As long as women remain segregated from men in sports, they will never be just athletes, always “female athletes.”
On June 14, millions of people around the world will gather in front of their TVs to witness the start of the world’s most glamorous sports competition: The World’s Richest Athletes. Some call it the World Cup, but that suggests the football is the most important feature of this spectacle, which opens at the Luzhniki Stadium in Russia’s capital, Moscow. What is really interesting is the formidable earnings of the 736 players, all of whom are men.
Last year, Lionel Messi, who will be playing for Argentina, earned $111m. The Portugal captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, was close with $108 million, while Brazil’s Neymar scraped by on a mere $90 million. All three lagged behind the year’s highest earning sportsman, Floyd Mayweather, who earned $275 million for just one night in the ring with Conor McGregor — himself in 4th place on the Forbes list, with $99 million.
The reader will have already spotted the common denominator here: All these high earners have low concentrations of estrogen. In recent years, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have made their presence felt but, for the first time in eight years, no women have made the top 100. Williams typically pulls in just under $30 million a year, but has taken time off to have a baby and, unlike the UK, the US has no statutory maternity pay (up to 39 weeks in Britain). Sharapova generates about $22 million, but has been suspended for a doping violation. Both should be in action for Wimbledon, where there is parity in prize money — £2.25 million, or $1.68 million — for the winners, though both women typically earn most of their income from advertising, licensing and other marketing endeavors.
The top earning female football player in the world is Brazil’s Marta, who earns $500,000 yearly, or about 0.45% of Messi’s annual haul. No one feels too sorry for her or indeed other elite female players — their income dwarfs the wages of most men. And, while there are always likely to be critics who complain the earnings of football players are “obscene,” it’s usually the complainants who pay their TV subscriptions and buy the products endorsed by the top earners.
Nine of Her
The disparity in earnings between men and women is an enduring debate, and no one doubts, first, that it still exists, and, second, that it reflects the wider gender gap in society. In other words, women are devalued compared to men. Even so, the colossal inequality in sports seems different: Let’s imagine Serena didn’t take her pregnancy break and had a good year, raking in $30m. That’s still less than 11% of Mayweather’s paycheck. Is he really worth nine of her?
The answer is, of course. As we stand in 2018, male athletes are more valuable than their female counterparts. This makes no allowance for ability, prowess, good looks or any other athletic or aesthetic considerations. There is only one decisive factor: the market. That’s the sports market.
In entertainment, the incongruity isn’t nearly so stark. Mark Wahlberg ($68 million in 2017), Dwayne Johnson ($65 million) and Vin Diesel ($54.5 million) head the men’s list, but Emma Stone earned a respectable $26 million last year, with Jennifer Aniston not far behind with $25.5 million, Jennifer Lawrence lagging with $24 million – a poor year for her. Scarlett Johansson has recently signed a deal with Marvel and Disney that will propel Black Widow (her character in the Avengers franchise) into the same echelons as top earning male actors.
In music, the gap is even smaller. While bands like U2 and Bon Jovi head the lists, the biggest earning solo artist is still Elton John. We can be sure that his motivation at 70 for undertaking is 102-performance “farewell” tour is not money; he earned $100 million last year alone. But not far behind him was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, known professionally as Lady Gaga, of course, with $90m; her 137-show tour in 22 countries grossed $170 million. Taylor Swift managed $45 million.
So, why does sport remain such a male dominion? Over the past decade or so, we’ve witnessed the global rise of women’s soccer, the emergence of LPGA stars such as Ariya Jutanugarn (annual earnings: $1.7 million) and Hyo Joo Kim ($577,500) and the explosive entry into combat of mixed martial arts fighters, the most resplendent of whom has been Ronda Rousey, who, in her best year, 2015, earned $6.5 million.
The answer is more obvious than you think: the binary. Women have historically been squeezed either to the margins or out of sports completely. They are arriving at the party very late in the day. There was no women’s marathon event in the Olympics until 1984, for example. Women were not allowed to box at the Olympics until 2012. Women still only play the best of three sets at the highest level of tennis. Few sports are integrated in a way that reflects the rest of society.
For most of the 20th century, sports has been haunted by what I once called the myth of frailty. Historically, women’s physical activity at all ages has been strictly circumscribed by doctors and physical educators. Despite the sea change in attitude toward women and girls in sports, among doctors today there were still vestiges of the once pervasive attitude that strenuous exercise is bad for a woman’s health, in particular her reproductive health.
This myth has been exorcised. But the institutional arrangements that were built to accommodate it remain. Women compete in parallel competitions to men, not alongside or against them. It offends even women whenever I suggest they could — and perhaps, in their own long-term interests, should — compete in men’s competitions. But that is what I believe would start a process to end the discrepancy in rewards. The traditional objection to this is that the physical advantage men are thought to have over women would distort competition, creating one-sided exhibitions instead of genuine sports.
But these physical differences are like what were once considered emotional and intellectual differences. In other words, they are exaggerated, if not downright false. Women’s bodies respond to training in the same ways as men’s. There may be a 5% difference in strength and power, and this could preclude women from competing head to head in a tiny number of sports, like weightlifting. In most sports, however, physical differences are less important than skill and, in sports, where women have been allowed to integrate, they fare well. Darts is the latest sport to desegregate.
Most women encourage gender fluidity; they need to let it flow into sport. As long as they remain segregated from men in sports, they will continue to be evaluated in a way that diminishes their status. They will never be just athletes, always “female athletes.”
*[Updated: June 7, 2018, at 00:10 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.