By Kenneth Haskins
The past 100 years has seen the rise of a completely new competitor in the sports arena: the female athlete. Professional sports constantly struggles to balance the need for a redistribution of wealth so that both genders are fairly compensated while also balancing their checkbooks. Stereotypes are being built as quickly as they are being torn down, and I want to analyze why. How are women being treated, whose fault is it, and what implications does this discrepancy in income show in the society we live in today?
Women have been excluded from sports as long as sports have occurred. They were not allowed to compete in the first Olympics, and still today fight the same sort of exclusion. A few sports started the trend though: Mary, Queen of Scots, played golf in her spare time (though she was chastised for it as her husband had only died three days earlier), the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament allowed women singles at the 1884 competition, and Wellesley College requires its women to have physical education in 1875. But all in all, women’s sports has consistently taken a backseat to male athletics. Look today at the pay gap between Male and Female professional sports: PGA Men’s total purse money in 2015 summed to greater than $340 million, as compared to the meek $61 million made by female athletes in the LPGA. The maximum salary of WNBA players, $975,000, pales In comparison to the $16 million maximum for NBA athletes. Women are being subject to discrimination systematically through all sports, whether it is in prize money, endorsement deals, or specifically how they are represented once they take those deals, and opportunities for athletes once they leave the collegiate or Olympic level of competition.
This leads in to one of the most prolific names of the past year in women’s athletics: Ronda Rousey. She has dominated almost every opponent she has faced, going 12-1, with 9 submissions and 3 knockouts. With the exception of her recent defeat at the hands of Holly Helm, Rousey has been a lethal force in the MMA circuit. This level of success, as well as an intense yet likeable demeanor, has landed her massive media coverage and prominence in sporting news. And yet, even with her amazing performances in the ring, when she is seen in a magazine, portrayed in movies, or on tv, she is usually portrayed as sexual being, exemplified by her spread in the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. With all of her prowess, we still are only able to see her as a body to gawk at instead of the amazing athlete that she really is.
This provides a lot of insight into the world of sports, and especially the people that view them. Sports exist today so that companies, owners, and athletes can make money. Without money, the leagues and constructs we have built to entertain the masses will crumble. So why are women athletes being portrayed like their only value is of the eye? In my opinion, it shows that women in general, and not just sports, are valued for things other than their abilities in a respective field. Without women being portrayed as these beautiful beings, who also play sports, men in our modern society will not pay the money to see them perform.
In order to get men to pay to see a football game, the women are put in lingerie. The second the women’s soccer team wins the world cup, you see photos of Alex Morgan and Hope Solo in bikinis and revealing dresses. They can’t just be champions, because female champions don’t sell.
Men are causing this misrepresentation of athletic achievement because in most minds they would rather look at a hot girl than watch an amazing athlete, and this is reflective of how they spend their money. The owners can’t afford to have women paid the same as men, so they pay them less. With a mandate like “Women will be paid NBA salaries”, you would see the WNBA go bankrupt. If men would figure out that the level of competition was the same or comparable to male athletics, then maybe we would see that pay gap shrink.
But this begs the question: Why are men not watching? Sure, they see women as objects of beauty and not athletes, but why? Some would say it is simply because the level of the play is not the same, and male athletes perform better than females, so female athletes better do something additional if they want to be watched. Others would say that it isn’t men’s fault that they want to see attractive women because we are wired that way, so if women want men to watch, it comes with the territory. I say otherwise.
I think because women have been trivialized for so long, men still see them as lesser, and the only way that women can get attention is through their bodies. And I think this reflects badly on both men and women. Yes, men are acting reproachfully by demanding to see women as attractive instead of professional, but also, women are allowing themselves to be perceived this way.
If the only way that professional female athletes ever presented themselves was as athletes, wouldn’t that then get rid of the issue? Men can’t see you as a sexual object if you don’t present yourself as one, right? I wish it were this simple, but women have the right to do whatever they choose. And can you blame a woman who feels empowered by being beautiful to then tell them “If you want equality, make yourself ugly?”
I think where the change will come from is when men and women begin to be equals in society, and when the perception of women as a whole changes, so will the inequalities in sports. And this brings to mind a parting thought: Is sports a reflection of society, or is it a tool to change society? I would hope the latter.