Hanna (L) and Haley Cavinder ahead of a March 26 NCAA Tournament game. Mar 26, 2023; Greenville, SC, USA; Miami Hurricanes guard Haley Cavinder (14) and guard Hanna Cavinder (15) during the NCAA WomenÕs Tournament against the LSU Lady Tigers at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Just over two years ago and after decades of pushback and activist efforts, the biggest change to college sports since athletic scholarships officially came to fruition. July 1, 2021 marked the start of the NIL era, and while NIL was a change many saw coming, the industry is still catching up with college sports’ latest seismic shift. And that includes sports media.

America’s inability to grasp NIL in college sports began well before NIL Day in 2021. And although there were many bad takes to go around, a common theme revolved around women’s earning potential in the NIL space. Hearing after hearing circulated misinformation and sexist takes–from the widespread falsehood that NIL was a Title IX violation to the sexist belief that female athletes wouldn’t perform well in the NIL market.

One hearing in particular featured a conversation about former UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose 2019 perfect floor routine garnered 238 million views which, at the time, could not be monetized per NCAA rules. Although Ohashi’s case was meant to be an argument for women’s potential in the NIL space, Mississippi senator Roger Wicker responded by asking “Without embarrassing [Ohashi], what do you think she could have received, had she been able to monetize her success in social media?,” implying that Ohashi, whose net worth hovers between $1 and $2 million, couldn’t fend for herself in the NIL market.

Today, as female athletes have proven their monetary worth in the NIL space, the conversation has shifted…but not always for the better. Although the data on female athletes’ worth casts little doubt on the increasing popularity of female athletes and women’s sports, sports media is still quick to rely on old tropes when it comes to coverage of female college athletes in the NIL space.

For instance, in November 2022, The New York Times ran an article by Kurt Streeter titled “New Endorsements for College Athletes Resurface an Old Concern: Sex Sells.” That piece, centered around LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne and went viral for all the wrong reasons. Critics claimed the piece unduly sexualized Dunne and pitted women against women by featuring contrarian quotes from Stanford basketball coach Tara Vanderveer. Dunne later called the piece out multiple times, most recently on July 4th when she called the piece and the interview “complete BS” for misleading her on the topic.

“The interviewer called me and he was asking me very odd questions,” Dunne told “The Full Send” podcast. “It was worded quite weird. He was like, ‘So, how does it feel to be a small petite blonde gymnast doing so well with NIL.’ I was just like, ‘Why does it matter that I’m petite and blonde.’ You can just ask me about NIL without you having to use these weird ways of saying it.”

From a reader’s perspective, masters’ student Emily Shiroff found similar issues with the piece and weighed in on Twitter just after its publication. There, she retweeted the article with the caption “Male sports journalists, this piece is a master class in what not to do,” followed by a thread of reasons from ethics to sexism to over-simplified journalism that inundates women who earn sizeable amounts of money in the NIL space.

“Livvy and other female athletes with large social media followings are drawing in attendees and viewers,” Shiroff added later in her Twitter thread. “That means more people are watching women’s sports. Isn’t that the whole point of uplifting female athletes?”

However, sports media has been slow to adapt their messaging, even though the social media content expertly churned out by female college athletes like Dunne is far more complex. Dr. Shannon Scovel, whose dissertation analyzed into 5,300 pieces of social media content from 10 popular female college athletes agrees that simply grouping female athletes in the NIL space into the “sexy” category doesn’t do these women justice. But Scovel says  it’s still tempting for sports media to publish a simple sexy narrative, even though the social media content produced by female athletes in  the NIL space is much more nuanced.

“It’s easy for audiences to understand,” Scovel explained. “We have heard of ‘sex sells,’ so we understand this narrative. But that’s the easy, kind of low-hanging, fruit.”

To be clear, female athletes should be able to produce whatever content they feel most comfortable with, including content that might be coded as sexy or risqué. But to see a female athlete on social media and automatically brand her as “sexy” whether or not her content actually is is lazy journalism at best. And narrow coverage of these athletes’ content often diminishes their athletic accomplishments. And it’s become a troubling trend in sports media since July 2021.

This was certainly true of a controversial piece published by The Free Press in June 2023 titled “The NCAA Has a ‘Hot Girl Problem.’” Although the piece, by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, centers around former Miami basketball players Haley and Hannah Cavinder, the dynamic Scovel describes still applies. Take the piece’s kicker, which reads “The Cavinder Twins, the emerging oligarchs of women’s college basketball, aren’t the best players. But they might be the best-looking.” The article is problematic right off the bat.

The rest of the article is riddled with iffy takes from a legal misunderstanding of NCAA v. Alston and NIL laws to sexist coverage of the Cavinders’ business model. But, as “sex sells” rhetoric goes, it was a big draw, attracting top sports scholars, agents, and the Cavinder twins themselves as interviewees. The twins later rebuked the article, claiming that it “not only demeaned our athletic and business accomplishments,” but “furthered the narrative that hard-working, creative, and driven women can only do well if they are deemed attractive.”

For Scovel, pieces like these also illustrate how the content that women post online tends to to be sexualized by default, even when the content itself isn’t overtly sexual.

“They present themselves on these platforms slightly differently in ways that align with what the algorithm rewards,” Scovel explained of athletes like the Cavinders. “So Tik Tok was a lot of front-facing selfies. And interestingly, these accounts get accused of self-sexualizing. Almost all of their Tik Toks are ‘Where we are,’ shoulders and head up on the camera. You don’t see their bodies at all.”

Many times when you do see these athletes’ bodies, the content often isn’t nearly as sexual as the media often make it out to be. Dunne, for example, frequently shows off her gymnastics skills and even herself failing in the gym. Scovel believes that’s so she’ll appear more relatable.

“I think they are very aware of public dialogue around them, and they likely enjoy feminine expression,” Scovel said. “And I think, like any 18 to 22 year old, they’re figuring out where their self boundaries are, and we’re just watching that in real time. But they’re just existing in a tension that we all exist in society, of ‘How do I express myself in a culture that’s telling me how to express myself as a woman athlete?’”

Plus, the double standards that women face in athletic spaces don’t go unnoticed by those who follow them. “Young women having the confidence to show themselves off on social media does not equal being sexual,” Shiroff tweeted back in November. “Neither does wearing tight-fitting clothes, doing TikTok dances, or posting IG photos at the beach. Men get to do all of these things without the ‘sexy’ label.”

Not only that, but men get to do things that are arguably more “scandalous” than what Dunne and the Cavinders are doing and receive praise for it. Take Tommy Brown, a former Colorado offensive lineman who went viral last October as the first college athlete underwear model, and who was praised as a “thick king” for doing so. It’s hard to imagine that a female athlete would have been similarly praised.

And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with Brown’s campaign. In fact, it’s a great example of body positivity that male athletes need in a media culture that is saturated in unrealistic bodybuilder-physique standards. But had a female athlete been the first-ever college athlete underwear model, the media has consistently shown us that the reaction would have been far different.

While Brown’s campaign was mostly viewed as lighthearted, fun, and empowering, female athletes who want to celebrate their bodies in similar ways do not have the freedom to do so without being sexualized.  “People are supposed to have the freedom to find themselves. Like, that’s what college is for,” Scovel said, adding that college athletes in the NIL space are “doing so in the public eye with everybody commenting on what they do.” This scrutiny adds a layer of complexity and pressure to the business models of female athletes in the NIL space and makes traversing this terrain much harder.

However, in spite of the negative press and stereotypes surrounding female athletes, they are navigating these waters with confidence and garnering results while taking unique paths to monetary success. According to On3, Dunne is the top female NIL earner with a NIL evaluation of $3.5 million. However, the number 2 and 3 spots are occupied by fellow LSU stars Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson, whose content couldn’t be more different. Reese, whose unapologetic authenticity and unique brand has earned her sponsorships with top companies like Mercedes and Coach sits at $1.6 million. And Johnson, who is a talented rapper as well as an elite hooper, sits at $1.1 million.

In fact, Chloe Mitchell, a former Aquinas College volleyball player who is widely considered to be the first college athlete to monetize her NIL because the NAIA relaxed its restrictions before the NCAA did, earned her money by posting videos of her impressive DIY content during Covid.

“I think that gets lost in the conversations,” Scovel said. “[These athletes are] so multi-faceted, complex, and nuanced. But to say, ‘Oh, they’re only posing in bikinis’ is so simplistic.”

There’s nothing wrong with women posting suggestive content in a business space that rewards it. But the diversity of business models within the female athlete NIL space often gets drowned out in the discourse of “sex sells.” Scovel emphasizes that the NIL market is much more complex than that. Sports media must take note.

“They’re so smart, and they’re making money,” Scovel said of female college athletes. “And so I really came to respect them as entrepreneurs and business women. It’s a ‘she knows what she’s doing,’ [dynamic] but not in a suggestive way. She knows what she’s doing as a businesswoman.”

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.