Don’t kid yourselves – image is everything in this business. The saying bad press is still press applies to most situations in sports but the history of athletes exposing themselves on magazine covers has resulted in a mixed bag of responses down the years. Fit female identities are expected to show off as much skin as possible and the men are positioned in a way that fits the social construction built for them from the media.
Then again, these celebrities don’t suffer fools lightly. Big endorsement deals follow the smart agents and canny athletes who spot an opportunity when it presents itself. More controversy equals greater media coverage and longer discussions around the water cooler at work. Whether it’s LeBron James, Dennis Rodman, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams or Ronda Rousey, these sports stars make the choice that the positives outweigh the negatives.
If a picture can tell a thousand words, then those words can be discovered in the dress, the facial expression and body positioning. Sometimes the athlete will want to make a bold statement about their sexuality or sporting prowess, or want to demonstrate a vulnerability to garner public sympathy. Often the theme of an article will be explained in graphic detail by the image, enticing the reader to drop whatever they were doing to engage with their story.
These publications aren’t stupid; they know exactly what message they are sending out by depicting Charles Barkley in chains and golfers going topless. But we’re not here to harass these editors, in some ways this is a doff of the cap to acknowledge the moments when magazines went viral, even on the occasions that predated the Internet. Now that’s impressive! Here are the 20 Most Controversial Mag Covers In Sports.
20 Ronda Rousey - Mens Fitness 2015
The mother of all storms in a teacup was created this month when the champion fighter went on the front cover of Aussie magazine Mens Fitness. Wearing a simple grey sports bra and glaring down the camera, Rousey’s only apparent error was to be the first female to ever grace the front of Mens Fitness, a milestone that seems oddly out of place in 2015. A number of Facebook trolls tried to point out the obvious, missing the irony that they were standing up for the reputation of a medium going out of business on an online platform. Nice one fellas!
19 Lexi Thompson - Golf Digest 2015
“Provocative” they said. “Too racy” said others. How suppressed are you golfers? We know at least one of your PGA participants does more than just play the back 9, but that’s beside the point. Lexi Thompson’s suggestive cover of Golf Digest in May 2015 drew the ire of golfing aficionados who argued that the female player disrespected the sanctity of the sport etc. etc. There is a fine line between over-sexualizing and empowering a woman, something we’re sure experienced professional Lexi Thompson was well aware of during the shoot.
18 Pam Postema - Sports Illustrated 1988
Pam Postema acted as a pioneer for Major League Baseball by becoming the first female ever to officiate at an MLB spring training game. In 1988 Sports Illustrated went with the headline “The Lady Is An Ump,” pointing out that the person under the mask had a different gender to everyday MLB officials. While her reputation for being one of the better officials in the game in the minor leagues had her pinned for bigger honors, the sport decided against her promotion and she took the step of filing a discrimination lawsuit against the sport.
17 All-Boston - ESPN The Magazine 2011
In the Kevin Costner film Draft Day, Hilary Swank’s character asked coach Dennis Leary, “How come the most macho sport in the world is rewarded with a piece of jewelry?” A clever line, but one that didn’t bother the Boston-based editors of ESPN The Magazine in 2011. Described as “obnoxious” in some circles, the fist on the cover led with “Welcome To Boston, Loozah!” with four championship rings from the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox. Like anything from Boston, if you’re from the area you love it. The rest of the country? We’ll let you decide.
16 Paulina Gretzky - Golfer’s Digest 2014
If anyone should know about cultivating a sporting image to suit their interests, it should be the daughter of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. Although not an athlete herself, Gretzky is partner to pro golfer Dustin Johnson and by that measure the publication argued that the 2014 super sexy pose would be appropriate for Paulina. It’s a long bow to draw from Golfer’s Digest and LPGA champion Stacy Lewis took a shot at the magazine, “It’s the state of where we’ve always been. We don’t get the respect for being the golfers we are.”
15 Lindsey Vonn - Sports Illustrated 2010
Former Tiger Woods flame Lindsey Vonn sparked controversy in 2010 when she was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated bending down in her ski gear on the slopes. Even though this is an action she has to do to generate speed for her sport, people argued that a male would not be asked to do the same to show off their curvy backside. The headline read “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever,” so the publication can’t be accused of being completely exploitative to Vonn. If only those same outraged people caught a glimpse of what was inside the edition…. Ooh La La!
14 Mike Tyson - The Source 1995
Tyson’s 1992 rape conviction and prison sentence forever tarnished his image, which says something for someone with his wrap sheet. Needless to say the boxing champion’s release from jail came with a huge amount of media scrutiny directed towards the bad boy of sports, and it was The Source who took the bold/stupid decision of having Iron Mike on the cover. The underlying headline, “The Rebirth of Mike Tyson” was enough to get tongues wagging and was accompanied with the quote, “I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m just trying to survive in this world.”
13 Serena Williams - ESPN The Body Issue 2009
ESPN made the editorial call to bring out an annual Body Issue edition to celebrate and discuss athletes and their bodies. A great idea, but done with the knowledge that any celebrity who goes nude and exposes themselves in all their glory will bring a lot of attention and a lot of commentary. Female tennis legend Serena Williams bared all for the spread in 2009, a sporting identity whose body is differentiated from others in her field of work. It’s not hard to see why this drew a lot of eyeballs.
12 LeBron James & Gisele Bundchen - Vogue 2008
To many observers they don’t get what all the fuss is about. To plenty of others, it speaks to simmering racial undertones that the country is still having to deal with on a daily basis. In 2008 basketball superstar LeBron James joined forces with model Gisele Bundchen for the cover of Vogue. Commentators saw parallels with King Kong, making the comparison between LeBron’s angered expression and grip of the female “in distress,” stating that the image is racially insensitive. Some coined the picture “LeBron Kong,” but we don’t know if that says more about the editors or themselves. This is the problem with controversy – too much nuance in a debate dominated by black and white battle lines.
11 Dennis Rodman - Sports Illustrated 1995
Throughout the 1990's we were given multiple signs that Dennis Rodman was somewhat left of center. Whether it was the outrageous hair, the cross-dressing, the antics or the partying, the championship winning Chicago Bull had the knack of acquiring people’s attention. Then he cranked that attention up to 11 and posed in a scantily black piece of female attire with a blue bird perched on his right hand. Complete with red hair, the headline stated, “Rare Bird,” playing on Rodman’s unusual character. He would visit the publication many years later to imitate a similar image, but with a bit more clothing.
10 Jadilla Rahmouni - Interviu Magazine 2014
Ibiza is not known for developing athletes of stature, that was until Jadilla Rahmouni came along. The super fit athletic runner decided to uphold the party tradition of her native land and went completely topless for the cover of Moroccan magazine Interviu in the lead up to Brazil 2016. Not topless in the sense of turning sideways facing the camera, but completely nude from the waste up! What followed was the predictable mix of outrage, joy and bemusement but if it’s ok with Rahmouni then all the more power to her!
9 Tiger Woods - Vanity Fair 2010
Magazine writers could not compose a better headline for Tiger Woods than Vanity Fair, but that so happened to be the name of the publication. This bizarre topless cover photo comes complete with a menacing look down the lens and a black beanie to boot during a workout. What makes this controversial is the timing of the image, supposedly taken prior to the scandal but used as a piece of propaganda post the news of the multiple affairs leaking to the public in 2009.
8 Gina Carano - ESPN The Body Issue 2009
Topless kickboxing has never been more popular than the time Gina Carano gave the bag a workout during the photo shoot of ESPN’s The Body Issue in 2009. The super sexy quadruple threat (mixed martial artist, television personality, fitness model and actress) set pulses racing when she provided a beauty to a brutal sport, covering her breasts across one hand. The gorgeous brunette is now a former mixed martial artist to focus on her media career and we know whatever discipline she chooses the eyeballs will be quick to follow.
7 Ricky Williams - ESPN The Magazine 1999
Will you, Ricky Williams, take coach Mike Ditka to have and to hold, till death do you part? Apparently the answer was a resounding “Yes!” with a loud groan from everyone else “WTF is this?” Perhaps it was the Y2K threat that had everyone thinking crazy but the then-Saints coach made the strange PR move of being snapped walking a lovely looking Ricky Williams draped in a white wedding dress for a 1999 edition of EPSN The Magazine. Given the nature of the gay marriage debate this seems incredibly tone deaf but remember 1999 was an odd time to be alive.
6 Jason Collins - Sports Illustrated 2013
In the May edition of Sports Illustrated in 2013, NBA center Jason Collins penned an article that would make headlines around the world. “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” Collins would go on to be one of the Top 100 Influential People in the World for Time Magazine the following year, becoming only the second ever openly gay athlete to play in the major American sports leagues. From some quarters there was frustration that it took until the end of his career to do so, but the front cover remains an iconic moment for sports and public gay figures coming out to the rest of the world.
5 Barbie Doll - Sports Illustrated 2014
Had tongue firmly been placed in cheek for Sports Illustrated then the Barbie Doll controversy wouldn’t have exploded online like it did. Mattel’s best known product had one of its dolls splashed on the cover for their Swimsuit 2014 edition followed by a Twitter campaign titled “Unapologetic.” The limited edition magazine was intended to celebrate a piece of American culture but on face value it looked like a half-assed attempt to elevate people’s love for materialism.
4 Muhammad Ali - Esquire 1968
In many ways the greatest fighter of them all ended up a martyr for the broken geopolitical system of the time, and boy did he let people know about it in 1968’s Esquire magazine. During the socially conservative times of the 1960s this cover stopped people in their tracks, imitating the infamous Saint Sebastian image long before. Esquire weren’t afraid to make a provocative statement years later when President Clinton was snapped sitting down with legs apart after the scandal that rocked his second term, yet this cover remains one of the most controversial in living memory.
3 Dog Fighting - Sports Illustrated 1987
To some, this cover alienated pit bulls in the minds of people forever. Across pop culture, pit bulls were pictured with gangstas, bad guys and violent rappers, and the breed of dog became a point of conjecture. Since Michael Vick’s dog fighting scandal brought to light just how much these animals are exploited and baited to bring our their aggressive instincts, the populous had a completely different reaction. Credit to the magazine, they certainly know how to make a headline outside of their own prints.
2 Charles Barkley - Sports Illustrated 2002
Subtlety is not the strong suit of NBA legend Charles Barkley. In 2002 big Charles broke all taboos when he was pictured chained around the neck and wrists with the headline “Charles Unchained” beaming across the cover. It spoke to the country’s dark history with slavery which permeates the racial divide that continues to linger in the country and the former Suns superstar had no hesitation bringing that front and center of people’s attention. Modern athletes are often accused of being robots and not showing their true character, but the 1990s had characters galore! Quite the nostalgic period really.
1 Amanda Beard - Playboy 2007
Burlesque dancers, adult film stars and actresses with a sense for the theatric pose in Playboy magazine, athletes do not. Amanda Beard went where no breaststroke swimmer has gone before in 2007, gracing the cover of the racy publication to make bigger headlines than she ever did in the Olympics. The headline said it all, “The world’s sexiest athlete nude.” If that doesn’t sell copy nothing will!