Dismissed from the LSU football team, Tyrann Mathieu received benefits that could affect his future eligibility.

This week Sports Illustrated issued its investigative cover story about Tyrann Mathieu who was kicked off his LSU team for smoking marijuana. Last week a 1000-page scathing USADA report detailed how Lance Armstrong operated “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen” that included 11 witnesses, bitter ex-teammates, cover-ups, bribes, and ruthless bullying. For SI, Armstrong just wasn’t cover material — again. A college kid smoking weed? Now that’s the scandal.

While SI’s handling of the drug habits and relapses of Michael Phelps and Josh Hamilton were handled so very differently, a full ”Smoking-While-Black” column will be saved for another rainy day. Lance’s latest cover omission addresses the continuing question of “Doping-While-White”. Namely:

What must a white doper do to land a Sports Illustrated cover?

Mark McGwire once gift-wrapped an SI cover by crying in front of millions on television. SI took a pass. Roger Clemens — star of The Mitchell Report —  also begged for attention on Youtube, 60 Minutes, and in Congress. Still no cover luck. After a decade of American media protection by a national American media that largely refused to investigate Armstrong until 2010 (SI finally did in 2011), the 1000 page report wasn’t long enough. 

The Armstrong pass is no isolated incident. This is what white privilege looks like.

Mark McGwire Cover - Sports Illustrated September 07, 1998Lance Armstrong Cover - Sports Illustrated December 16, 2002Roger Clemens Cover - Sports Illustrated May 13, 1991

Despite receiving a total of 29 positive SI covers, “Saint Lance”, “Big Mac”, and “The Rocket”, have not produced one single doping cover.

Not in 2012. Not when the stories first broke. Not ever.

This fact is astonishing considering how Sports Illustrated has taken such an aggressive and proactive role as the drug police. In 2009, Manny Ramirez landed an SI cover with a grinning face, shifty eyes, and furrowed brows. Alex Rodriguez didn’t only land a cover, but an SI writer led the investigation and broke the story. Barry Bonds?  SI paid up to $15,000 for the right to issue the Game of Shadows book excerpt — one of three separate steroids-related covers of Bonds.

This math doesn’t add up, but questions do.

If SI’s most celebrated alleged dopers are white, why have all of the cover mug shots come in color?

Barry Bonds Cover - Sports Illustrated March 13, 2006Alex Rodriguez Cover - Sports Illustrated February 16, 2009  Manny Ramirez Cover - Sports Illustrated May 18, 2009

This is the related context in which Mathieu-over-Armstrong cover choice must be viewed.

It is no isolated incident, and this is what media racism looks like.

It’s built on a collection of stories that create an unmistakably racist narrative — even if the stories are not individually racist themselves. And if you are unclear about that narrative, just check web comment sections for verification or “most-disliked athletes” lists for similar faces. Those yelling “race card” only want to talk about one story, one cover, or one tree, but lack the will or vision to view the forest.

Sports Illustrated didn’t just put Mathieu on the cover, but also launched an aggressive investigation, allegedly harassed Mathieu and his family, and allegedly tried to bribe witnesses to say negative things (SI denies the allegation). While new SI writer, Pete Thamel is no stranger to hunting for simplistic racialized narratives, SI’s decisions go far beyond any one writer.

These are editorial decisions. This is about the continued culture of leadership by Sports Illustrated Group Editor in Chief Terry McDonnell who has been ruining the publication that I, and many others, grew up reading and loving. 

Yes, it’s true. SI has always had problems rooted in its incredible imbalance of whiteness and testosterone. However, ever since McDonnell introduced his 2002 arrival with a cover of Charles Barkley in chains,  SI has become more like his previous magazine — the tabloid US Weekly. McDonnell virtually eliminated covering foreign athletes (so sorry Roger Federer and Manny Pacquiao), almost completely ignored women athletes unless the uniform is a bikini, and has covered  athletes of color in ways that is noticeably different in quantity, quality, sensitivity, and level of investigation than white ones.

The doper cover pass was not only received by Armstrong, Clemens, and McGwire, but also all-stars Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, and Ryan Braun.  Mathieu also beat out juicy NCAA scandals driven by Bobby Petrino, Rick Pitino, or the corrupt NCAA system itself (would SI even dare such a real NCAA expose?).  Others to escape scandal cover treatment under McDonnell are Brett Favre,  Lenny Dykstra, Tim Donaghy, Josh Hamilton, Todd Bertuzzi,  Donald Sterling, Chris Benoit, and Patrick Kane to name a few. Of course, SI is certainly not alone in dispensing white privilege.

Like Sergant Hartman from the movie Full Metal Jacket, some outlets have notably pursued white scandal with an egalitarian “everyone’s a maggot” approach. When the New York Daily News first exposed Mark McGwire (and most other white dopers), their explosive Operation Equine story was widely ignored by national media. When the sports blog Deadspin issued  racy photos of Josh Hamilton and Brett Favre, they were first ignored by national media before prompting debates on sports media ethics. Yet, most national media uniformly celebrated those Game of Shadows authors who illegally leaked Grand Jury testimony on Barry Bonds. It seems that Deadspin’s real crime was exposing Brett instead of Barry.

While there is some measure of honor to the Full Metal Jacket approach, the ultimate goal is not for national sports media to treat white athletes like athletes of color. It is to treat athletes of color like white ones.

But for Sports Illustrated, that might first require that they recognize the humanity of Tyrann Mathieu instead try to ruin the young man’s life in order to sell some copy. It might require viewing Mathieu just like they would Michael Phelps with a bong in his mouth. It might require that SI editors see no difference between Tyrann and younger college versions of themselves.

Are they even capable?

The irony is sad, but true. The corporate-and-media-backed Armstrong got ignored for a decade, and once the final nail in coffin was issued, SI decides to harasses, stops, and frisk Mathieu in broad daylight. SI’s cover priority would be a sports media joke if only it didn’t mirror America’s actual drug policy that is so well explained in Michele Alexander’s must-read-by-every-American “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness“.

At best, SI’s cover choices reflect that racist reality.  More likely, SI’s pattern of imagery, especially when combined with ESPN.com and others, perpetuates that reality.

But until SI leadership can empathize with Mathieu as if he were a human being, the question remains:

What must a white icon do to land a Sports Illustrated doping cover?

Lance Armstrong Cover - Sports Illustrated August 05, 2002Roger Clemens Cover - Sports Illustrated June 02, 2003Mark McGwire Cover - Sports Illustrated June 01, 1992Lance Armstrong Cover - Sports Illustrated June 28, 2004

Roger Clemens Cover - Sports Illustrated September 10, 2001Mark McGwire Cover - Sports Illustrated March 23, 1998Lance Armstrong Cover - Sports Illustrated August 02, 2004Roger Clemens Cover - Sports Illustrated May 24, 2004

Update: On October 20, Terry McDonnell officially resigned as Sports Illustrated Group Editor and will remain as a Senior Advisor.

Related: