Olivia Dunne responds after coach calls her social media a ‘step back’ for female athletes

Gymnast Olivia Dunne has responded to aNew York Times article that links sponsored social media posts among female college athletes to the concept of “sexiness sells” and cited a women’s basketball coach who claimed the posts are “regressive”.

Dunne, 20, a Louisiana State University gymnast described in the article as being at the “leading edge of a movement shaking the old foundations of college sports,” has an estimated net worth of $2.3m. The figure has been amassed in part through sponsorship deals and posts on her TikTok and Instagram pages, where she has 6.3m followers and 2.3m followers, respectively. These are possible under a new set of rules passed in 2021 that allow student athletes to sign name, image and likeness deals.

However, in the article published in The New York Times titled “New Endorsements for College Athletes Resurface an Old Concern: Sex Sells,” it highlighted a concern from Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer. VanDerveer claims the influx in female athletes making millions of dollars with their social media platforms is “regressive” to the fight for equality in women’s sports.

In the article, which described Dunne as a “petite blonde with a bright smile and a gymnast’s toned physique,” it alleged that she and “many other athletes of her generation” have found it empowering to be “candid and flirty and [show] off their bodies in ways that emphasise traditional notions of female beauty on social media”.

VanDerveer argues that the focus on the appearances of female athletes as a result of these deals is “regressive” and actually represents a “step back”.

“I guess sometimes we have this swinging pendulum, where we maybe take two steps forward, and then we take a step back,” she said. “We’re fighting for all the opportunities to compete, to play, to have resources, to have facilities, to have coaches, and all the things that go with Olympic-caliber athletics. This is a step back.”

The accusation prompted a response from Dunne, who seemingly rejected the claim on her social media accounts. In a TikTok posted this week, in which she could be seen wearing her LSU gymnastics leotard, she posed in front of a mirror as she quoted Nicki Minaj: “Um, if you don’t like me, that’s fine. But, you know, watch your mouth.”

In the caption of the video, which has since been viewed more than 2.2m times, Dunne wrote: “Only taking steps forward.”

In another clip posted to the app on Wednesday, Dunne joked about her Christmas list, with the gymnast revealing that she’d “rather [receive] a lump of coal” than “be on [the] NY Times” or have a “sugardaddy”.

Dunne also seemingly addressed the article on her Instagram, where she posted a since-expired swimsuit photo on her Stories, where she wrote: “Is this too much?” according to the DailyMail.

The athlete’s response has prompted praise from her followers, who have joined in on her criticism of the article.

“That article was a joke. They can’t stand the success, keep going love,” one person commented under her TikTok video, while another follower accused the article of insinuating “that Livvy’s success was inherently tied to her sex appeal,” which they said they think is “incorrect,” as “her success in gymnastics is tied to her skill”.

Dunne, who began gymnastics at age three, was a member of the USA national gymnastics team in 2017 before joining Louisiana State University, where she competes for the school in the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association].

As noted by The Times, Dunne competes in what is considered a “non-revenue sport,” which for the gymnast and other female athletes, has meant the change to endorsement rules has been a “game-changer,” according to the outlet.

Dunne herself acknowledged the monetary limitations of her sport while speaking to The Times, explaining that’s why she is “proud” of her earnings from the deals.

“That is something I’m proud of. Especially since I’m a woman in college sports,” she said, adding: “There are no professional leagues for most women’s sports after college.”

As for how she feels about the online persona she has crafted, where she posts photos of herself, interacts with her followers, and shares insight into her college experiences as an LSU gymnast, Dunne said it’s simply about posting what she feels comfortable with, and empowered by.

“It’s just about showing as much or as little as you want,” she said.

The Independent has contacted a representative for Dunne, Stanford and The New York Times for comment.