The disparity in pay between the genders will only disappear once society lets go of the ridiculous notion that sports is just for men, says Binit Priyaranjan.
“If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”Raymond Moore, Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO, spoke these infamous words in March during a press conference at the BNP Paribas Open—usually just another stop on the yearlong itinerary of the global tennis tour, which was put on the map this year by his comments, where he also suggested that women’s tennis “rode on the coat-tails of the men”.
Almost immediately, and rightfully so, angry sparks began to fly, such as Serena Williams’ reaction of Moore’s comments being “offensive and very inaccurate” or Martina Navratilova’s comment that they were “extremely prejudiced”. Moore apologised, even quit his post, but then Novak Djokovic urged his male compatriots to push for more money for the males as they drew more crowds, forgetting that Serena had pointed out just days before how the women’s final of the US Open last year had sold out even before the men’s final.
So the mouthpiece was shut but the speech remained, even as the media and people’s outrage found a more-visible, more glamorous target. There were debates on both sides, Novak apologised, and mere weeks later the same issue appeared again, this time in US soccer, with the women’s team moving the court for their shot at equal pay, even as similar cases in almost all sports remain begging to be filed.
Don’t shoot the messengerAfter the backlash, Djokovic admitted that his comment was a misappropriation of words courtesy adrenaline and excitement. Typically, these are the heady circumstances in which repressed truths come out, and that is all that Novak’s fault in the matter is: that he, absent-mindedly perhaps, expressed an opinion that many have upheld and argued before him in the field of all sport, not just tennis.
True, his statements deserved the criticism they got, but they were the words of a dedicated athlete—a performer who spends an awful lot of time in training and competition in circuits where he is often told that he has to be the best man; where he is the star; where the worst in the business play like the girls. He would then see the audience and management staff proving his hypothesis in the stands, and the numbers in the bank could seem to him upon first glance to be reflective of the chatter doing the rounds in all sport: better pay for better play.
A phenomenon greater than sportNovak’s statement is nothing but a Freudian slip. It is a mould that has often mushroomed in sport, and almost as often it has been investigated how to get rid of it once and for all. One look at the women’s cricket World T20, or the women’s Chess World Championship, or the women’s US soccer team that has raised its more-than-solid claim for equality basis performance, and the matter is unapologetically settled.
Novak’s statement is nothing but a Freudian slip. It is a mould that has often mushroomed in sport, and almost as often it has been investigated how to get rid of it once and for all.
The prize money for the women’s T20 was $400,000 while the men’s was $5.6 million. In chess the difference is five times between the men and women, with respective prize money of £200,000 and £1 million each. In football, men’s teams often makes more for losing than the women do for winning their game, failing which they make nothing at all in most matches.
Today, the gap in pay for women exists in all conceivable sports, sometimes in inconceivable amounts. All major sports show disproportionate rifts in remuneration, with the male athletes in sports like soccer and cricket making as much as eight to ten times their female counterparts.
The argument given to support the status-quo is that women in sport piggyback on the men, that women’s sport is somehow inferior and therefore draws fewer crowds. On the surface, it could be a sufficiently shrewd-capitalist response to the disparity in pay. It was the argument of Messrs Moore and Novak, and while there exist other arguments, this one is by far the most popular.
One need only see Serena Williams’ 21 Grand Slam titles (much more than Federer or Djokovic) or watch the three-time world champion US women’s soccer team in action to see that there is not much to say by way of the misogynistic “women can’t play” argument.
One need only see Serena Williams’ 21 Grand Slam titles (much more than Federer or Djokovic) or watch the three-time world champion US women’s soccer team in action to see that there is not much to say by way of the misogynistic “women can’t play” argument, but the staunch still reserve an ace up their sleeve in saying, “Even the best amongst women can’t play as well as the men.” Billy Jean King’s triumph over Bobby Riggs in the five-set match dubbed “The Battle of The Sexes” in 1973 should have settled this debate once and for all, but there again the men’s challenger was in his 50s, although Riggs was the one who had pompously issued the challenge in the first place. Owing to such technicalities, the argument, however chauvinistic, is impossible to settle clearly, but it still doesn’t explain why the women get less than the men even at lower division levels.
Also pointed out is the effort involved (like in Grand Slam tennis, where women play three sets to the men’s five), but again, the disparity exists even in sports like football, hockey and chess, where women do as much work as the men for the same amount of time, often in worse conditions.
Moreover, women’s sport has produced sportswomen, legends like Martina Navratilova, Mary Kom, Judit Polgar or Mia Hamm, and spectacular sporting moments to those who have watched it. It’s just that painfully few have watched because they were already convinced their time was better spent watching the men dabble than the women play.
Institutionalised discriminationSo what is it about the female game that just attracts fewer eyeballs? This question is peculiarly best answered by people totally unfamiliar with female sport—those who haven’t actually seen women play competitively, but already have a notion that women can’t play, not as well as the men anyway. Sport has always had gladiatorial allegories, and one must remember the gladiator’s fate was in the hands of the crowd.
An audience, after all, is made up of paying customers and therefore can demand spectacle or boycott the sport if it proves unentertaining. In professional sport, that translates to fewer tickets sold, fewer bucks made, fewer jobs created, depleted equipment & training staff, making a bleak enough picture bleaker still for a woman considering a career in sport.
Women’s sport has faced the ill temper of the crowd, but is it true that women’s sport is not as competitive, skilled or entertaining? The question could be honestly answered if the women were on a level playing field with the men, with similar levels of funding and support. As it stands, though, fewer female talents pursue the sport, not because some association is biased against them (which happens and is happening plenty enough), but because plain economics is their obstacle; plain misogyny is their foe.
For example, the implementation of Title IX, which wrote equal opportunity across gender into law in federally funded sports programmes in America in 1972, saw programmes such as wrestling and cross-country being cancelled for both genders in many universities because they could not afford equality even if they wanted to, since women’s sports didn’t make enough.
For example, the implementation of Title IX, which wrote equal opportunity across gender into law in federally funded sports programmes in America in 1972, saw programmes such as wrestling and cross-country being cancelled for both genders in many universities because they could not afford equality even if they wanted to, since women’s sports didn’t make enough. Title IX’s failure makes for a great example that equality in opportunity cannot be forcefully implemented until it is backed up by the correct environment and revenue-generation, which depends on the crowd.
Self-fulfilling prophecyThe presence of pay disparity in all sports, even in the face of obvious refutations of the reasons supporting it, demonstrates that the issue is bigger than sport itself. It’s a cultural mindset that is producing the inefficiency and mediocrity it is accusing sportswomen of by erecting obstacles in training, motivation, and even execution of their full potential, like the crowd’s opinion in the Colosseum dictated the fate of its gladiators. It is forcing sportswomen to do more endorsements to make huge chunks of their salary; it is taking away facilities and coaching staff before pointing out to the players that their play is not up to scratch, which—despite the obstacles in the way—remains a bogus claim.
Therefore, before anything changes on the ground, this mindset needs to change first, and it comes with encouraging our women and girls to take up sport with the same vigour as we do our men and boys. It’ll require more bats and less Barbies, more daddies playing catch with their daughters, and more sporting contests and fewer beauty pageants, before these changes reflect themselves in the circumstances of women’s sport.
Therefore, before anything changes on the ground, this mindset needs to change first, and it comes with encouraging our women and girls to take up sport with the same vigour as we do our men and boys.
The pay disparity is a symptom; it is the fungus that signifies that something is in decay. Treating it will have to go beyond shutting the mouthpieces of the arguments and transferring blame on associations or federations who need to function on the basis of a financial structure independent of social equality.
Like all gladiatorial allegories, the measure of the gladiator’s renown is gauged from the crowd; it is merely reflected in his price.