It’s been a big week for Mo’Ne Davis. Since the 13-year-old South Philly baseball player pitched a shutout to send her team to the Little League World Series last week, she’s amassed 17,000 Twitter followers, attracted praise from Billie Jean King and Lil Wayne, been claimed as a role model for little girls across America, and, this week, ascended to the cover of Sports Illustrated. The magazine elevates Davis to legend status: “Remember her name,” the cover line reads. “(As if we could ever forget).”
That's a bold parenthetical for a magazine that's never seemed particularly committed to supporting female athletes in the long run. Davis cemented her place in sports history on Friday when she became the first girl in the LLWS to pitch a shutout, hurling 70-mile-an-hour fastballs that flummoxed the boys. (She's also just the 18th girl out of the 9,000 total kids who have competed in the LLWS, and the first female pitcher to win a LLWS game, period.) Landing the SI cover marks an additional conquest of typically male territory. Of the 73 covers SI has published this year, Davis' cover is only the sixth to feature a female athlete. Davis is currently the sole female athlete appearing on the Sports Illustrated home page, alongside around 50 male athletes or prominent sports figures. The other women on the home page are an NFL cheerleader, a model wearing a swimsuit, and another model getting an ice bucket dumped over her head. Where are Mo'Ne Davis' role models?
Davis is both an exceptional athlete and an exceptionally self-possessed 13-year-old. (“Throwing 70 miles an hour: That’s throwing like a girl,” she told CBS News in a typically, impossibly cool sound bite.) She’s also evidence of just how exceptional a female athlete’s story has to be to get traditional sports media to take notice. As SI managing editor Chris Stone put it: “She's a lot of things to a lot of different people, all of them good things: a totem for inner-city baseball, a role model for your 10-year-old niece, a role model for your 10-year-old nephew” (not to mention a “feminist meme,” according to SI writer Albert Chen). Stone added: “How often do you get to say this about a 13-year-old girl? It's the easiest type of story to identify as a cover story.”
Davis’ story definitely does satisfy every point on the sportswriter’s narrative checklist. She plays a boy’s sport, which is still a requirement for making most people care. (I’m sure the Little League Softball World Series offers its own totems of inner-city softball and plenty of wonderful role models for 10-year-old girls, if anyone paid attention.) Davis’ status as a girl in a boy’s sport also makes her a pioneer, a record-breaker, and an underdog. Her youth makes her a prodigy and ensures that her story is as-yet-untold. She’s so young that her future is full of glittering possibility: Chen notes that Keith Olbermann held a “serious debate” on ESPN2 as to whether Davis could ever play in Major League Baseball.
Yet the most likely scenario is that Davis has no future in professional baseball. That, too, is a narrative gift: It means that Davis is almost certainly at the peak of her baseball career at this very moment. It will take decades to find out which of Davis’ competitors in the LLWS will peter out in high school or college or the minors, and which ones will ascend to become Major League stars. Meanwhile, Davis’ meteoric narrative presents a tightly wound plot that could play out in the space of a couple of weeks. Mo'Ne Davis' story is truly compelling, but it's a little cynical for SI to be suddenly enamored of this rare girl who can win at a man's sport for only a brief moment, before returning to its regularly scheduled programming (largely, men winning at men's sports).
I hope Sports Illustrated keeps its promise of remembering Davis' name after her Little League days are over, but somehow, I doubt it. And I hope that all the young female athletes who are hanging on Davis’ every pitch will someday have a better chance at making the cover themselves. As for Davis, her team hits the field again tonight, but she's already preparing for a role in a different tale: She has her heart set on playing point guard at UConn, and one of her coaches swears she’s “five times better at basketball” than she is at pitching.