Tulsa Shock guard Skylar Diggins is in this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Not just a shot or two, like they sometimes do with athletes, but a full scale pictorial. It's easy to see why S.I. would choose Diggins. She is quite beautiful and does not look at all out of place among the professional models who fill the bulk of the issue.
Three separate issues have arisen from Diggins' appearance in the swimsuit issue. First, it has been suggested she is more interested in building her brand than her game and spends more time focusing on being a celebrity than on being a basketball player. Second, some have said Diggins has not "earned" the chance to make this appearance, her athletic accomplishments are not sufficient for her to be chosen over other, more deserving players, and she might prove to be an embarrassment to the sport like Anna Kournikova was for tennis when she gained so much notoriety for her appearance despite modest achievements on the court. Third, there has been concern that any publicity she might garner for the WNBA from this pictorial might be damaging to the credibility of the league and people who come to games based on her appearance in the magazine might be expecting more of the same or at least some WWE Diva style faux action with plenty of gratuitous skin.
As fate would have it, Diggins is not the first WNBA player to grace the pages of the swimsuit issue. Nikki McCray and Sheryl Swoopes each appeared in single shots in 1999 while Lauren Jackson got the full pictorial treatment in 2005. What do these previous appearances by WNBA players in bikinis tell us about the likely results of Diggins' venture into cheesecake?
Let's deal with the absurd diversion first. This isn't going to affect the WNBA in any meaningful way. None of the previous appearances by players in the swimsuit issue made any impact. The annual appearances by one player or another in ESPN's body issue hasn't either. Even Tamara Stocks appearing in Playboy (NSFW) didn't make a dent. Nobody is going to see this magazine and say "I want to see more scantily clad, athletic babes. Let me check out this basketball game on ESPN". The W is too well established for anyone to expect anything along those lines at a game.
For the second point, whether Diggins has a resume sufficient to warrant this kind of attention, it's interesting to compare her to the other three who made the issue. Lauren Jackson was a member of the reigning WNBA champions when she was in the swimsuit issue. She also had a couple of Olympic silver medals and an MVP to her credit. Sheryl Swoopes was arguably the most famous women's basketball player in the world in 1999. Not only did she have a gold medal, an NCAA title, and two WNBA rings, but she had generated a huge amount of press with her pregnancy and quick return in the WNBA's first season. Like Candace Parker a few years later in ESPN's body issue, Swoopes wanted to show off how her body had recovered from childbirth. Nikki McCray also had a gold medal, plus she had won MVP and a championship in the ABL. Obviously Diggins, coming off of a disappointing rookie season, doesn't have the hardware those three had when they were in the issue.
Sports Illustrated has a mixed record when it comes to selecting athletes to use as models. The first time they used an athlete it was Steffi Graf. She is perhaps the greatest tennis player to ever pick up a racket, but not someone who has the traditional model look. On the other hand, they did not hesitate to use Danica Patrick even though she has had only moderate success as a driver. It's hard to fault Diggins for striking while the iron is hot, even if her on court accomplishments don't quite stack up to the players who have gone here before her.
Now, for the most contentious point of the three. It is certainly possible Diggins will go down the road of spending more time and energy on looking good than actually being good. I think it's less likely in her case. Diggins is much smarter and better educated than Kournikova or Patrick or most of the other female athletes who have chosen that path. With her degree and the support system she has around her, Diggins isn't going to get taken advantage of or fooled into doing things she doesn't want to do. Even so, she could still fall prey to the undeniable allure of having people tell you how beautiful you are all day, every day. Women, in particular, are vulnerable to it because they're conditioned from a very young age to have issues with their appearance. Even women who aren't predisposed to showing off their bodies can feel that pull. Elizabeth Perkins summed it up perfectly when talking about working as an actress in Hollywood; "The only thing worse than producers constantly asking to see your breasts is when they stop asking to see your breasts." It should be interesting to see how Diggins deals with that dichotomy going forward.
If we look at the other WNBA players who appeared in the swimsuit issue, it is encouraging for Diggins fans. Lauren Jackson went on to two more MVPs, another WNBA title, and a World Championship. Sheryl Swoopes won three MVPs, two more WNBA titles, and two more gold medals after posing. Nikki McCray became a multi-time All Star and won a second gold medal. No one ever suggested posing for S.I. was a distraction or hurt any of their careers.
Only time will tell whether Diggins' career will match up with the fame she already has. If I had to guess, I'd say she will turn out to be a good WNBA player. She's got a competitive streak and could very well take all the nay-saying about her ability to be both a model and an effective player to use as motivational fuel. Ask any UConn fan and they'll tell you Skylar Diggins with a chip on her shoulder is a very dangerous thing.