For 10 days in August, 13-year-old starting pitcher Mo’Ne Davis captivated America with her incredible 70-mph fastball and by waving her fingers after every strikeout. As much as her athletic abilities were on display, so were Davis’s confidence, competitiveness and drive on the mound for the Taney Dragons during the Little League World Series. Only the fourth girl to participate in the series’ history, Davis was the first to ever win a game and pitch a shutout.
She was also one of the youngest athletes ever to grace a cover of Sports Illustrated and was featured in an ESPN Sport Science segment that broke down her mechanics and how closely her skills compared to Major Leaguers. Even President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama praised Davis for her barrier-busting and gender stereotype-defying performance.
Now, unlike most every amateur athlete in fear of violating the NCAA’s draconian eligibility rules, Davis takes center stage in a 60-second commercial directed by Academy Award-nominated auteur Spike Lee entitled “I Throw Like A Girl” for titan automaker Chevrolet.
Lee actually put together a 16-minute documentary, which was whittled down to 60 seconds and premiered during Game 1 of the the World Series Tuesday.
According to Chevy communications manager Cristi Vazquez, Lee approached Davis and her family and pitched the documentary. All parties were comfortable with the idea, and it was shot over three days in south Philadelphia, Davis’s hometown, featuring interviews with her family, baseball, and basketball coach and some of her local fans.
“We’re always looking for cultural moments, to help celebrate and this was obviously a great one this summer,” Vazquez said in phone interview. “We really wanted to sort of celebrate the possibility that she’s opened up for a lot of girls and a lot of people around the world.”
In the past, neither Chevy nor Lee could have told Davis’s story for fear of the NCAA. Prior to entering college and throughout their stays on campus, athletes are prohibited from profiting from their likenesses or skills, fearing the NCAA will revoke their amateur status. However, the NCAA’s foundation is slowly cracking and, coincidentally, Davis’s rise to fame occurred only days after a federal court judge ruled against the organizing body and its powers to limit what basketball and football players can receive for the use of their images, names, and likenesses.
That decision could have figured into the NCAA stating Davis’s eligibility won’t be impacted for receiving an undisclosed payment for appearing in the commercial.
"Since January, NCAA Division 1 membership gave staff more flexibility to consider unique circumstances when determining eligibility," according to an NCAA statement. "The NCAA staff's decision was made within this process and based on a combination of considerations. This waiver narrowly extends the rules – which allow Davis to accept the payment and still be eligible in any other sport – to include baseball. The NCAA staff also considered the historically limited opportunities for women to participate in professional baseball. In addition, Davis is much younger than when the vast majority of the prospect rules apply. While this situation is unusual, the flexible approach utilized in this decision is not."
It’s a far cry from the recent allegations against college football stars Todd Gurley and Jameis Winston for allegedly accepting payments for autographs.
Vazquez said that Chevrolet and Lee’s boutique ad agency Spike DDB, which produced the spot, made sure to get proper clearance from the NCAA so as not to endanger Davis’s eligibility. Davis, her coach, and family, all say in the documentary that she’s even better on the court than on the diamond. She dreams of one day playing for the University of Connecticut, a women's college basketball powerhouse.
However, there are limits that Davis, and those recruiting her, cannot breach. Nine-time NCAA champion and UConn coach Geno Auriemma was accused of a recruiting violation by a rival school after he called to congratulate Davis for her performance in the series in September. It’s that kind of red tape and program back-biting that could have shut down any talk of a major advertising campaign, and something Davis will have to be wary of in the future.
The ad, however, isn’t focused on Davis possibly being the first amateur athlete to receive payment for her athletic abilities and avoid any negative impact on her future in college athletics. Technically, she is not the first major female athlete to capitalize on her fame at a young age, with U.S. gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strugg both appearing on the coveted “Wheaties” box after capturing their Olympic gold medals. However, neither Retton nor Strugg were worried about NCAA violations after achieving the highest accolade possible in their sport and bypassing college competition altogether. Davis instead must abide by the NCAA’s rules in order to play college ball and gain the exposure and experience necessary to play in the WNBA.
And even after reaching the professional ranks Davis isn’t assured of a major pay day like an endorsement deal from one of the world’s leading car manufacturers. Meanwhile, the maximum a WNBA player can make in a single season is $107,000.
Also, according to Kristen Stippich, Senior Vice President of marketing and public relations firm Airfoil Group, the current national exposure and hype doesn’t assure Davis of a better brand or marketability in the future.
“The commercial will certainly raise awareness for Davis and make her more top of mind as she continues through her career. While it may give her an edge by opening up more opportunities at the onset, long-term success would – and should – still rely on her tenacity and skill as an athlete versus her awareness within the media,” wrote Stippich in an email to International Business Times. “Every day we see athletes that receive a lot of hype in the media get drafted high in their respective sport, and go on to do very little in a professional sports capacity based on their inability to make good on the hype they received. “
The spot is about empowerment, with Davis understanding the example she’s setting for young women across the country. It also could give Chevy a better foothold in the female consumer market.
“Creatively what I like about this commercial is the subtle tension created by the visuals and music juxtaposed against the traditional perceptions of young women,” Stippich wrote. “This all pays off in the final line: ‘that’s throwing like a girl.’ It is clear Chevy is trying to soften their image to be more female-friendly.”
At such a young age, Davis has the opportunity to quickly place her name alongside a rather short list of prominently known female athletes. Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, both of whom are nearing the end of their careers, and NASCAR’s Danica Patrick are some of the bigger names. After 10 days in the national spotlight, Davis might be approaching their ranks.
The full documentary can be found here.