Sometimes when the Internet speaks, the big corporations listen.
Consider the case of Greg Louganis, the award-winning Olympic diver whose handsome mug has been conspicuously absent from a certain sports-inspired cereal box since the height of his record-breaking career in the 1980s.
“Never got a Wheaties box,” Louganis said in an HBO documentary about his life. “Their response was that I didn’t fit their wholesome demographics or whatever. Basically, being gay, or being rumored that I was gay.”
Shortly after the documentary aired, a Change.org petition popped up, garnering more than 43,000 signatures in support of Louganis earning his rightful place as the temporary visage on the breakfast of champions.
General Mills named Louganis as one of three athletes who “haven’t yet received the honor of being on a Wheaties box for their past athletic achievements.”
According to a blog post announcement, Louganis will be joined by Janet Evans, an Olympic swimmer who held seven world records and four gold medals, and was celebrated for her short stature and unorthodox swimming style; and Edwin Moses, an eight-time gold medal-winning track-and-field Olympian who is also remembered for his innovations in reforming Olympic eligibility rules and drug-testing policies. Their respective individual boxes will be available from May through August 2016.
“Their accomplishments certainly put them into consideration for the cover of a Wheaties box at the time, along with several outstanding world champion athletes who were selected by the brand team in their era,” said Kevin Hunt, a social media manager for global communications at General Mills. “But today … there’s no time like the present for Janet Evans, Greg Louganis, and Edwin Moses.”
However, Mike Siemienas, manager of brand media relations at General Mills, made it clear that their decision to recognize these remarkable athletes after-the-fact was “not about who gets the most votes or who gets petitions.”
Whether the petition made a difference or not, General Mills missed a big opportunity with this announcement.
Look, we can’t presume to know what goes on behind closed doors at General Mills (although we’re pretty sure it involves lots of tasty cereal). But it does seem suspect that this announcement would come on the heels of Louganis’s heavily-publicized documentary and the petition it inspired.
On one hand, it makes sense that General Mills would want to save face and pretend this “throwback series” was just a nifty coincidence, rather than saying, “Yeah we totally screwed up by giving in to homophobia at the height of the AIDS scare in the ’80s. Our bad. But we can make it right now, so hey — better late than never!”
On the other hand: Imagine the kind of statement it would make if a major corporation stood up and said, “Discrimination is wrong. We made a mistake, and we’re sorry.”
Despite their egregious gaffe with Louganis, Wheaties does have a fairly positive history of diversity.
They broke ground with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the first female athlete to appear on the box in 1935, followed one year later by Jesse Owens, their first black athlete. They also recently made a special commemorative box to celebrate Evan Wolfson, a lawyer, gay rights activist, and founder of Freedom to Marry.
And of course, Caitlyn Jenner was a spokesperson for the company for even years (even if she wasn’t out at the time).
The fact that this new box collection of heroes from the past includes a black man, a woman, and an out gay man is still a major step forward for representation.
When people see other people like themselves being recognized for their accomplishments, it sends a message that they matter too.
But it doesn’t just matter to the world-at-large; it also means the world to the athletes, even if that recognition is a little after-the-fact.
“This means so much more than it would have back then,” Louganis told the New York Times. “Getting it now means people will see me as a whole person — a flawed person who is gay, HIV-positive, with all the other things I’ve been through.”