College gymnastics meets are far more high-key than competitions in the international elite world. From the flashy hair and makeup to the sideline choreography mimesis, to the ebullient celebration by, and mobbing of, any gymnast who “hits” (i.e., does not fall or make a substantial error), the NCAA version of this heavily disciplined sport is anything but staid. Still, until recently, the most you could expect in terms of a fervent fandom would be a polite but excitable phalanx of 10-year-old gymnasts patiently waiting for a glimpse of Suni Lee at a meet-and-greet.
Well, that was before LSU junior Olivia Dunne’s unhinged throng of testosterone-addled teens mobbed the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center last weekend, during the 10th-ranked Tigers’ road opener against the sixth-ranked Red Rocks. According to eyewitnesses and video, the boys were so rowdy during the meet—brandishing enormous signs, disrupting other gymnasts’ treacherous balance beam routines, chanting “Put Livvy in!”—that security had to be dispatched to their section.
After the meet, LSU’s bus was reportedly so overwhelmed that it had to move for the athletes’ safety, and as Olympic silver medalist and commentator Samantha Peszek left the Huntsman, the horde greeted one of the sport’s icons thusly:
I have been either participating in or following competitive gymnastics since 1986, and I have never seen anything remotely like this stomach-churning debacle, which was unsettling enough that even the ever-diplomatic Kathy Johnson Clarke, a national treasure and non-elder stateswoman of gymnastics, deemed it “creepy” and a “teachable moment.”
So whence, then, this excessive display from a demographic that, to be generous, has heretofore not been known for its passionate gymnastics fandom? As with many of this era’s phenomena, all roads lead to TikTok. Dunne, an athletic and academic All-American on the fan-favorite Tigers squad, is known in the gymnastics world for her excellent 9.925 career high on the uneven bars.
She also has a rather large social media presence: 6.7 million followers on TikTok, 2.8 million on Instagram.
Indeed, Dunne possesses the ineffable Gen Z kavorka that my decrepit brain cannot begin to understand: the seemingly arbitrary force that makes one conventionally attractive young woman in a crop-top yanking at her long hair an international superstar and makes another near-identical individual toil in obscurity. Why is she TikTok royalty? Why is anyone?
Nobody knows. But she is. Dunne’s got the magic, and her millions of followers have translated into a name-image-likeness earnings haul like no other woman in college sport. She is the current most-followed athlete in the NCAA, and, at an estimated $2.6 million, possesses the highest valuation among all female NIL athletes.
OK: Her success is not a total mystery. Like the vast majority of top content creators on platforms popular with the youngs, she posts numerous videos and stills of herself looking cute, posing or cavorting in a variety of exceedingly normal garments for young people to wear. Leggings. Cute little dresses. Bathing suits where half of your butt hangs out in a way that cannot be comfortable but is now ubiquitous. The boys are crushing on her. Is Dunne’s social media presence adding anything of great art or substance to the world? Only time will tell. But is it shocking or even mildly unusual in its oeuvre? Absolutely not.
Nevertheless, you’ll need to tell that to the predictable chorus that emerged amid critique of the mob scene and Dunne’s ensuing diplomatic plea for her fans to chill the hell out:
“You’re not helping your cause by making vids in your swim suit.”
“Take a moment to help me understand what line these boys crossed?”
“Nice to see teenage boys act like boys again.”
Meanwhile, innumerable members of her fandom, ostensibly “in love” with the gymnast, answered her call for rational behavior with a coordinated onslaught of yes, mommy.
This is all, to put it mildly, alarming.
As Johnson Clarke suggested, the episode has the potential to be a teachable moment to these boys, and their friends, and their parents, and possibly the internet and then the universe. Thankfully, at least one male authority figure close to the story, LSU coach Jay Clark, is trying.
On Thursday, Clark also announced that LSU would be beefing up security around its gymnastics team as a result of the incident, both at home and on the road.
In an ideal universe, others around the fans would, perhaps, be pursuing even blunter conversations with them about why their actions were wrong. Perhaps more productive conversations about autonomy and consent can take place betwixt sessions on the PS5:
Just because all your buddies on TikTok are blessing a stranger’s DMs with purple prose doesn’t mean you should, Griffith.
Just because a girl shows half a butt cheek on Instagram doesn’t mean that she’s your property, Tanner.
Just because you, personally, find a girl attractive to your penis does not, in turn, mean that she and an entire sport must contort themselves to your penis’ preferences, Kylan.
And maybe some are having those conversations. I hope so. But we don’t live in an ideal universe, or even a mediocre one. We live in a universe where Brett Kavanaugh sits smugly on the bench of the highest court in the land while the woman who credibly accused him of sexual assault went into hiding for months. We live in a universe where Brock Turner served 15 seconds of time because any greater consequence for shattering an innocent woman’s life would have permanently hurt his feelings. We live in a universe where a sizable number of young men believe, sincerely, that their unsatisfying sex lives can be solved through forced redistribution.
Unfortunately, in our actual world, there’s a nonzero chance that the recent spectacle around Dunne could be a prelude to something worse. Lust for athletes and celebrities is a human right, but there are safe and unsafe ways to express it. To say nothing of the emotional consequences, the boys who besieged the Utah meet displayed behavior that suggested to many reasonable observers and attendees that the women whom they were hollering at might face real physical danger. Support for that behavior could be interpreted by other young men as license to act even more wantonly and dangerously on their urges and “fandom.”
Even more unfortunately, the worst possible addition to this discourse has been more than merely supportive of the Utah teens. It’s the notion uniting those linked reactions to the incident above: whether somehow, Dunne’s TikTok and Instagram activity means she “deserves” this borderline-violent mobbing—that simply by being famous, young, fashionable, and conventionally attractive, she (and everyone in her vicinity) is asking for it.
Some handwringing, avowedly concerned parties like the New York Times wonder if NIL rights are the real villain here—the ultimate cause of this inevitable effect. Is this new money-making reality compelling these women to sell sex and thus also somehow “inviting” this kind of terrifying attention? To such concerns, with as much diplomacy as I can muster, I can only sigh and join my colleague Dvora Meyers and say that the answer is plainly no: NIL is not the problem, and it is not compelling low-key sex work.
Today, growing a social media following is the most efficient way for college athletes to simultaneously grow their sport’s audience and their bank accounts. I’m all for expanding gymnastics’ reach, and Dunne’s social media presence has certainly done that. The fact that she’s gotten rich by doing so with cute photos is not—as even the Times story points out—the only way for college athletes to make money online. It’s a choice, and not a harmful one or even a remarkable one. Does it mean that she “invited” horny young dudes to inevitably terrorize her (and everyone around her) en masse?
Saying that Olivia Dunne dressing in a certain way—identically to the vast majority of her peers—is evidence that the NIL landscape “pressures” young female athletes to “sexualize themselves” ignores an enormously common feature of both young life and social media. It requires presupposing a cascading avalanche of bullshit.
This point of view assumes that if she weren’t getting the big bucks, Dunne—a top athlete whose regulation uniform is a skin-tight bodysuit—would be traipsing around in a floor-length schmatte and would only post social media photos of herself in such schmattes. It is almost certainly the case that Dunne wears crop-tops and bikinis online because that is how she dresses, and would do so regardless of her follower count, much like the dozens of my own students at the University of Oregon who dress exactly like this, despite lacking sponsorship deals. She looks cute in them, and if you have never visited social media, I must inform you that most people on it post selfies that are meant to showcase themselves looking cute, regardless of compensation.
The NIL rule change has obliterated the previous landscape, wherein an athlete either went pro at 16 and sacrificed college altogether, or committed to a university and sacrificed a shot at the Olympics. The new reality means that elite superstars such as Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Jade Carey get to do double duty in both worlds. It has also allowed nonelite athletes such as Dunne, whose gymnastics career will end after college, to control their personal brands and financial destinies. So it’s not just that Dunne is dressing and posting selfies on social media as if she were any other peer of hers: It’s also that posting selfies on social media is allowing her to have more freedom than athletes like her would have had before—and yes, a lot more money.
The NCAA season just started, and it promises to be another electrifying one. As a member of the gymnastics world for going on four decades, I’m in awe of how popular college gym is becoming, and, like the athletes themselves, I welcome new fans from all walks of life. But I fear that what could otherwise be the sport’s most enchanting season in years might, instead, be overshadowed by yet another ugly chapter in the infinity-long saga of a ruthless misogynistic cliché: terrorize the young woman—and then blame her.
Correction, Jan. 13, 2023: This article originally misstated that a woman credibly accused Brett Kavanaugh of rape. She credibly accused him of sexual assault.