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Sports and Gender: Separate and Unequal

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Sports and Gender: Separate and Unequal

September 20, 1973 Billy Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes”. Riggs believed that he could beat King in tennis because even though she was the best woman tennis player, she was “just a woman.” That day in Houston, King came out on a gold litter carried by four brawny men while Riggs came out in a rickshaw pulled by scantily clad models whom he called “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies” (Schwartz). This visual display demonstrated the importance of this match not only for King to prove herself, but to prove that female athletes’ athletic ability rivaled males. She acknowledged how much pressure was on this game, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem" (Schwartz). King played for all women and she beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, and 6-3. He did not stand a chance. By proving women’s competitiveness in a male arena, the match set the tone for other women in the future.

Since this historic match, equality for women has risen in society and in sports, although there is still much work to do. Now, more than ever, girls and women are entering the sports world, both as athletes on the court, field, and arena, but also on the sidelines as fans, coaches, and commentators. Outstanding work by women like Billie Jean King opened people’s eyes to women’s athletic ability. Because of the importance of sports in the American culture, the fact that women sports are still not treated equally to men’s sports continues to demonstrate to the public that treating men and women differently and holding men on a pedestal above women is acceptable. Many women athletes over the years have attempted to get the sports world to take them seriously and with the passing of Title IX in 1972, women’s sports skyrocketed with new leagues and teams formed under the leadership of great women. However, because people give men’s sports more attention, this attitude carries over to the larger culture where women are still seen as inferior to men in many different areas of life. Fewer women are on boards, only 18 women are in charge of a Fortune 500 company, which is 3.6%, the most in our history and along with working full time jobs, many women are expected to come home and take care of the household after a long day because that is the “woman’s domain” (Cook, 48-49). There are two potential solutions to creating a more equal arena for men and women in sports. One solution is to give more financial support for women’s leagues and more public support for girls who want to continue playing at the next level, and the other is to allow women to play on men’s teams. Both of these solutions pose potential problems.

One way for female athletes to be taken more seriously is for them to play as teammates with men. Many women over the years have proved that they can. There are physical differences which may limit some mixed gender sports between men and women; tackle football, for example, may not be a good idea for both men and women to play together because there is no woman who can plow through a solid 6’8” man weighing over 300 pounds. As previously discussed, Billie Jean King proved to the world in 1973 a woman’s potential athletic ability. Although many fewer noticed, in 1953, Toni Stone played in the Negro Baseball League on the Indianapolis Clowns and the Kansas City Monarchs (McG Thomas). After playing in the minor leagues with men for years, she signed with the Clowns in 1953 and maintained a .243 batting average. She showed people her scar from when a man tried to plow through her to get to the base. “He was out” she said (McG Thomas). Ann Meyers became the first woman to sign a National Basketball Association (NBA) contract in 1979. She went to the training camp of the Indiana Pacers, but failed to make the team. She challenged people’s assumption of splitting the genders in sports. 20 years passed and Brittney Griner, a 6’8”, 207-pound basketball player started the conversation up again when Mark Cuban said he would consider offering Griner a spot on his team. Currently she plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the women’s league. All of these women challenged people’s assumption that men and women could never compete, but their efforts and talents remain largely invisible.

In 1972, the landmark Title IX law passed, mandating equal educational opportunities for both boys and girls. This greatly affected the sports landscape as high schools and colleges, to continue receiving federal funding, now must field the same number of girls’ teams as boys’ teams. The law allows for unequal funding for boys versus girls teams, however the quality of the programs may not differ. For example, a football team’s gear could cost more than a soccer team’s gear, however both teams need to have equal opportunities, equal use of facilities, and all necessary decent equipment (Sadker). Title IX paved the way for more equality in American sports and now more than ever, girls and women participate in sports from high school kick-around teams to the Olympics. More girls play at a younger age, more leagues exist for women, and there are more women playing professional sports. A survey comparing colleges before Title IX and after, showed that women’s college athletic programs increased from 5.6 teams per college to 7.5 and the number of female college athletes nearly quadrupled in the twenty years following the passage of Title IX. In high schools, the number of female athletes in 1971 was 294,000 and in 1995 it jumped to 2.4 million ("Title IX: A brave new world for women in sports"). However, while Title IX opened more opportunities for girls and women, it did not create an equal playing field for men and women. Today, men’s sports continue to dominate women’s sports in both financial and public support. “According to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, women's sports only receive 0.5% of corporate sponsorship and 5% of total media coverage” (Gibson). These numbers are appalling when considering the limitations such inequality imposes on girls and women who definitely do not have equal opportunity beyond the levels affected by Title IX.

Historically, women athletes, as other women professionals, have not been paid equally to men of the same age and ability, working the same job. Heidi Hartmann discusses the wage gap in her report for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research with Stephen J. Rose. She brings up the generally acknowledged 77 cents to the dollar that defines a woman’s wage compared to a man’s. This gap has decreased from forty years ago when the difference was 59 cents to the dollar. However, she notes that this number does not take into account all of the differences that men and women face while working. That study simply looked at men and women working full-time, all year at the same jobs for only one year. While this number demonstrates that the wage gap is tremendous, it underestimates the severity of this wage gap and its effects on households. A different study covering 15 years (1983-1998) that takes into account a woman’s lower working hours because of her responsibilities at home and the years where she is not working to care for the family, found that women only earn 38 percent of what men earn. “Across 15 years of the study, the average prime age working woman earned only $273, 592 while the average working man earned $722,693 (in 1999 dollars)” (Hartmann). This is a gap of 62 percent, more than twice as large as the 23 percent gap previously stated. “Among those prime-age adults who work every year and average less than $15,000 annually, more than 90 percent are women” and “on average women earn about 60 percent of what men earn per hour” (Hartmann). Because women are paid less than men, many times, to continue taking care of the family, the wife’s job and professional development is often sacrificed for the husband’s job, which usually pays more. However, because the wife is no longer working, this forces the man to work extra hours, thus increasing the gap between the two genders. Hartmann asks, “When women ‘choose’ to spend time out of the labor market taking care of children, how much of that choice is constrained by lack of affordable, good quality alternative child care, women’s lower pay, or social norms in the community?” (Hartmann). The world of women professional sports mirrors the struggles of all women professionals attempting to cope with social issues and societal acceptance at lower pay for women’s work.

 Many professional women athletes  over the years have attempted to get the sports world to take them seriously including through fighting for equal pay. There have been small gains, but male and female athletes are still far from equal financially. When Billie Jean King created the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973,  she demanded equity in prize winning for women and men and said that if the US Open did not give women the same amount of prize money as the men, she wouldn’t play and neither would the other women: that year, the U.S. Open became the first tournament to offer equal prize money to both men and women (Schwartz). However, today a prize gap remains in many other sports. For example, the winnings for first place for the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour versus the Ladies PGA tour is sizably different. The winner for the PGA’s Mayakoba Open receives $666,000 and the winner at the Accenture Match Play tournament collects about $1.4 million versus the winner of the HSBC Women’s Classic accepts only $210,000 (Calloway). This large pay disparity perpetuates the stereotype that men are better golfers and more deserving of pay than women.

For years the US Women’s Soccer Team also battled pay inequity. The US Women’s Soccer Players boycotted the 2000 Summer Olympics because they wanted their salaries to be on more equal footing to the men. Not only did they have lower starting salaries, but they were offered only a bonus for winning the gold medal rather than male players who received bonuses for any medal won. The US Soccer Federation finally agreed on a contract for which each player would receive a minimum salary of $5,000 a month and bonuses for any medal won (Longman). However, the salary battle continues. In 2011, Pia Sundhage, the previous coach of the US Women’s National Soccer Team earned a base salary of $190,000 with $20,000 in compensations and benefits in 2011 while Bob Bradley, the previous coach of the US Men’s National Soccer Team, received a base salary of $515,647 with $26,000 in compensations and benefits (Goff). The current Men’s National Team coach, Juergen Klinsman makes a base salary of $2.5 million per year through 2014, while Tom Sermanni, the current US Women’s Soccer Team coach earns a maximum base salary of $210,000 with between $25-80,000 in bonuses. The difference in salaries between coaches is astounding especially considering that the women’s team coaches brought their teams to final rounds of multiple tournaments, while the men’s team struggle even to qualify for tournaments.

A lack of individual recognition persists for female athletes as well. An egregious example of unequal pay for men and women in the same sport is the NBA and the WNBA. Tamika Catchings is currently the WNBA Most Valuable Player, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, and played in her third Olympics in London in 2012. Her salary is the highest of the WNBA league at $105,500 per season. The average salary for male players in the NBA is $5 million. Catchings’s career earnings are between $3-4 million. Kevin Garnett, who, like Catchings, has been MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and won gold at the Olympics, will earn $291 million over his career (Woods). Women’s athletic accomplishments are seen as less important than men’s and their inferiority persists. For example, few people knew when Abby Wambach beat Mia Hamm’s record for most goals scored by any soccer player ever with 159 goals, however the United States celebrated when Landon Donavan scored his 100th goal. There are many more stories of how men are paid substantially more than women today for playing the same sport. This needs to change if female athletes are to be respected for the work they do.

Because male sports are perceived as more strenuous, male athletes receive higher status, higher visibility, and higher pay. Separating the genders in sports some connotation because it is a part of American culture and dividing the sexes leads to people thinking that women are still inferior to men. More people watch the Super Bowl than the State of the Union and so changing how we view athletes is one visible avenue toward equality for men and women on and off the field. Laura Pappano, who wrote "Women and Men in Sports: Separate is not Equal" in the Christian Science Monitor says,  “This is not just about athletics. It's about how we view and value one another. That's why it's critical that we create a sports culture that is truly co-ed.” Sports is such an important part of many different cultures all around the world that until men and women are viewed as equals on the field, court or in the pool, women will never be truly seen as equals by men in everyday life. “It is, rather, about the identities of those who play and watch the game. It's about what gets established and reinforced every time sex-segregated formulas cast males as categorically superior to females” (Pappano). When we watch sports we buy into a culture that says women are inferior to men. Even when people watch the Rutgers’s soccer teams play; people pay four dollars to watch the women play while they pay seven dollars to watch the men play. This small statement nevertheless continues the cultural view that a person should pay more to watch men play than women.

There are many people who feel that boys and girls are split in sports before physical differences become apparent. Although male genes lead to greater average size, strength, and speed for men, ultimate athletic potential could be more social than physical as Dr. Earl Smith, the director of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest writes that “the physical challenges of breaking into the professional ranks would be dwarfed by sociological ones” (McManus). For many reasons, it would be very hard for a woman to become integrated socially onto a men’s team. Exceptional female athletes are already criticized for not being feminine enough and the cultural role of women as cheerleaders, supporters, and assistants that is constantly reinforced on TV through football games and during commercials would make it very hard for a woman to stand up to all of the media and public scrutiny (McManus). As with women breaking into so many professional fields, a female athlete would have to excel beyond her male counterparts. She would also have to withstand the sexist social critique of the media and team personnel. Women are unwelcome in many sports arenas. An insulting example at the youth sports level is when a Massachusetts kids soccer program put a warning on their online registration page: "Note: If you are attempting to register a daughter, please be aware that Newton Youth Soccer is co-ed, but primarily boys" (Pappano). These kinds of statements discourage girls from playing and continue the cultural belief that girls are not welcome. Pappano urges us to consider the sexist Newton Massachusetts statement in the context of religion or race and it’s absurdity becomes apparent: “Be aware that Jews are welcome, but the league is mostly gentiles? Be aware that blacks are allowed, but the program is primarily white?” (Pappano). These unwelcome statements perpetuate the culture that men are better athletes than women.

Are these statements seen as okay because people think a men’s game will be more entertaining or exciting than a woman’s game? This is clearly not the case as the WNBA Final Four was just as exciting as the NBA Final Four and thousands of people paid to watch the US Women’s Soccer Team face off against Brazil in the Quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup. Nobody can say that, that game was not exciting as first the US scored, then Brazil scored, then Rachel Buehler was sent off with a red card and Hope Solo blocked Brazil’s penalty kick. But it had to be retaken because the referee saw one US player move before the kick. Then Marta Vieira da Silva took the penalty kick and tied the game. Finally, going into overtime, Brazil scored and then the US scored with about one minute left to tie the game again and send it to penalty kicks. The US won. Nobody can say that game was not as exciting as a men’s soccer game.

Even with many such exciting games there are unequal expectations for men and women, which allows for inclusivity for women, but is also slightly demeaning for female athletes. In both amateur and pro sports settings, women are seen as weaker and so some of their sports are modified to be less strenuous on the female body. Men’s pro tennis players play five sets while women only play three. A girl who plays in the US Kids Golf tournament plays nine holes while a boy her age plays 18. Pappano describes how even co-ed adult sports leagues often have rules to “accommodate the supposedly weaker sex.” She describes basketball leagues where women get two points for every basket they make while men only get one. In another example, A woman in a coed touch football game gets seven points per touchdown, while a man only gets six. A 24-year old softball player who played division one college softball complained about the rules in her co-ed adult league. Only two men can hit in a row before a woman must come to the plate to hit and men hit bigger balls than women. These rules continue to suggest that women need help when playing in co-ed leagues because women cannot physically compete alongside men. Even at the international level, women’s athletic ability is continually less respected. At the Olympics, men compete in a decathlon (an event with ten different events) while women only compete in a pentathlon (an event with five events). These co-ed leagues give men and women an opportunity to play together, but the rules in these games are both helpful to women, and damaging to their self-esteem.

This separation of women and men in sports has been challenged many times by women like Billie Jean King, Toni Stone, Ann Myers and Brittney Griner. Girls should be allowed to play on all-girls teams if they want, but they should not be barred from playing with boys. However, some people, including female athletes, question why women should play with the men when women have their own leagues. Lisa Leslie, who played in the WNBA, talked about wanting to grow up and play in the NBA, “But the beautiful part about it is that we have the WNBA…I think that our league is substantial in regards to talent and competitiveness, and the fact that we’ve continued to grow—even as individuals—we have just grown by leaps and bounds” (McManus). Paul Pierce who plays for the Boston Celtics says, "I think it will be a little difficult [for women to join the NBA], just because of the physicality of the sport. The men are much faster, much stronger, much more athletic. Will it happen one day? I don't know…They have a women’s league, where they are the best women in the world. Honestly, I can’t tell you if I can see a woman right now playing in the NBA. Not in the next couple of years, no" (King). The other question is whether allowing women to play with men will further limit women’s sports. If the best women join the men’s leagues, fewer people would want to watch women’s sports and so women’s sports in general could suffer. There are also very few women who are big enough, strong enough, let alone able to withstand the harsh critical view of the public required to break into male sports.

Athletics is a microcosm of the wider society where girls and women continue to fight for the respect they deserve. People pushed, and continue to push, for forward progress and give girls a chance to play, but many hurdles remain including pay equity and more acknowledgement of women’s sports by the public. There are complex questions around the separation versus integration of women and men in athletics and these issues still need to be examined. As athletics, from youth leagues to international competitions, grapple with equity and respect, all of society can learn from sports. One day, hopefully, a time will come when young girls as well as young boys can live out their early dreams of playing for the love of the game.


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