For many female sports fans, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, its regular foray into t&a, is an annual slap in the face— a reminder that the supposedly triumphant convergence of women and sports has its limitations. But maybe that mixed message isn’t so surprising coming from SI, which has succeeded in alienating most of its female writers, including at least one of the biggest names in the business. “I didn’t feel particularly welcome or appreciated by the editors of the magazine,” says Sally Jenkins, the acclaimed sportswriter who’s one of at least half a dozen female writers to leave the venerable publication in the last two-and-a-half years.
In fact, former female staffers tell the Voice, the insult of the swimsuit issue is only the icing on the cake for a magazine that has, under managing editor Bill Colson, created an atmosphere that leaves women, gays, and African Americans out in the cold.
“You ask what the morale of female staffers is when the swimsuit issue comes out,” says one former employee, who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s only two women writers left. So it’s a moot issue now, because there’s no women left to be outraged.”
The magazine’s mass exodus has left only two women writers higher than the grunt reporter level out of a contributing writing staff of 49. There are also only four female editors out of 30 on the magazine’s masthead, and only one African American. “It seems to me that the vast majority of women at Sports Illustrated are factcheckers or assistants in the copy or photo departments,” says Jenkins, who’s now at Condé Nast Women’s Sports & Fitness. “There’s maybe four women who have a direct impact on what ends up in your mailbox.”
“Any time you talk to disgruntled former employees you’re going to get a different slant on it,” responds SI senior publicist Joe Assad, who says several employees left in order to accept attractive career offers.
But in conversations with the Voice, former staffers described an atmosphere of alienation and exclusion. “Nobody overtly says to you, ‘You’re a woman so we’re not going to give you opportunities,’ ” says the former writer. “It’s just this paternalistic, sexist attitude that’s so prevalent there. . . . There are two women writers and one black writer— just a dearth of minorities. It’s just inexcusable.”
“It’s all part and parcel of what SI is about,” another former staffer says, “which is both homophobic and really anti-woman.” Former employee Schuyler Bishop found the atmosphere homophobic enough to file a complaint with the city’s Commission on Human Rights alleging he was let go because he was openly gay and spoke out on gay issues. Bishop charges that the only six out employees on the editorial side have left. SI‘s Assad denies both allegations, saying that Bishop’s position was phased out and he was given the option of staying on at full salary.
The women of SI talk about a climate that made it difficult to get ahead, and difficult to write about women’s sports. “When they do cover women, at least on my beat, they covered them in an extremely exploitative, salacious way,” says Amy Nutt, a former writer-reporter and now a staffer for the Newark Star-Ledger. As a reporter at SI, she was once assigned to assist on stories from the Dinah Shore golf tournament, the first major women’s golf event each year. The tournament draws a sizable lesbian crowd to nearby Palm Springs. Wary of her bosses’ motivation, Nutt refused the assignment. “I felt I was being used,” she says. “What they wanted was a story that had salacious details.” (SI‘s Assad said, “We stand by the story as a solid journalistic effort.”)
What are women sports fans to think of a magazine— one of the biggest around— with so few female contributors, a magazine that Jenkins says is a “less interesting magazine as a result of it”? While declaring that SI does satisfy its core readers with its current coverage, Assad points to the reappearance of Sports Illustrated for Women next month as proof that the magazine is “dedicating ourselves to covering women’s sports. SI is a men’s magazine.”
Its female employees apparently found that out the hard way (as will SI‘s 640,000 women readers). The swimsuit issue itself is “embarrassing to women staff writers,” says one former employee. And the relaunch of SI for Women doesn’t persuade the magazine’s critics. “I was thinking, now that there’s SI for Women,” says another former writer, “they should rename the weekly SI for Men and then they should rename the swimsuit issue SI for Sexually Frustrated Men. Just tell it as it is.”