Wednesday’s allDAY blog post on whether the Vogue cover featuring NBA star LeBron James and supermodel Gisele Bundchen perpetuates racial stereotypes generated some passionate comments — well over 200, in fact.
Among the commenters was Brandi Chastain, a former member of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team. Chastain, who won two World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals, knows a little something about controversial cover photos. At the 1999 World Cup, she scored the championship-clinching goal and tore off her jersey in celebration to reveal her sports bra — a moment that landed her on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek.
The celebration touched off an array of discussions about feminism, propriety, the impact it had on young girls, and, more simply, whether Chastain took off her jersey spontaneously or as a stunt.
NBC producer Dan Fleschner spoke with Chastain on Wednesday night to get her perspective on the Vogue photo and on being the subject of a cover controversy.
Dan Fleschner: What struck you about the Vogue cover?
Brandi Chastain: I’m in Hawaii right now doing soccer camps for kids. This morning I turned on TODAY and there was the photo. My initial reaction was, “That’s an interesting choice of a photograph.” From my perspective, I saw more of Gisele in it than of LeBron. It caught my interest in an odd way, and I wasn’t sure why.
I was having breakfast and saw that there was a debate about it, so I turned up the volume and heard about the racism aspect. I couldn’t have been further away from that perspective. As I wrote in my comment, everyone sees something like that from their own perspective, so not everyone will see it from a race perspective or gender equity or whatever.
My overall reaction was that it wasn’t the first photo I would have chosen. I looked at the others, and so many were quite beautiful — not that this one wasn’t — but maybe others showed more of the character of the individuals.
But then again, the whole point of the photos — including the other models — was of their bodies, and those two are known for being in those positions a lot. I’ve never heard of anyone crying foul about LeBron making that face on the basketball court or people saying anything bad about Gisele except some envious people like myself about her beauty.
But I think it was putting the two of them together in those poses that caused the controversy.
DF: Why did you decide to weigh in on the subject with a blog comment?
Chastain: It struck me because everybody is going to have their opinion about it. I learned that in ’99. No matter what I said, I could never convince everyone why I [took off my jersey]. People always say, “You meant to do it, it was a setup.”
I will never convince everyone that it was just exuberance, enjoyment, excitement. There will always be someone out there to make a counter opinion.
A father said to me one time, “Why did you do that? I can’t let my daughter walk around in jog bra.” I said, “Do you take daughter to beach?” He said yes. I asked if he let her wear a bathing suit, and he said yes. So I said, “Yet you have a problem with it here?”
I’m never going to argue that we should all think alike. Things like this open the door to conversations that we wouldn’t have had if the picture had not come out. And that’s a good thing. Pretending something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
DF: What, if anything, surprised you about the other comments?
Chastain: I think what surprised me the most — and it was good — is that there’s a lot of passion out there. People feel very strongly about things, and the passion came out on this topic.
I was like, “Wow, there are a lot of different opinions out there, some of which I hadn’t even thought about.” Conversation is good — you might not agree with everyone, but at least it gives you a chance to contemplate someone else’s ideas. You get to challenge your own beliefs or philosophy, so it’s positive.
The “r” word is a scary word to me — I don’t like to say it. I’m not trying to say it doesn’t exist. It’s incredibly inflammatory and invites a lot of awful mistakes and injustices that have happened and still do happen. It’s a word that has been thrown around in a way that incites a lot of bad feelings in most people.
And I have to be quite sure that the people who decided to put that photo on the front in no way thought that this would be the commentary from that picture. I have to think that they said, “Here’s a picture that depicts them in what they do best — he plays basketball and she’s a supermodel.” Sometimes we make things be out of context.
Would I have loved to see Gisele carrying LeBron? Of course. One, it would be funny. Two, I’m sure she’s quite smart, she speaks a few languages and is very powerful in her occupation. She has a lot of strengths, and that picture doesn’t show those things.
So if a young girl were to see that photo, I wonder what she would say. From my perspective, it was more a gender issue than a race issue.
DF: There are obvious differences between the Vogue cover and your covers. ... Most significantly, LeBron and Gisele were models and you were reacting to a moment in the heat of a game. But you can relate to the idea that a photo of you became a phenomenon in which people could project their own meanings and interpretations to the photo. ... What was that like?
Chastain: For me, my basic comment to anyone who asked me about it was that I was actually excited to have the conversations. It gave us a chance to talk about issues, and it always came back to soccer. So it was an open-door invitation to talk about the picture but also other things.
LeBron and Gisele can sound off with their own opinions, if they want to. But it’s not up to them to have everybody feel peace and harmony from it. They have to know that they got what they wanted from it and are happy with it. I’m fairly certain that those pictures had to have been reviewed by them at some point. I assume they were quite comfortable with it. If they weren’t, then that’s another story.
DF: But the notion that an image of you is beamed out around the world, giving people the chance to talk about you from their perspectives ... and that you essentially surrender control of your own image to the world. How strange was that?
Chastain: It’s surreal, to be sure. Sometimes exhausting, to be honest. You’re just trying to be yourself, and for me, playing soccer was being myself. One day, you’re one person on a team. The next thing you know, people are asking your opinion about things you’re not an expert on.
Because they recognize you, they think you must know something about something — which isn’t necessarily the case. People will now ask LeBron and Gisele about race — something they may or may not be prepared to respond to. If they say, “I don’t know” — which is a great answer if you don’t know the answer — that’s a dangerous place to be.
DF: Is there a particular question that stands out that you answered that you shouldn’t have answered?
Chastain: I’m fairly certain I said a few things that upset people or maybe didn’t take enough time to think thoroughly about the question. But what I’ve really learned is to be open to listen to other people’s opinions and then question my own thoughts. And learn how to talk to people. The biggest gift from having one of these moments is that it gets people talking.
DF: How did things change for you and your teammates between ’91, when you won the World Cup largely in anonymity, and the ’99 World Cup, when you played in front of huge crowds and got so much attention?
Chastain: I think it all started in 1996, which was the first time women’s soccer was in Olympics. Even though they only showed about 30 seconds of one of our games [on TV], it was like our inauguration into the world of sports in America.
People will cheer for anything USA here, and that gave us an invitation to the ball, to be talked about and tossed around on ESPN or talk radio. Even though it was eight years, it started to happen after ’96. It opened a lot of people’s eyes to what a great group of people it was and how hard we worked.
It meant a great deal to the huge community of soccer players, and soccer moms, and soccer dads. It was great.
But it wasn’t all positive. I can’t tell you how many interviews I did where I’d have somebody hammering soccer and I’m trying to keep a steady voice and not become angry or break down or too passionate. We didn’t change everybody’s mind, but that’s fine.
Having your picture splashed around on pages where millions of people see it – all of a sudden, it’s that celebrity thing that I was talking about where people think you know things. People ask you questions as if you’re an expert. That, to me, was the most confusing and most troubling.
DF: How often does someone mention the sports bra?
Chastain: If not once a day, every other day.
DF: Does that ever tiresome?
Chastain: No! I love it, because it’s all about soccer! It’s just the crack in the door I need to talk about soccer, about getting young girls involved in sports, about getting our government to see the necessity for phys-ed for kids.
DF: What are you doing now?
Chastain: First and foremost, I’m a new mom [she and husband Jerry Smith have a 21-month old son, Jaden Chastain Smith — ed.], and I’m loving motherhood. It’s way harder than soccer, but I love a challenge.
I also run a non-profit with Marlene Bjornsrud called the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI — pronounced “BOSSY”) www.bawsi.org.
We work with girls, trying to inject the message of how important being active in your life is. We’re not trying to make world champions or professional athletes, we’re just showing girls the positive ramifications of good health and physical fitness, showing them how it will help their education and their lives.
Best of all, it’s a chance to keep me on the playground!
I do other things like corporate engagements, speeches, and I still work with Nike. But I focus a lot on BAWSI.
DF: The Beijing Olympics are coming up ... this will be the first time women’s soccer will be contested at the olympics without you ... how does that make you feel?
Chastain: That’s hard. It’s sad for me, because I’d love to still be out there. Personally, I have a lot of heaviness in my heart about that, but I’m still a fan, and I’ll be rooting them on. I’ll also be doing commentary for NBC, so that should be fun.
DF: How do you rate the U.S. team’s chances?
Chastain: I just saw that they were re-rated as the number one team in the world. They won the Algarve Cup, beating Denmark 2-1 in the final, so their chances are very good.
The Olympics, as compacted and high-pressure as it is, changes things. The pressure becomes a little bit higher and the results less predictable.
But the team has a new coach [Pia Sundhage] with a great positive outlook on the game. She has only had a short time to get her team prepared, so that’s the biggest challenge. When changes need to be made or management has to deal with young or inexperienced players, that’s when you see what your team’s made of.