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SEX AND THE BALANCE BEAM: HERE'S TO OLIVIA DUNNE AND HER NIL MILLIONS
Hard-core traditionalists begrudge the LSU gymnast for her provocative social media poses, but she’s just taking advantage of the new compensation system put in front of her — by the Supreme Court
Names, images and libidos.
What, you were expecting puffer jackets and fleece joggers?
Did anyone really think, when the Supreme Court ruled college athletes could be compensated for their brands, that sex wouldn’t be part of the NIL equation? As long as laptop computers are operated by young heterosexual men seeking online enjoyment — as the bro-dudes say, “hot sports babes” — it was inevitable they would happen upon an attractive female gymnast at Louisiana State.
And as long as women’s professional leagues are limited in the U.S., beyond basketball and soccer, it was inevitable and admirable that Olivia Dunne and others like her would cash in. Names, images and likenesses aren’t exclusive to jocks buried inside helmets and padding. Pretty smiles sell. Cleavage and skin do, too.
Contrary to original projections — that NIL was designed primarily to shower elite football players with seven-figure deals and luxury cars — the early stars of the revolution are women athletes who are taking advantage of their looks and minds. After a polarizing New York Times profile last week, Dunne is in the forefront of America’s sports consciousness. There are those, myself included, who think it’s monumental that a 20-year-old student-athlete earns more than $2 million when she otherwise wouldn’t be known beyond Southeastern Conference competitions in Baton Rouge and Starkville.
But there also are hard-core traditionalists, who’ve waited forever for female athletes to receive fair treatment, shrieking to the high heavens as sexuality takes commercial priority over athletic excellence. It’s not that Dunne isn’t an outstanding gymnast; she was named an all-American in her freshman season. The problem, says an old-school sort such as basketball coaching legend Tara VanDerveer, is that Dunne is building her financial portfolio not on the balance beam and vault — but via her eight-million-plus followers on Instagram and TikTok and her modeling contracts with jeans and activewear companies. A day doesn’t pass when Dunne isn’t posing for selfies, some involving less clothing than others, that make school kids of all ages drool. A 5-foot-6 blonde, she calls herself “Livvy” and does nothing to discourage objectification when she poses in a pink bikini on a beach and posts the photo on social media.
“This,” VanDerveer said, “is a step back.”
The Stanford coach told the Times, “I guess sometimes we have this swinging pendulum, where we maybe take two steps forward, and then we take a step back. We’re fighting for all the opportunities to compete, to play, to have resources, to have facilities, to have coaches, and all the things that go with Olympic-caliber athletics.”
Her point would have been well-taken … in 2002. But life and technology have moved on, as VanDerveer knows in the heart of Silicon Valley, and the Internet lures millions of eyeballs that aren’t interested in Stanford’s game against Arizona State. Or, for that matter, LSU’s gymnastics meet against Auburn. But they’re very interested in Livvy. It’s unfortunate, but the urges attached to those eyeballs seek visual connections with beautiful people — not unlike Hollywood, really, and not unlike a disgusting Mark Zuckerberg when he degraded Harvard coeds in the raw beginnings of Facebook. If “hot women” also happen to be great athletes, that’s cool, say the bro-dudes. And, for that matter, admirers of various sexual preferences.
So can we really blame Dunne, who has no future as an active gymnast after college, for capitalizing on the NIL era? Who is VanDerveer to slight Livvy because she wants to be a social media personality? Proudly, Dunne confirmed her income to the Times: “Seven figures. That is something I’m proud of. Especially since I’m a woman in college sports. … There are no professional leagues for most women’s sports after college.”
She is mining the system, just as twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder are doing the same, using the transfer portal to flee successful basketball careers at Fresno State for much sexier Miami. These are the new rules of collegiate sport. As our heads spin, who’s to say what is right and wrong?
That’s what Dunne wanted to know when she responded twice to the Times article. First she posted a photo on Instagram and tagged the Times with a question: “Is this too much?” Then she grew feistier, putting on an LSU leotard and posting a TikTok video with a voice message: “Um, if you don't like me that's fine. But just, um, you know, watch your mouth.”
All of which only increases her visibility and pads her bank account. She is exploiting a horn-dog culture, which wasn’t the grand plan of the Supreme Court but certainly fits America in 2022. At some point, when the final four teams are named next month, we’ll analyze NIL’s impact on college football. Alabama was expected to benefit and didn’t. Texas A&M was supposed to thrive and crashed. USC used the newfangled resources to reclaim glory. Ohio State carried on as always. A TCU recruiting coordinator slammed the NIL success of middling Texas Tech, yet here are the Horned Frogs, ranked fourth nationally and breaking the model.
What we do know is that Olivia Dunne, who grew up in New Jersey a few miles from Broadway, is the star of the new college revue. If you begrudge her for it, or maybe think it’s creepy, you haven’t watched the soft porn that routinely shows up on HBO Max and Netflix.
At least she’s wearing clothes, about the same amount she wears during a floor exercise. Deal with it, America. It’s called the 21st century.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.