The XX Factor

The Sexism in Pro Tennis Still Pales in Comparison to Soccer

Serena Williams at the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 28, 2016.

William West/AFP/Getty Images

Update, Mar. 22, 2016, 9:30 a.m.: Raymond Moore resigned from his posts as CEO of Indian Wells and tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open late on Monday night (after this post was already filed). He announced his resignation through a statement from the tournament’s owner, Larry Ellison. ”Earlier today I had the opportunity to speak with Raymond Moore,” Ellison said. “Ray let me know that he has decided to step down from his roles as CEO and tournament director effective immediately. I fully understand his decision.”

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It’s been a rich two days for the intersection of tennis and gender politics. Since Sunday, when Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore declared that he wants to come back as a female tennis player in his next life because they “ride on the coattails of the men,” top tennis players past and present have spoken up in response, seizing the opportunity to both defend the athletic accomplishments of women and commend them for playing through their menstrual cycles.

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Some have called for the resignation of the 69-year-old, who was the tournament director of the weekend’s BNP Paribas Open. Moore said that women “don’t make any decisions” in the sport and are “very, very lucky.” “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they’ve carried this sport,” he continued. What’s more, Moore opined, there are some “very attractive players” in women’s tennis who could lead the sport into a new era of success. Asked whether he was talking about the players’ good looks or their competitive skills, he clarified his statement: “I mean both.”

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Moore has now said his remarks were “in extremely poor taste and erroneous,” but not before 28-year-old Novak Djokovic had his say. Djokovic, who won the men’s BNP Paribas title, said women “fought for what they deserve and they got it” when it comes to equal pay at tournaments, but suggested that prize money at co-ed events should be set by ticket sales and TV audience numbers. In Djokovic’s dream world, tennis opens would function like sleazy clubowners who ask concertgoers which band on the bill they’re there to see, then pay the performers according to the tally.

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His implication, of course, was that men should get paid more because they bring in a bigger audience. Not in a sexist way, though! “I’m completely for women power,” he clarified, especially because women’s bodies are different—mysterious moon-juice factories whose hormonal whims women must overcome to participate in sport:

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I have tremendous respect for what women in global sport are doing and achieving. It’s knowing what they have to go through with their bodies, and their bodies are much different than men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff—we don’t need to go into details. Ladies know what I’m talking about.

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Ladies, you know what he’s talking about, right? It’s the same thing tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga meant in 2013, when he said women have “hormones and all this stuff” but men “don’t have all these bad things, so we are physically in a good shape every time, and you are not.” It’s the same thing world-class misogynist troll Bobby Riggs was talking about when he boasted that women didn’t have the “emotional stability” to beat him on the court. Riggs famously challenged Billie Jean King to a 1973 tennis match dubbed the Battle of the Sexes. King slaughtered him in all three sets. She had a few words for Moore on Sunday.

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Serena Williams called Moore’s remarks “very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate,” pointing out that the women’s final at the U.S. Open sold out long before the men’s final did. (Djokovic must have omitted that data from his analysis.) On Sunday, Moore said that Williams, “arguably the best female player of all time,” has elevated the game of women’s tennis. But to get there, Williams and her sister have had to fight attitudes like Moore’s, in addition to some of the most blatant sexism and racism the sport has seen. Williams just ended her boycott of Indian Wells last year, 14 years after she was booed from the court with racial slurs; and in 2014, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation called the Williams sisters “brothers” who were “scary” to look at. Though Venus Williams was instrumental in forcing Wimbledon to pay women and men the same, female tennis players still make an average of 23.4 percent less than their male counterparts, a gap that widens in middle- and lower-tier tournaments.

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Moore and Djokovic’s underselling of their sport’s female athletes mirrors a culture of discrimination that has festered in professional soccer for decades. Moore’s remarks about “attractive” female players are just one step up the decency ladder from FIFA head Sepp Blatter’s 2004 suggestion that sexier uniforms would bring larger audiences to women’s soccer matches. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” he said. “They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so.”

Where women’s tennis has seen several advances in pay equity thanks to the work of King and Venus Williams, both FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation have maintained structures that pay men far more than women. When the U.S. Women’s National Team won the 2015 World Cup, they earned the federation $2 million from FIFA. (The federation distributes the prize money between itself and the players.) Meanwhile, the U.S. Men’s National Team won more than four times as much—$9 million—even though the team lost in the Round of 16. FIFA awarded Germany, the men’s World Cup winner, a cool $35 million.

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The USSF itself has repeatedly quashed female players’ attempts to negotiate pay and playing conditions equal to, or even closer to, the men’s. In 1998, each player on the U.S. women’s team got a $2,500 bonus for making the World Cup team. Each player on the men’s team got a $20,000 bonus that year. The men finished dead last, and the women won the title. During contract negotiations in 2000, the federation proved so resistant to equal pay that the women’s team, fresh off an Olympic gold and a World Cup win, went on strike. At the time, the USSF secretary general dismissed the players’ concerns as “communication problems” and complained that he’d been called “the last bastion of chauvinism since Bobby Riggs.” Just last month, fearing a similar strike, the USSF sued the women’s national team union to prevent them from negotiating for better pay.

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But it’s not just money they’re after: The U.S. women’s team is fighting subpar playing conditions, too. The USSF evaluates venues for turf safety and quality before the games its men’s team plays, but not its women’s; it will overlay grass onto synthetic turf for the men, but not for the women. Last year, the U.S. women’s team had to cancel a Hawaii friendly against Trinidad and Tobago when they decided the turf was too poor to risk dangerous play.

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In advance of the 2015 World Cup in Canada, an international group of women players filed a legal challenge of gender discrimination when FIFA refused to provide grass fields, not turf, for the women’s World Cup games. The players tweeted photos of their bloodied, torn-up legs, products of turf that they’ve likened to cement. They were forced to pull their suit when FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association delayed the court proceedings and threatened to cancel the tournament.

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Soccer superstar Abby Wambach—who’s scored more goals in the sport than any pro player, male or female, in all of time—has said that, now that she’s retired, she plans to throw herself into fighting for gender equity in soccer. A Fortune post about her plans notes that “only one prominent professional sport has achieved any semblance of gender pay equality: tennis.” Moore and Djokovic are two of the latest bits of evidence that tennis, that oasis of “any semblance of gender pay equality,” still suffers under the sexist attitudes of its leaders. Gender justice in soccer may be an even tougher goal to reach—but in King and the Williams sisters, Wambach’s got some good examples for a start.

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