Column: Morgan loses more than clothes with Sports Illustrated cover shot

With the United States down 1-0 in the 88th minute against New Zealand last weekend, the nation’s fastest-rising soccer star buried two goals in quick succession to give America an unbelievable victory.

But the country’s eyes have been on 22-year-old Alex Morgan for a completely different reason: She is featured both on the cover and the inside pages of the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated. Although that might not seem astonishing, I should note it was not the normal edition of the publication.

Morgan posed nude (with body paint, mind you) in the magazine’s annual “Swimsuit Issue,” setting off an Internet firestorm of sports fans wondering 1) “Who is Alex Morgan?” and 2) “Why have I not been watching women’s soccer?”

Just four years out of high school, Morgan has instantly become one of the top sex symbols in women’s sports. Sure, she developed into a micro-celebrity during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, but the newly released photo catapults her into bona fide superstar status.

Economically, this is a gold mine for Morgan. Sponsorship dollars and Twitter followers will be pouring in by the thousands. But she now has to deal with the fact that about 90 percent of the people watching her play don’t give a single damn about her stat line.

The cost of her decision is obvious: She will forever be linked to this photo shoot.

Sure, there are good things that come from this. Logic says that since Morgan is in the spotlight, so is women’s soccer. The sport is terribly unpopular (Americans don’t respond well to something with both “women’s” and “soccer” in it) and only has a small cult following of people who are afraid to bring it up in normal conversation.

The picture at least has people talking, just like the snapshot of a bra-bearing Brandi Chastain in the 1999 World Cup. To this day, the majority of sports fans do not remember Chastain for a single thing she did on the field besides take off her shirt. Seeing as she was the hero of the biggest game in the sport’s American history, that’s a little sad.

Now, it’s Morgan’s decision to show off her body. She is a beautiful young woman who has every right to make people aware of it.

That being said, not every hot female athlete needs to prove her physical worth to society. Capitalizing on the public’s overwhelming desire for exposed skin is cheap and easy and has made stars out of young women like Alex Morgan, but that might not be what she wants in five years.

Popular female athletes tend to get pigeonholed in two categories: Those who are known for their hard work and talent (Mia Hamm, Maya Moore) and those who are known for their physical appearance (Danica Patrick, Anna Kournikova). Morgan no longer fits snugly into the first category.

When moments like her two-goal miracle against New Zealand happen in the future, most people will be asking about the most important stat of all, “Did she take her shirt off?”

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