Updated: Oct 1, 2020
For years, double standards in the sports arena have belittled women. Recent controversies surrounding Serena Williams show that little has changed.
It’s no secret that men enjoy a double standard over women when it comes to matters of morality, fidelity and public conduct. It may be 2018, but women are very often still expected to behave in a ‘certain way’. Throughout many societies, women are still praised for being ladylike or demure. Modesty is a virtue. Women who shout loud are ‘brash’, ‘aggressive’ or just ‘rude’. Women who behave ‘properly’ are valued – but they mustn’t step out of line.
This past week, Serena Williams apparently stepped out of line when she argued with the umpire at the US Open final. Whilst her behaviour was unquestionably rude, against the spirit of the game and a violation of specific rules of conduct, the punishment meted down upon her was extraordinarily harsh. After being accused of coaching on the court, she was handed a point penalty. By the end of the match, the umpire had awarded her opponent a game and Williams a $17,000 fine.
From the tennis court to the board room, men are rewarded for this kind of behaviour – in fact it is celebrated. John McEnroe built a career out of screaming at umpires and smashing tennis rackets - and the world loved him for it. McEnroe’s obnoxious behaviour, which included screaming at the umpire, “You are the pits of the world!” and “Vultures! Trash!”, gave him a reputation as a fiery, outlandish rogue that the world loved to hate. In more modern times, displays of arrogance and attitude from male tennis stars – including Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – have been met with mild punishment and public sympathy. Tennis is littered with precisely this kind of double standard.
The sports world is littered with glaring sexism, including breath-taking disparities in earnings. In 2017, the Forbes 100 highest paid athletes list features only one woman - Serena Williams – who was ranked 51st. This year, there are none – not one woman. Of course, men dominate the major high earning sports such as NFL and soccer. These two sports attract billions of Dollars in sponsorship and mega salaries for star players, prices that are driven by the market. Stars that attract huge sponsorship deals quite rightly deserve to be rewarded accordingly. However, this doesn’t account for discrepancies in sports like tennis and in the sums earned by sports stars when they retire and become pundits.
Tennis fans of the 1980’s will recall the incredible popularity of Martina Navratilova – women’s answer to John McEnroe. Now, with both hired by the BBC as sports commentators, he earns £150,000 to £199,999. Navratilova is paid £15,000 for the same job. The gender pay gap permeates throughout every society. The gender pay gap will take 100 years to close, according to the World Economic Forum in a 2017 study. It also showed that the pay gap has widened for the first time in over a decade.
The double standard prevails not only over money but clothing. In tennis, umpires typically turn a blind eye to men changing their shirts in between sets. Yet in this year’s US Open, a code violation was issued to Alize Cornet – a French tennis player who momentarily took her shirt off because she had accidentally put it on back-to-front. The controversy sends yet another dangerous signal to women and wider society: one rule for men, another more draconian law for women. Even in 2018, major sports tournaments are reaffirming a negative gender stereotype that women must be demur and soft – and that when they step out of line they will be punished.
It is important for women – especially sports women who are role models to young girls – to fight back. Ironically, Serena Williams caused a clothing controversy in the early stages of the US Open this year by wearing a Nike catsuit, which she claimed was partly because of blood clots that threatened her life when she gave birth, partly because in her own words, it made her feel, “Like a warrior”. Her choice of clothing was a statement of empowerment, personal choice and strength. How did the tennis world react? The French Tennis Federation President, Bernard Giudicelli said, “I believe we have sometimes gone too far. Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.” There was no explanation for why a catsuit was going ‘too far’.
This public policing of women’s bodies and apparel is incredibly damaging, and it sets women’s empowerment back generations. Stopping women from changing in public in a sports arena when men are allowed (even when the women dress ‘modestly’) screams of ownership and sexualisation. It is dehumanising and disempowering. Commenting on the Williams sisters’ bodies also seems fair game by the media. One American radio show DJ said, “I can’t even watch them play anymore. I find it disgusting. They’re just too muscular. They’re boys.” The question we have to face as a society is, why is this allowed and why is it even being said? Why is it that a man is judged on his performance and a woman is derided for her appearance, her apparent lack of femininity, ‘indecent’ clothing choices or her use of foul language?
The answer is that no matter how much progress has been made in the policy arena, society still objectifies women – even the most powerful women in sport, business and politics. The media obsesses about what Meghan Markle is wearing – whilst commenting on her husband’s achievements. Double standards are endemic.
If women are to be given a fair crack at the whip and allowed to compete on a level playing field, we need to celebrate women’s achievements for what they are. Women don’t want special favours, nor do they want to be vilified for defying society’s conformist expectations of what a woman should look like, sound like or dress like. Sports stars have a special part to play as role models for young boys and girls – we must bear that in mind. Women in sports should be given the same level of respect for the job they do and equal pay when they do it.
If tomorrow’s board rooms and tennis courts are to include women for who they really are, respected for their aggression and attitude and afforded the very same free will that men enjoy, then we need to start by applauding today’s heroes. We cannot continue to denigrate women for not being ‘feminine’ enough or wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes. Women have taken a step back in 2018, which is perhaps why Serena Williams took a brave step by wearing a catsuit on the tennis court. She held her head high when she fought back against the severest punishments possible for simply speaking up. Serena Williams should be celebrated.