Her stance is strong and low. She’s focused in on the ball. Though her game displays superior talent, no audience member would dare claim a woman’s athleticism is better than that of the opposite sex.
The phrase, “greatest of all time,” is a coveted trophy athletes yearn for. The words themselves inspires countless trips to the gym, practice fields and courts. They are the glimmer caught in an athlete’s eye at a tournament, for every match and every point. Yet it seems being “the greatest” has a limiting condition for women.
“There is systematic sexism in sports that leads to unequal pay, which starts with how women are marketed by their own leagues,” Anya Alvarez writes for The Guardian. This argument is one consistently reinforced and argued by female athletes.
Despite an equal amount of female competition, fans and sponsors serve male athletes the title of “greatest” on a silver platter, placing assured confidence in their ability and future. When headings refer to men’s accomplishments in sports there is never is a conditional or warning label.
However, women’s accomplishments are belittled in the form of descriptors that denote their sex. These add-ins construct a clear message that a woman is not competing on the same level as a man.
World famous tennis player Serena Williams experiences this frequently. An article published on ESPN read, “Is Serena Williams the Best Female Athlete Ever?” While seemingly harmless, is the denotation of “Female” necessary? Even the phrasing as a question seems to cast doubt on Williams’s accomplishments.
Williams has won 23 grand slams, the greatest number won by any player in tennis history. She set a record for most acres served in a tournament, 102. Williams also holds the record for the most hardcourt grand slam titles. She is the only person to win three of the four grand slams six times.
To go on, Williams is the third player to achieve a Career Grand Slam in singles and doubles after Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova (note, two other women). She is the only player to hold all Grand Slam titles simultaneously and the first player to win over 80 matches at 3 of the 4 grand slam events.
As of the 2017 Australian Open, she is the only player to win over 10 grand slam singles titles in two separate decades. Yet, Williams is still the greatest female player.
For decades, this issue has persisted and was challenged notably by tennis great Billie Jean King in 1973. King challenged the world’s number one at the time, Bobby Riggs, in a “Battle of the Sexes,” a match that questioned whether men and women could play on the same level. King beat Riggs in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. To King, there was never an option to lose.
She said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
Female athletes aren’t viewed the same as male athletes, and because of this, the language that surrounds them is completely different. After a dispute between Williams and an umpire in the U.S. Open, the treatment of men and women in tennis was again put to the test.
King commented on the issue in a tweet that read, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”
Megan Rapinoe, U.S. women’s national soccer team captain and equal pay activist, took a recent stand against the inequality in her own sport. By refusing to visit the White House and suing the United States Soccer Federation along with the rest of her team for “purposeful gender discrimination,” she took a stand for the recognition of women athletes.
Rapinoe told CNN that the issue is not money. “It’s really more about the investment in the game. Is the investment equal? We’re talking marketing dollars and branding, investment in the youth, investment in the players, investment in the coaching staff. I don’t think that that’s there. I don’t think that that’s ever been there,” she said.
The inequality between women and men in sports, not only through pay but also through marketing, is supported by many who claim that comparing male athletics to female is like comparing apples to oranges. This comparison is rooted in the belief that men’s sports appear to be more athletic and globally competitive. However, because women in less-progressive countries are discouraged from competing, the pool of players and talent is significantly smaller.
Additionally, the consistent and winning statistics are indisputable. In the eight years that the Woman’s World Cup has existed, the U.S. team has won four times, compared to the men’s team never having won a World Cup Tournament in the eighty-nine years it has existed.
Also, since women’s soccer initial introduction to the Olympics in 1996, the U.S. Women’s team has won four times, while the men’s is still at zero despite having competed in the sport since 1900.
Historically, more wins have not translated into a greater investment into the team. Though the women’s team generates $900,000 more profit than the men’s team, the U.S. Soccer Federation invested $7.4 million into the men’s team but only $3.7 million into the women’s team.
The unbalanced language that surrounds women’s sports not only effects their credibility, but also their opportunity. When advertised, women are not put on the same scale as men, and the conditional language continues until their ability to make an equal profit is taken away.
For Williams, these circumstances will not suffice. As she continues to be a champion on the courts, she also takes on a more formidable challenge – equality in the world of sports.
Williams once said, “Am I the greatest? I don’t know. I’m the greatest that I can be.” She has acknowledged that it’s not her ability that’s in question, but the circumstances tacked on to her sex. “The day I stop fighting for equality will be the day I’m in my grave,” she said.
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