Teenage boys cheered, chanted and held poster board signs for high-profile gymnast Olivia Dunne in the Huntsman Center last Friday — even though the Louisiana State star wasn’t competing against the Utah Red Rocks, due to an injury.
Dunne has more followers on social media than any other college athlete in the country, counting more than 9.5 million across TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. Her online presence is reportedly worth more than $2.5 million in name, image and likeness, or NIL, endorsements.
After the meet, more than 50 boys waited for the 20-year-old to come out of the center’s tunnel to the team bus, with many chanting “Livvy! Livvy! Livvy!” As a camera moved closer, several of the boys shouted fiercely, “Give us Livvy!” and “We want Livvy! We want her!”
ESPN sideline reporter Samantha Peszek filmed and posted a video of the scene with the caption, “This is actually so scary and disturbing and cringey (sic). I’m embarrassed for them...”
The video went viral and, in the days since, has sparked criticism and debate about the crowd’s behavior and whether it crossed a line.
“That video was kind of terrifying,” said Maile O’Keefe, a senior on the Utah team. “Even some of my teammates said that when they were leaving the arena, they were getting harassed by them [saying] ‘You’re not Livvy, where’s Livvy? Oh my gosh, give me Livvy.’ So that’s just kind of a scary aspect to the fact that these young men or boys are already kind of perceiving their actions as OK.”
Kathy Johnson Clarke, an ESPN and SEC Network gymnastics commentator, said the scene inside and outside the Huntsman Center was atypical. “This was shocking and unanticipated for us,” Clarke said.
But it wasn’t a surprise to everyone.
Utah coach Tom Farden said the Utah program was aware of Dunne’s popularity and had extra measures in place, including a plan to get her out of the arena without having to deal with a crowd of fans.
“Every stop she makes it is like a rock star,” he said. “Wherever [the LSU Tigers] go next, they need to be prepared.”
The new level of celebrity for student athletes raises safety issues, he said.
“In terms of keeping the athletes safe, this is a new phenomenon with the NIL and social media and we are trying to do our part to realize what is going on and navigate through this landscape,” Farden said. U. gymnast Grace McCallum “has a lot of followers, too,” he noted, “and there is something to that brand power.”
‘They were drawing attention away’
Dunne’s only public comments about the incident have come on Twitter. On Sunday, she wrote, “I will always appreciate and love the support from you guys, but if you come to a meet, I want to ask you to please be respectful of the other gymnasts and the gymnastics community as we are just doing our job.”
LSU did not respond to a request for further comment, but head coach Jay Clark told WAFB 9Sports in Baton Rouge that the fans who were screaming for Dunne were distracting.
“They made themselves very, very much part of the environment,” Clark said. “And they were drawing attention away from what was going on on the floor. They were constant inopportune noise coming from where they were and they moved around an awful lot in the arena.”
Other gymnasts said they felt disrespected by what they deemed a disruptive atmosphere at the meet.
“It’s disappointing that those people kind of disrespect the athletes and that’s never nice to see,” Utah sophomore gymnast Amelie Morgan told Fox 13. “She’s just like us, she’s another gymnast, another teammate. She’s doing exactly the same thing.
“She must love the support and she’s done amazing for herself, but when there’s disrespectful comments it’s kind of a shame, especially when you’re working hard to perform for those fans.”
The SEC Network’s Clarke, a former Olympic gymnast, said the situation at the Red Rocks meet should be a “teachable moment” for the boys at the meet and other new fans to the sport.
“They are not just pretty women with leotards. These are athletes,” Clarke said. “They are doing an athletic event. They are competing. They have earned college scholarships. And now with NIL, they have responsibilities with contracts. They are being professional. That’s what they are.”
LSU’s coach said, “Liv wants to take the time, and we want to allow her and all of our student athletes, to have time to interact with fans and those kinds of things.” But after the meet, among the boys waiting for Dunne to leave the arena, “there was a level of intensity that … I just found to be inappropriate,” Clark said.
There was “a mob-like kind of feel to that out there,” he said, “and that was disconcerting to me as someone who takes the responsibility for the welfare of our kids.”
‘A celebrity crush’
One 15-year-old who went to the meet told The Salt Lake Tribune he had followed Dunne on TikTok and hoped she would follow him back. “It’s almost like a celebrity crush,” the boy’s mother said in an interview. The Tribune has decided to not identify the underage boys.
The teen and about 10 of his friends attended with his twin sister and his parents. The teens cheered loudly during and after the meet, they said. At one point, the teens moved to the top of the arena with other boys who had gathered there so they wouldn’t disturb other fans too much, the mother said.
“They’re just teenage boys having fun,” she said. “I just don’t think at any time it was overly disrespectful. They did what they were asked to do. They didn’t cause any problems.”
Dunne took a selfie with a group of boys, including the 15-year-old and his friends, after the meet. She also gave him the follow on TikTok he’s been wanting for months, and he posted about it.
Then the 15-year-old and his friends and family awoke Saturday morning to comments describing boys who attended the meet as “creepy” and calling the behavior of the group “disgusting” or “embarrassing.”
The backlash surprised them — and has led them to reflect on the night, they said.
“We like Livvy,” the 15-year-old said. “We wouldn’t do anything wrong. … She’s famous. It’s like what you would see at a Justin Bieber concert or something.”
Still, he said, he now feels like boys at the meet “could have been a lot more respectful. When you get a big group of like teenagers like that, it can get a little out of hand. And I understand boys can maybe sound a little more aggressive, or ... it seems a little more threatening.”
His mother added: “We’re terribly sorry that people were offended, and that if it distracted the gymnasts, we would make sure it didn’t happen again. That was not our intent, and we do apologize for that.”
The 15-year-old and his parents were present outside the arena after the meet, too. The mother said it appeared as though the large group of boys who gathered there became more rambunctious when they realized someone was taking video of them.
The 15-year-old said he will “probably not” attend any more Red Rocks gymnastic meets, largely due to the social media reaction. But one of his friends feels differently.
“The meets are fun,” the 14-year-old said. “I think I wouldn’t mind going to more meets at the U., just to actually watch the gymnasts.”
Reporter Lya Wodraska contributed to this story.