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Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue a contradiction, not a celebration

The names are iconic. The swimsuits memorable. Cheryl Tiegs in that fishnet number. Christie Brinkley’s cavorting in the surf. Yvonne and Yvette Sylvander.

And those are only the highlights from the 1970s.

Yes, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has provided some memorable cold-weather entertainment for American men (and some women) since 1964. At the time, it was seen as a winter diversion during a slow sporting cycle. And throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, women were rarely found elsewhere in the magazine, except in advertisements or the occasional tennis article.

The annual issue became wildly popular, and as the years went on, the anticipation grew each February. Who would grace the cover? How far would they go this time? Oh, there were complaints – the 1978 issue, with Tiegs in the revealing suit, brought 340 subscription cancellation requests – but they just added to the issue’s legend. The swimsuit photographs were enjoyable, but so were the letters published two weeks later. “Imagine my shock when I found my 10-year old son looking at pornography!”

We laughed at those Puritans and exhorted SI to keep it coming.

Well, it’s time to stop.

Last week, Ed Sherman ran a post on his outstanding Sherman Report blog about the hypocrisy inherent in SI’s decision to perpetuate the swimsuit photos nearly eight months after it ran a special issue commemorating the passage of Title IX as a part of the Education Amendments of 1972. The landmark legislation provided for equal opportunities across the board at institutions that receive federal funds and served as a starting point for the subsequent growth in sporting opportunities for women.

Without Title IX, we wouldn’t have strong women’s sports programs at universities, myriad community programs for girls and diverse options at high school. And don’t try to challenge Title IX. It makes the UConn women’s basketball dynasty look like a basement dweller. Title IX is undefeated, untied and unscored upon.

So, it made perfect sense that Sports Illustrated would celebrate its 40th anniversary and demonstrate that there was still more ground to cover in the pursuit of sporting equality. To follow that up with another publication jam-packed with photographs of scantily and unclad women is ridiculous. You can’t be an advocate for women’s rights and contribute to their objectification.

Don’t get me wrong. The Swimsuit Issue is quite a publication. And its iconic images remain part of American culture. “Red-blooded men” have enjoyed it for decades, but the edition has never seemed more out of place than it does today. With Danica Patrick’s winning of the pole position at next week’s Daytona 500 and Baylor star Brittney Griner’s 3000th career point in the headlines today, the idea of Kate Upton’s appearing bodypainted in a “sports magazine” is completely incongruent.

There can be no mistaking the reason why the Swimsuit Issue lives on. At a time when print is a dying medium, and Sports Illustrated’s regular issues are thinner than the argument that the photographs “celebrate” women, the issue is a big money maker. It is equal parts advertisement and pictures, and that’s a revenue stream worth holding onto. But someone at the magazine, or at parent company Time Warner, has to develop a little bit of character and decide that 2013 is the final year for the bathing suits.

And it’s not just about the magazine. The swimsuit empire now translates to a gigantic on-line presence. There are DVDs available for purchase and mobile apps. A Wall Street investment tracker actually reported this week that since an American (Upton) graced the cover, there will be a bull market in 2013. Well, in that case…

It can’t always be about the money, can it? At some point, Sports Illustrated’s publishers have to decide that they stand for something beyond profit. The magazine has been trying to cover serious issues for years, and its work on performance enhancing drugs and concussions has been quite good. SI is devoting more pages than ever to compelling stories of athletes who have overcome much to succeed. It has reinvented itself to counter the challenges of new media and remains superior in many ways to any of its competition, be it print or digital. Why sully that by giving people a chance to ogle young women?

From a man who remembers fondly the early days of the Swimsuit Issue, please consider this request to cease and desist. If you want to celebrate women, dedicate a section of the magazine every week to their exploits. If you want to show them that they remain on the margins of the sporting world, then keep on painting models and creating a celebration of their bodies, rather than their accomplishments. It’s time to move forward, Sports Illustrated.

It’s time to drop the swimsuit.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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