Why it matters that Serena Williams is on the cover of Sports Illustrated – Vox

Since 1954, Sports Illustrated has declared the most groundbreaking, important person in sports each year, starting with British runner Roger Bannister, the first known person to ever run a mile in under four minutes. This year the magazine has named its ninth woman ever to the list: tennis champ Serena Williams. While it may not be a shock that this dominant female athlete was named Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year — she won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the French Open, after all — it’s actually kind of rare, given the gender breakdown over the years.

While American Pharoah devotees shared their dismay over the choice Monday — the Triple Crown–winning horse won SI’s popular vote to get the title — writer S.L. Price recounted Williams’s tumultuous (and mostly victorious) year on the court.

Her major title bids came with plenty of health battles: an all-consuming flu, bruised bones, and busted knees, to name a few. She returned to Indian Wells Tennis Garden in March after a 14-year boycott following a matchup against Steffi Graf marred by jeering and racist comments. This year also included Williams’s disappointing loss at the US Open in September, when she lost to 43rd-ranked Roberta Vinci, missing her shot at the calendar Grand Slam and the chance to beat Graf’s record 21 career major title wins.

Off the court, though, Williams is an outspoken, stylish, confident social media darling and sports mogul with devoted fans around the world. At 34, she’s also been able to compete longer than many of her peers have been able to. And that’s why her newest title should come as no surprise.

Serena Williams is the third solo woman to receive the honor

Since Sports Illustrated started awarding athletes and coaches with its top title, the few women who have won it also shared the honor with men. Williams is one of only three women with the title who did not share the moment with a man — and she’s also the first since Mary Decker in 1983 to have the solo title. Meanwhile, 24 individual men have been named Sportsman of the Year since 1983. Among women, the title has also evaded traditional team players aside from the collective 1999 titleholders, the US Women’s National Soccer Team, after their monumental World Cup win. Here’s how women have fared on the list since 1954:

  • 1972: Billie Jean King, tennis (shared with men’s college basketball coach John Wooden)
  • 1976: Chris Evert, tennis
  • 1983: Mary Decker, track and field
  • 1984: Mary Lou Retton, gymnastics (shared with Edwin Moses, track and field)
  • 1987: Judi Brown King, track & field, and Patty Sheehan, golf (shared with six other athletes)
  • 1994: Bonnie Blair, speed skating (shared with Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss)
  • 1999: US Women’s National Soccer Team
  • 2011: Pat Summit, University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach (shared with Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University men’s basketball coach)
  • 2015: Serena Williams, tennis

Choosing outstanding women athletes isn’t a groundbreaking feat for another sports authority. Since 1931, the Associated Press has named one man and one woman each as athletes of the year (Williams was named to that list in 2002, 2009, and 2013).

It’s rare to see a woman on the cover of an issue of SI who isn’t a model


University of Connecticut women's basketball team
University of Connecticut women's basketball team

While the Associated Press started publishing a gender-equal list in the 1930s, things haven’t been quite as equal for Sports Illustrated. After 61 years of publishing, SI’s weekly issues rarely feature women athletes on its covers. A University of Louisville study of the magazine from 2000 to 2011 found that women appeared on 4.9 percent of all Sports Illustrated covers; about a third of those featured women of color.

“Of the 35 covers including a female, only 18 (or 2.5 percent of all covers) featured a female as the primary or sole image,” the researchers wrote in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport. “Three covers included females, but only as insets (small boxed image), or as part of a collage background of both male and female athletes.”

Interestingly, more female athletes appeared on the covers from 1954 to 1965 than they did from 2000 to 2011. After that period, the distribution spread. By 2011, the average rate at which women were featured on the cover was about one woman per year, not counting the magazine’s highly anticipated annual swimsuit issue, despite growing participation of women in sports. The researchers attributed this to the rising dependence on corporate sports leagues, mainly the big four: the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB, Pacific Standard reports.

But SI has been slightly better in recent years

Considering 2015 was an incredible year for women in sports, at least in the United States, Sports Illustrated naming a woman to its annual title should be no surprise. With Williams’s big year in tennis, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey’s tough-talking near dominance, the US women’s national soccer team’s World Cup win, and the debut of professional women’s hockey, among many other landmark moments, you’d think we’ve reached a new level of respect for women athletes.


Ronda Rousey
Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey on a 2015 cover of Sports Illustrated.

In some ways, we have. This year’s survey of SI covers shows an uptick in female presence: the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team’s uncanny national championship win, Rousey being called the “world’s most dominant athlete,” multiple covers on US soccer, and one on Serena Williams’s grand slam effort in August.

Last year’s SI covers featured one special Olympic preview with four covers — three of which featured women athletes — an issue with gold medal skier Mikaela Shiffrin, University of Connecticut women’s basketball star Breanna Stewart as one of six special March Madness covers, and Little League World Series phenom Mo’Ne Davis.

In 2013, there were no female athletes on the covers, and 2012 featured the US women’s Olympic gymnastics team, an all-text cover about Title IX, and Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison, a judoka. Prior to that, as mentioned above, the rate was about one female athlete per year.

Overall coverage of female athletes in sports media is pretty bad

Naturally, sports coverage isn’t all about Sports Illustrated. Most televised sports coverage generally goes to men’s pro and college football, basketball, and baseball, according to a 2015 study published in Communication & Sport. The study, which evaluated 25 years of sports coverage among ESPN’s SportsCenter and Los Angeles’s broadcast network affiliates, showed 3 percent of all sports coverage was dedicated to women’s sports. To be male in sports is to be the default — for example, the term March Madness nearly always means the men’s college basketball tournament, even though the women’s tournament goes by the same name.

When it comes to the amount of coverage throughout this tournament, ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted 83 on-air stories to the men’s tournament in March 2014, versus eight about the women’s tournament that year. Researchers often found the coverage was simply blah when focus turned to women athletes.

“We found that men’s sports were presented with far more enthusiasm, and excitement, the commentators consistency deploying vocal inflections, high-volume excitement, and evocative descriptors,” the researchers wrote. “Listening to commentators describe a women’s sports event was usually like hearing someone deliver a boring after-thought, with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.”

With that, it’s probably no surprise that only 10.2 percent of overall sports coverage was produced by women, according to the Women’s Media Center’s annual report on women in the US media — and that’s a 7 percent drop from 2014’s figure.

Sportsman and sportswoman? Or sportsperson?

One significant factor this year is that Sports Illustrated has called Williams the Sportsperson of the Year, taking on a more gender-neutral term than sportswoman. Does this mean the next man named to the list will also be called a sportsperson, rather than a sportsman? Until sports loses all of its gendered divisions — and who knows when that’ll be? — I guess we’ll know whenever the publication names the next man (or horse, perhaps?) to the list.

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