Scenes of young men screaming for college gymnastics star Olivia Dunne have been described as “scary, disturbing and cringey”, with the gymnast herself telling them to show some respect.

Fans screamed “give us Livvy” and “we want her” outside a meet between Dunne’s Louisiana State University (LSU) and Utah, in which she did not actually compete.

Dunne stood on the side of the mat — cheering on her teammates competing in their season-opening loss to Utah over the weekend — while fans in the stands chanted for her and held up signs and even a cardboard cut-out of her on the red carpet at the ESPY sport awards.

The 20-year-old was seen taking selfies with the fans after the competition, but took issue with their conduct.

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One of the signs held by those in the stands read “LSU without Livvy isn’t even top 25”, using her social media handle and referring to the sixth-placed ranking of Dunne’s college.

The 2008 Beijing Olympic silver medal-winning gymnast and now broadcaster, Samantha Pezsek, shared a video of the scenes greeting her as she left the Jon M Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, saying the way the fans were clamouring for Dunne was “so scary and disturbing”.

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Commentator and two-time Olympic medallist Kathy Johnson Clarke said she was also unsettled by the desperation of those at the arena for Dunne.

“They were screaming to me ‘Are you Livvy’s mom? Are you Livvy’s mom?’,” she tweeted.

“Very disturbing. Creepy, actually.”

Local reporter Josh Furlong said LSU had to move their team bus and had police as security to avoid the group, while LSU coach Jay Clark told local media a security officer would travel with the team for the rest of the season.

“[They] will be there to create a perimeter that keeps everybody safe,” he told The New Orleans Advocate/Times-Picayune.

Fans hold up signs for LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne during an NCAA gymnastics meet at Utah.
Signs in the stands spoke about how desperate people were to see and get a photo with Olivia Dunne.(Getty Images: Alex Goodlett)

“We want to be accessible to our fans with autographs and kids, but we also don’t want to bury our heads in the sand. We want to make sure everybody is safe at all times.”

He said the practice of gymnasts going into the stands to greet family and friends could not go ahead if fans were not brought under control.

“Things have to change. We just can’t expose them,” Clark said.

“We’re looking at some policy changes that will give parents access at a different location to their daughters.”

So, who is Olivia Dunne and how did the fandom get so raucous?

Who is Olivia Dunne?

Olivia Dunne jumps in the air as she cheers on LSU Gymnastics teammates against Utah.
Olivia Dunne sported a shoulder brace as she cheered on her LSU teammates in their season-opening loss.(Getty Images: Alex Goodlett)

The gymnast was on the elite pathway towards the Olympic level when she was earmarked by Louisiana State University (LSU) at about 10 or 11 years of age.

Like so many top junior gymnasts, injury slammed the brakes on her Olympic dreams, although — with a bit of perspective — she has said she was happy to avoid the “dysfunctional” US Gymnastics program.

“I got hurt when I was 15 or 16,” she said on a Barstool Sports podcast.

“My bone had died in my ankle and it fractured, so I kind of realised, maybe, this is not for me anymore and, maybe, I should just go to college and be healthy and be happy.”

She said she blew up on Instagram and TikTok when she posted videos during the COVID-19 quarantine, and that precipitated brand deals and lucrative contracts with management agencies, which grew her profile even more.

However, just a few years ago that would not have been an option.

How NIL rules blasted the @Livvy brand into the stratosphere

Olivia Dunne, seen from behind, speaks to fans at an NCAA gymnastics meet between LSU and Utah.
Olivia Dunne went over to speak to the fans and took selfies with them after the meet but there were more waiting for her outside.(Getty Images: Alex Goodlett)

US college athletes never used to be allowed to earn money from their exploits, and the logic behind not paying them started off sound enough.

Putting literal children at the centre of bidding wars is an ugly thought, and if the biggest schools could simply pay the most for the best athletes, they would just always win.

However, once the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) competitions became some of the most profitable — from a broadcast and gambling perspective — the first part of the term “student athlete” took a back seat for many.

A lot of college stars still study and, like communications major Dunne, can be recognised for their superior performance in their studies with places on student-athlete academic honour rolls.

However, there are only 24 hours in a day and, with big money on the line, particularly in football and basketball, training is often the priority.

The archaic and arcane rules became more toxic when a coach getting paid handsomely could not buy a hungry, overworked student lunch without some sort of accusation of impropriety.

There was also the uneasy tension of many coaches and staff being rich, white men and most athletes, particularly in football and basketball, being young black men not being paid for their services.

So, after decades of unpaid US college athletes earning millions of dollars for their schools and repeated pushback from higher-ups at the NCAA, the rules changed in 2021 to allow them to reap some reward for themselves.

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NIL (or name, image, likeness) rule changes meant the amateur athletes — who gain impossibly large prominence and train like pros — could actually make a living wage from their work via outside sources.

Dunne — who currently has just under 10 million followers on TikTok and Instagram — was immediately earmarked as one of the likely biggest beneficiaries of these new NIL measures.

Only a few days after brand deals were allowed, Dunne signed with activewear company Vuori and has continued on from there, sitting seventh among college athletes in terms of NIL-earning potential, according to brand data tracker On3.

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She and 12th-ranked Olympic gold medallist Sunisa Lee, also a gymnast, are the only women in the top 30.

The ugly side of that fame

Dunne is not an idiot.

Despite her immense talent, she is aware that her looks are a big part of the reason she is the most-famous college gymnast in the country.

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As she told Barstool, the first videos that went viral were of her doing flips on a beach, adding with a laugh “in a bikini, in slow-motion”.

The opening question in that same Barstool interview saw her laugh off one of the interviewers’ questions about buying her bath water and joking about how he should stop the interview when she said she had a boyfriend.

She was 18 at the time.

Comments on social media posts by her and LSU Gymnastics are littered with sexually explicit replies regarding Dunne, and/or remarks focusing solely on her and diminishing or disrespecting her teammates.

Dunne has often tried to put the focus back on others, singing the praises of fellow LSU stars and US Olympic medallists such as Lee and Simone Biles.

However, with her fame and income so wrapped up in her presence on social media, she has to stay plugged-in and posting in that space.

Hopefully, the uglier side of it stays on the right side of the barricades.