term, even if it’s not as a competitor. But social media fame is a double-edged sword. 

One athlete dealing with this consequence is junior Louisiana State University (LSU) gymnast Olivia Dunne. The 20-year-old former US national gymnastic team member skyrocketed to fame on TikTok, amassing over seven million followers, and having more than three million Instagram followers.

Dunne’s widespread appeal has made her one of the most top-followed and wealthiest NCAA atheletes. She has a current net worth of over two million dollars from NIL partnerships, including a deal with athleisure brand, Vuori. However, Dunne’s fame has resulted in backlash from the public and those in the gymnastics world who feel that her social media presence reflects negatively on NCAA women’s sports. 

A story published in the New York Times suggested that Dunne’s rise to fame had less to do with her athletic accomplishments and more to do with “traditional feminine desirability.” That same story also quoted Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, who said that the new rules allowing NIL deals overly focuses on athletes’ beauty, rather than ability. 

While Dunne’s beauty certainly contributes to her popularity, her massive following is in part sustained by the interest in her athletic and life endeavors. However, Dunne’s profitable social media presence and brand deals has come with a downside — overzealous fans.

While NCAA athletes at powerhouse schools such as LSU are no stranger to fans at their events, a lot of Dunne’s followers are teenage boys, many of whom showed up to wait for the athlete after a LSU gymnastics meet versus Utah in late January. A video of the crowd of boys showed them piled outside the meet facility, screaming incessantly for Dunne to come out and greet them. Dunne had to take to social media after the meet to implore her fans to respect her and her fellow gymnasts.

Although many professional athletes have crowds of fans craving to meet them, Dunne faces a unique situation with how fast she’s risen to fame for both her athletic ability and popularity as an influencer. Her young age and gender have not only opened her up to criticism from NCAA coaches and the public, but have also left her vulnerable to young men pushing the boundaries of privacy.

The shaming of young athletes who display a personality on social media is ironic, given that the sports world loves to objectify its athletes — especially women — to ensure that fans are remaining interested and continuing to create revenue for teams. A TIME magazine article on sexism at the Olympics referenced a study that found that 64% of women athletes were photographed in “sexy” poses, instead of being photographed in more “athletic” poses like men athletes were. 

So while the NCAA advertisement changes are life changing, young women athletes, who may have already been showcasing their personality and life outside of sports, are more susceptible to receiving criticism for their online content. And while this has become a serious issue, nothing has been done to combat issues already pre-existing in sports that are being heightened by this rule change. This includes the systemic causes of these sexist views, and the lack of professional sports opportunities that push young women athletes towards marketing themselves on social media for feasible income.

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