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Back to the Body Issue: Some fans shudder at exposure on ESPN.com

My recent column about ESPN’s decision to run a photo of Conor McGregor’s naked rear end on the main page of its website prompted a spirited debate among readers. Much of the discussion focused on whether the photo -- an extension of ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue -- should have appeared in such a high-profile position on ESPN.com.

My position was that the photo, while aesthetically beautiful, should not have been dropped into the center of ESPN’s digital town square. In the Body Issue section? Sure. In a photo gallery with a nudity warning at the beginning? Absolutely. I just didn’t think it should have been in a place where any visitor to ESPN.com had no viable way to avoid it.

Many readers disagreed with that conclusion, calling me, alternately, a prude, an old man and uncool. Though I am not the first, only somewhat the second and absolutely the third, I was nonetheless impressed by the passion and forcefulness with which people expressed their opinions on this subject.

But the choice of placement on ESPN.com wasn’t the only subject of interest to readers. Another line of discussion was whether the reaction would have been different if the naked rear end had belonged to a female athlete instead of a male one. Here are a few examples:

“I wonder how viewers would respond to a naked female butt?” said a 33-year-old man from Illinois. “Would the same men agree that some covers from an old Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition were also ‘inappropriate?’ My guess is they would have laughed it off or rolled their eyes at a comment made by their wife or girlfriend.”

Or, as a 43-year-old man from Georgia wrote: I doubt you would have even written this article if the photo had been of Ronda Rousey, because you wouldn’t have received any complaints.”

The Body Issue certainly included photos of female athletes that featured naked rear ends, and all appeared in various places on ESPN.com, but none was at the top of the home page. Chad Millman, ESPN’s vice president and editorial director of domestic digital content, said the gender of the athlete made no difference in ESPN’s photo selections. Instead, he said, the choice to use the McGregor photo was solely based on the MMA fighter’s newsworthiness.

“We are never making those decisions based on gender,” Millman said. “The decision is made based on what’s the best image and what’s going to be the most interesting. … Conor McGregor has been someone -- especially when the [Body Issue photo] ran [in July] -- who was white-hot in the news, and someone who generated conversation when we wrote about him.”

Readers also wondered, if a naked rear end on the home page was now acceptable, what boundary might ESPN push for the next Body Issue? On that point, Millman was firm: “We’re not going to be showing full body parts,” he said. “It’s not our intent to be exploitative in that way. … We’re not going to be showing full nudity.”

I’m not at all surprised by Millman’s answer. But, based on the feedback I’ve received, others won’t believe it until they don’t see it. Time will tell, and I strongly suspect it will tell us that bare butts are probably as far as ESPN will push things with Body Issue photography.

Finally, I wanted to determine whether an assertion I made in that column -- that younger consumers were generally more open on issues of nudity than older ones -- held up over broader examination.

To gather data, I sought out opinions on the McGregor photo via Twitter, Facebook and email. I got a few hundred responses, and I asked those respondents to provide their gender, age and home state. That data was then tabulated to see whether there were common themes regarding who was opposed to use of the McGregor photo and who was in favor.

Overall, the responses tended to be strongly against ESPN’s decision to run McGregor’s photo. Of course, most solicited feedback tends to be negative. If you don’t believe me, read the comments sections on most any news site. But even factoring that in -- and factoring out the organized anti-nudity campaign that led to more than 7,000 emails in my inbox -- the reaction still leaned more negative than I had expected.

Here’s a summary of the data. While the survey was not scientific, it still elicited interesting, broader opinions.

  • Overall, 64 percent of respondents were clearly against use of the photo, 21 percent were equivocal and 15 percent were clearly supportive.

  • On gender lines, women saw the picture more positively. While 67 percent of men were against use of the picture, only 28 percent of women felt the same.

  • Geographically, those in the Midwest/Mountain West were most comfortable with use of the photo, followed closely by the West Coast. Of the 35 responses from the South and Southwest, none was positive, and only one was even equivocal.

  • Most interestingly, the age breakdown I encountered when I polled people about this informally before the first column didn’t materialize. Among those ages 18-44, 67 percent of respondents disagreed with using the photo. Of those 45 and older, only 53 percent took a negative view.

But the home page wasn’t the only place ESPN promoted the Body Issue’s photography. While it was my focus because it’s such a high-traffic daily destination for the brand, and because home pages tend to be the province of a site’s most loyal consumers, social media provided another insight into consumer reaction.

And social media is interesting for a different reason. Most who saw ESPN’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts about the Body Issue likely saw them because they follow those accounts. But, because of sharing and retweeting, posts like likely seen by many readers who hadn’t followed or liked the relevant ESPN social account.

All that said, the reaction on social wasn’t much different from the reaction to the home page, though more heavily loaded with the snark, profanity and open-mic nature that usually comes with social media.

Most of the clearly stated opinions in social media were negative about the more revealing Body Issue photos, but the majority of posts were benign, sarcastic, in response to another commenter or focused more on the subject of the photo rather than its nature. That made the social reaction feel far less negative. While there certainly were comments supporting the use of the photos, they weren’t particularly prevalent.

As I said earlier, I would not have used the photo where ESPN did. If it hadn’t placed it atop ESPN.com’s home page, I doubt we would be having this conversation. Millman says that was not at all considered when the picture was chosen.

“We didn’t choose this specific photo looking to court controversy, largely because we didn’t see it as any different than the other photos chosen for the issue or to go online,” Millman said. “Our thinking was primarily that McGregor was chosen for the issue and to be featured prominently online because of his popularity and the way fans react to him. Once we made that decision, we selected the photo we liked the most aesthetically.”

SELECTED CONSUMER COMMENTS

Those who were opposed to use of the photo cited various reasons. Here are some examples of each broad category of objection, with the gender, age and state of the sender:

Prominence on ESPN.com’s home page

“It's commendable that you put a wrap on the [Body Issue] magazine to prevent unnecessary exposure. I would appreciate the same respect on your website. Let those who desire to view it make that choice for themselves.” -- Female, 65, Georgia

“I am not arguing that ESPN should abolish the Body Issue, but it should respect the public square and be honest about the powerful addictive impact viewing nudity has on young viewers. It should keep it off of the front page.” -- Male, 38, Nevada

“Naked bodies on the front of national sports websites where it cannot be filtered with a ‘wrap’ like magazines is not proper content.” -- Male, 30, Wyoming

Too easy for children to encounter

“ESPN shows Little League highlights on its website. Children undoubtedly visit the site because kids love sports. It is inappropriate to place a naked body on a front page where it cannot be avoided on a site that publishes content that attracts children.” -- Male, 40, Florida

“If you continue to be irresponsible and force such nudity into ‘reporting on sports’ -- my family, including our 8th-grade sons and 7th-grade daughter (who've done current events assignments in school off of your ESPN.com site) -- will say NO to ESPN in every possible way we can as a family.” -- Female, 35, Florida

“It's definitely nothing I'd want my 13-year-old daughter or 11-year-old son wandering upon or into without my knowing.” -- Male, 47, Mississippi

It’s pornography, not art

“Just because standards are fading for some, doesn't mean that others still do not stand for them. I turn to ESPN for my sports news, not pornography.” -- Male, 31, Idaho

I hate to say that I wasn't surprised by your poll that you took … on McGregor taking over the home page. However, I fully expected the younger ones to describe it as ‘art.’ I am actually in the same age group as those younger individuals and I find it to be far from art. I actually see their use of the word ‘art’ as a cover-up for the word ‘pornography.’ ” -- Male, 18, Virginia

“You talk about the changing morals of younger generations, but what I think is really happening is people want nudity in these images to be celebrated in such a way as to become more normal and even expected. This takes away any sense of guilt or shame from enjoying nudity outside of traditional morality. And by traditional, I guess I could also say biblical, as I am a Christian minister. Like you, I have also been accused of being a prude, but there is a difference between prudishness and pornography.” -- Male, 39, Massachusetts

Unsafe for work environment

“I don't really care about the photo, but it shouldn't be on the homepage. Many people work in jobs where you could be fired for such content. If I had gone to ESPN.com and not known it was there, I would have been terribly embarrassed while on my break at work.” -- Female, 35, Michigan

“As someone who has been forced to sit through numerous harassment and appropriate workplace training year in and year out, having something like this on my computer screen at work is extremely inappropriate. I can't afford to lose my job and try to explain to my wife why I could potentially be fired because I chose to check out your website during a break or down time on my phone or work computer.” -- Male, 37, Kentucky

It’s not sports

“I'd rather see Dwayne Wade make a defender look foolish rather than see what he'd look like naked shooting a three-pointer.” -- Male, 43, California

“I come to this site for sports news, not pornography. These images are the main reason my visitation to ESPN.com decreases annually when the Body Issue comes out.” -- Male, 28, Utah

Those who supported the use of the photo, though fewer in number, similarly cited various reasons.

It’s art, not pornography

“A careful and purposeful picture of an athletic body has, to me, a beauty and boldness that I admire. I can't kid myself that I ever looked like that, but it gives me a great appreciation of the work and pain that championship athletes have to go through to be a success.” -- Male, 72, Texas

“I think the problem is that we are such faux-puritans about sex and anything to do with it that we see a beautiful, well-cared for athletic body, and neon lights flash on overhead: ‘SEX!! SEX!! SEX!!’ Piffle. Sex is but one reason we have a body. It is NOT the only one, by any means.” -- Female, 79, Ohio

We’re too prudish

“I've never understood how a butt can be offensive anyway, why do we have to blur it? It's just a butt. We all have them. Why is a man's nipple different from a woman's? I look forward to the day when the body issue no longer has to worry about the slightly awkward 'tasteful censorship' the athletes have to pose in, and we can see the athletes in actual more organic athletic positions.” -- Male, 23, Wisconsin

“Anyone who takes offense from a butt is silly. The more butts we all see the less we all care, and we have no good reason to care in the first place. Freedom from ridiculous censorship has been one of the great causes of the Internet. It was good to make less open-minded people confront their irrational fear of nude butts. As a cross-generational media outlet, ESPN has the ability to change these people's minds or at least shush them and let us all continue pursuing progress. Don't apologize for changing the minds of/ignoring old folks with conservative viewpoints that hold us back. This has always been the only way to improve the world.” -- Male, 33, Oregon

It’s nothing new

“It's not that different from walking through the grocery store and seeing barely clad women in bikinis on magazine covers.” Female, 34, New York

We have bigger problems

“I am happy to hear that there is a trend away from viewing the human body and even particular ‘profane’ words as themselves being inappropriate or immoral. Perhaps we can benefit from focusing our attention more on issues that are actually problematic, such as unjust disparities in the ways various types of people are viewed, treated, or given real opportunities. Or persistent extreme poverty, or homelessness, or statelessness, or simply hatred of other people for simply being the way they are.” -- Male, 46, Wisconsin

Thanks to my assistant, Russell Goldstein, who read through all the comments and tabulated the results.

As always, feel free to keep the comments coming, via Twitter, Facebook or email to PublicEditor@ESPN.com.