Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Billie Jean King for every sport, Part I

This column in the OC Register, written in the wake of the the first Wimbledon that awarded male and female players equal prize money, discusses the many professional sports in which pay disparities are common and extreme and some of the reasons behind the disparity. Actually, columnist Marcia Smith cites one reason specifically: the disparate histories of men's and women's professional sports. The two professional sports that offer equal prize money, tennis and beach volleyball, had men and women participating in them from the start, she (and others she cites) argues. Golf and basketball, she says, have different histories in which men had professional opportunities decades before women did.

She is correct about the influence of history, but there are numerous other factors as well and certainly history does not explain it all. For example, even though the Open era in tennis came for men and women at the same time, the history of disparity in "reimbursing" players for travel, lodging, etc. continued into the professional era. It was Billie Jean King's work that impeded the perpetuation of the disparity.

And we shouldn't necessarily be using "history" be the get out of jail free card for the current situation in professional sports. After all, when basketball was invented in the late 19th century men and women played.

Also, let's not pretend that the world of tennis is all fine and good now that the Grand Slams are offering equal prize money. Most of the rest of the year the men travel on the ATP tour and the women the WTA. There is no equal prize money pressure for tournaments that are single-sex. I don't know how the overall prize money available breaks down between the tours but it would interesting to see if such calculations have been made. Especially in light of a chart in this month's TENNIS that showed Roger Federer made double the amount of Justine Henin (the respective #1 prize money earners in 2006). Well Roger Federer wins nearly every tournament he is in, you say. True, but the chart also has the earnings of the respective #10, #50, and #100 players. The men all earn more than the women.

What the chart, whose purpose was to compare salaries of male and female tennis and golf professionals, does uniequivocally reveal is that male golfers have it made. (Just as a reality check let's note that the prize money is exorbitant in these two sports and I am not suggesting that these players need more money.) The guy who came in 100 in prize money on the PGA last year earned $1.22 million. The woman on the LPGA made $75,000; the male tennis players, $243,000; and the female tennis player, $145,000.

I think what surprises me most about the disparities, especially those between male and female professional golfers is that no one jumped on the Billie Jean bandwagon back in the 70s. Where was the coalition of professional female athletes putting pressure on male organizers and sponsors across the board?

{in Part II, the issues that follow from the disparities between the NBA and WNBA.}

1 comment:

Diane said...

Perhaps the reason women golfers didn't jump on the BJK bandwagon was that they didn't want to go through what BJK et al went through. They were ostracized and insulted, they lost friendships (some friendships), and their very careers were threatened. No one would work for them--they had to get referees from other sports to call matches. They were a very brave group of women.