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ESPN's 'Body Issue' Has Naked Stars -- and a Serious Message

6 years ago
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Some might argue that after baring her emotions at the U.S. Open just a few weeks ago -- and in doing so losing match point and a chance at the title -- the last thing tennis star Serena Williams needed was more exposure and controversy.

But she'll soon get plenty of both. It was revealed Wednesday that Williams will be among the most prominent stars in a lineup of professional and amateur athletes posing naked for the October issue of ESPN the Magazine.

Other well-known sports figures to appear out of uniform in the inaugural "Body Issue" will be Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, and Texas Rangers catcher Pudge Rodriguez, as well as a host of lesser-known athletes from a range of sports, including hockey (men and women), soccer, softball and golf. (Tiger Woods declined, however. "We'll get him next year," editor in chief Gary Belsky vowed in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.)

The "Body Issue" had become an issue unto itself as news began emerging in recent months about what ESPN was up to, and debates percolated as to whether this would be just some co-ed "beef-and-cheesecake" effort to outduel Sports Illustrated's more famous and more profitable February swimsuit issue. As I wrote earlier, a few Christian voices were starting to lament what they saw as ESPN's naked grab for publicity and advertising dollars. (Various pieces of sporting equipment will tastefully cover the most delicate parts, editors said.)

So what will the critics say now, and especially to Serena for taking it all off so soon after losing her cool?

There's really only one thing to say: Good for her. And for ESPN.

While only a couple of the photos have been made public so far, it's clear from the description that the magazine's editors gave during Wednesday's "sneak peek" that the issue (which hits newsstands Oct. 9) takes both sports and the body seriously.

And not just beautiful bodies. Or what the public has come to believe is beautiful, which is usually an impossible ideal.

Rather, the "Body Issue" will feature the likes of the 350-pound Mongolian-born sumo star, Byambajav "Byamba" Ulambayar ("he was almost completely naked anyway," Belsky said) as well as the 112-pound jockey Alex Solis and Olympic weightlifter Cheryl Haworth.

"We were actually looking for something slightly different than what people might have imagined," Belsky said. "We wanted to look at all the different kinds of bodies that can excel at the highest level of athletic competition" and "show how different bodies match with different sports." He said both the editors and the athletes wanted to keep a sense of humor about the project, and convey a seriousness that would upend some of the expectations -- and criticisms.

Surely one of the most appealing parts of the "Body Issue" will likely be the Demi Moore turn by Jessica Mendoza, a USA Softball Olympian and president of the Women's Sports Foundation -- and "a bad-ass athlete," as Belsky called her -- who posed nude while eight months pregnant with her son.

"I see this as almost groundbreaking and kind of changing the mold of what we see as beautiful," Mendoza said (you could hear her infant son burbling in the background).

"To be honest, I'm sick of working with young women, girls, teenagers, and they are constantly thinking they're too fat or too buff or too this. . . . They want to look like the Paris Hiltons of the world. It bothers me because it's so unrealistic. There are so many beautiful bodies out there. Athletes are not. And I just want every young girl to see their own body, or part of their body, in this issue."

"The more that we can get more realistic bodies in front of them, the better," she added.

Belsky also noted that some 400,000 of the magazine's 2.1 million subscribers are women, and many are kids. ESPN, which is owned by Disney, hoped to take that into consideration. "We wanted to make sure they could look at this issue and see the good in it."

Yet they'll also see the tough side of sports as well.

There will be a photo essay on a surgery to repair a torn ACL, one of the most common sports injuries. And Belsky said a photo of the battered hand of Jacksonville Jaguars' receiver Torry Holt was "so scary we almost didn't put it in the issue." (Personally, I find the fact that ESPN is including a shot of pro card players in a serious strip poker game -- even though one of them is Jennifer Harman -- less appealing than Holt's twisted paw. It is, however, the only co-ed naked shot in the issue.) Motocross star Blake Bilko Williams will be riding his bike "with very little equipment on," Belsky said (ouch), and up-and-coming rodeo star Scott Proctor will be "in the ring with a bull." Whoa.

Of course there will also be plenty of glam and gams to go with the guts. ESPN isn't that high-minded, and neither is the sports-reading public. It turns out that stock car racer Danica Patrick was not included in the issue, as was rumored. But Zdeno Chara, a defenseman for the Boston Bruins, will help fill the gaga gap. "Some might argue he has the best body in the NHL," Belsky said. And Serena will be showing off her physique, which is obviously impressive though hardly the build of your average runway model. "Serena was very brave," Belsky said --"brave" apparently being his euphemism for the athletes who most immersed themselves into the spirit of the issue.

"This wasn't a bid to double or triple our sales," Belsky insisted. "Honestly, by the way," he added after a moment's silence.

Well, that judgment is best left to the reader. Belsky does anticipate that the "Body Issue" will be an annual event, a "serious franchise" for the magazine, which still trails Sports Illustrated in subscribers, 2.1 million to 3.2 million. But ESPN the Magazine has been gaining, and the "Body Issue" could give it some more visibility, as well as an edge in the kind of writing that SI's swimsuit issue generally is not known for.

While Christianity Today's Ted Kluck fretted that ESPN was promoting prurience over good journalism, Belsky promised that the magazine will have strong articles as well. (Kluck may be amused to know -- as I was -- that Belsky had the writers on this issue participate in a naked volleyball tournament with some volleyball pros to get a "feel" for their subject. Luckily, Politics Daily has no such plans.)

He said there would be an article on "The Athletic Gene," for example, in which 100 NFL players contributed DNA to see if there is a genetic marker for athletes, and an essay about "athletes using sex and physicality to sell themselves, and the good and bad of that."

It seems we all have body issues.

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