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Iconic covers influenced conversations about society and sports

Posted: 50 Minutes Ago
Last Updated: 5 Minutes Ago

Newly appointed U.S. women’s national soccer coach Emma Hayes attends the FIFA Football Awards on Jan. 15, 2024 in London. (Kate Green/Getty Image)

This past week, I was in London, England for an event and happened to be invited by my friend to the Football Writers Association Gala dinner.

The event was awarding Emma Hayes, legendary Chelsea Women’s FC coach an award for her years of service. Hayes will start her new role as the head coach of the USWNT after the season is over.

In her acceptance speech which was witty and emotional, Hayes thanked former and present players, the club and media — with whom she is said to have a good relationship, she also spoke to the women in sports media.

“To all the women in broadcasting, press, and beyond the WSL press pack,” she said tearfully with sincerity, “keep demanding, keep pushing, even though there’s dark days, you know you’re working and you’re brilliant!”

Hayes was speaking to women in the room who have been working for years in men and women’s sports in various roles. As someone who is in the minority gender in sports media (… in Canada and most of the world), her words resonated and I have been thinking about the role of sports writing in society.

WATCH | The 

Sports Illustrated 
changes seen

 over the years: 

Show more

The owner of Sports Illustrated delivered layoff notices to most of its staff on Friday after nearly 70 years in operation. While it may not mean the end for sure, the future of the magazine is uncertain.  2:02

Sports Illustrated layoffs sad

That’s why I have been saddened by the announcement last week of Sports Illustrated laying off all of its staff (unionized staff have three months and non-union staff fired immediately) and essentially shuttering. While The Arena Group had a license from Authentic Brands Group to publish, it missed a payment and that broke the agreement made in 2019. 

It’s terribly discouraging that a magazine with so much potential and one of the greatest publications on sport in the U.S., is coming to an end. Like many, I can romanticize what Sports Illustrated meant to me and how their iconic covers influenced conversations about society and sports and the details in their feature writing.

But it really feels like a loss, particularly when women’s sports feel like they’re entering a new realm. It’s more heart wrenching when a new professional hockey league has started, women’s pay equity is more prevalent across the globe from different teams and leagues, stadiums are breaking attendance records, and the profound emergence of women superstars whose stories of coaching and playing deserve to be front covers. 

Of course there are online publications and news organizations, but Sports Illustrated was unmatched in its longform writing and storytelling. Its covers were art and it amplified photographers as well as scribes.

“Sports Illustrated was where I also learned about how issues of race, sexuality, class and gender invaded and intersected with the games we love,”

wrote Dave Zirin. 

For many readers, Sports Illustrated informed Americans and Canadians about how sports reflect society. Whenever I visited the Halifax Public Library as a child, I wanted to read it and would wait patiently for it. I also remember the iconic cover in 1999 of Brandi Chastain — on her knees, shirt in hand — photographed by Robert Beck for Sports Illustrated after winning the 1999 Women’s World Cup. That cover will be etched into my mind forever. It wasn’t just about that moment, women’s success in mainstream sports, or her own agency, it was also about how important photojournalism is in the media. 

Highest echelon of sports writing

Sports Illustrated laid off all its photojournalists

in 2015.

Cover stories were, for decades, the marker of the highest echelon of sports writing. Then is morphed into retweets on the former Twitter platform. Now, it may be TikTok reviews or commentary. Even as an instructor of Sports Journalism and Sports Media, I can’t really say what’s next or how it will evolve. What I do know is that reading that magazine made me a better writer. 

The likes of Gary Smith, Grant Wahl and Emma Baccellieri. I appreciated how SI had writers who wanted to go deeper than stats and match reports. In 2017, I participated in a roundtable discussion with friend and colleague Richard Deitsch about

Muslims working in sports media in the Donald Trump era. I am still close to a few of those panellists and was grateful to have our experiences amplified by such a reputable publication, and bring forth perspectives that were not often known or understood.

I was lucky enough to grab a few bylines in 2015 during the Women’s World Cup hosted in Canada, but my work was

primarily online and although I have published at many reputable places, having a copy of Sports Illustrated in my hands would have been a thrilling professional milestone. 

I spoke with my friend and celebrated sports writer Alex Wong, whose book
Cover Story: The NBA And Modern Basketball As Told Through Its Most Iconic Magazine Covers was a deep dive into Sport Illustrated and its most popular stories through the lens of how they portrayed Michael Jordan and how Sports Illustrated, as an institution, evolved over the years.

“That experience gave [me] the chance to really appreciate what Sports Illustrated meant not just to me but other sportswriters,” Wong told me over the phone. “It’s such a loss for the common sports fan. It really does reflect how we are moving away from print, a weekly magazine, there is no space for that in more in an industry like this. You’re losing space for up and coming to have a chance to tell these stories. You no longer have Sports Illustrated writers at big sporting events, traveling across Canada, USA around the world telling the stories that otherwise we would not hear.”

The author bio and photo of a fictitious Sports Illustrated writer named Drew Ortiz, generated by artificial intelligence. In November, Sports Illustrated was found to be using AI to write articles. (CBC)

Polarizing swimsuit issue

This is not to say that Sports Illustrated did not have problems or was mostly white men often telling stories of racialized athletes and of women. Of course, that very polarizing
swimsuit issue that continued to be the best-selling issue for years, but rightly

garnered criticism even when it posted

women athletes on the cover. 

It has been the subject of academic analysis and media commentary for decades, arguing that the magazine exploits and sexualizes women instead of telling stories of athletic prowess.

For me, those complicated layers are not the essence of what Sports Illustrated was. As much as I will not pine for the swimsuit covers (yes, even with a

hijab-clad model on the cover) I will miss the writing. It was the importance of the words, the text and the way in which the platform supported sports journalism. 

It was the stories about abuse and power that were read when there was still too much hesitation from other sports places in publishing them. My friend, Jessica Luther, co-wrote an article in Sports Illustrated with Jon Wertheim about the

Dallas Mavericks that caused waves in the organizations and arguably led to them reckoning with the allegations and story itself. 

At one time, Sports Illustrated showcased the courageous sports journalists and writers who cared about their stories, the subjects and sport. They didn’t shy away from upsetting teams or leagues in their reporting. There was a respect and fearlessness associated with that magazine. 

Recently, Sports Illustrated

came under fire for the reports that they used Artificial Intelligence to write their stories. 

Maggie Harrison Dupre of

Futurism did an investigation into Sports Illustrated practices and found not just Drew
Ortiz, but a slew of other “writers” whose work was then deleted off the website. As my CBC Sports colleague, Morgan Campbell

poignantly said: “Morgan Campbell can talk to Carlos Ruiz about the ways
late-career Roy Halladay was still improving, and Gary Smith can explore how an undersized catcher
managed a staff of all-star pitchers. Drew Ortiz can’t. He couldn’t produce half a per cent of that observation and insight.”

This is not comforting at all for an industry that relies on sports journalists to investigate, opine, write and inform but is shrinking. Social media and new platforms are definitely the future of sports media but I will keep teaching the next generation to write with integrity, dedication and passion and use those old articles as examples.

As Wong’s words ”
it’s such a loss” ring in my ears, I will think fondly of Sports Illustrated and other literary legends in sports and raise my cup of coffee in honour of the legacies they leave behind.


Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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