So this morning, I have thoughts. I’ve tweeted those thoughts here and there sporadically, but I feel like I need to have one place to coherently pull together those thoughts. I also feel like I need to take some time and hash out those thoughts, as well, or else it’s going to become a disjointed mess.
I’m going to start off by saying that frankly I’m incredibly annoyed that I have to have these thoughts at all. I want to kick Raymond Moore (CEO of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells) in a very sensitive spot for opening this can of worms in the ugliest and nastiest way possible in the first place.
Maybe you’ve heard that this dude said some bad things but aren’t sure exactly what. Let me catch you up to speed real quick:
“You know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They 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 have carried this sport. They really have.”
I don’t think I need to explain why these comments were not only wrong, but extremely offensive and sexist (and not just offensive because they were sexist, which would be another matter entirely). If you don’t understand that, maybe you just need to stop reading now, because in all likelihood nothing else I say here is going to make sense.
What made these comments worse were so many factors. One, they were said the morning of finals day at Indian Wells, just a few hours before two of the finest women tennis players in the world, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, were preparing to play for the championship. Two, they were made by the CEO of a tournament that had only just received two of the biggest superstars in the world back at their tournament (those being Serena and her sister Venus) after a decade and a half of absence.
These comments not only overshadowed a fantastic women’s final, but they went on to overshadow the men’s final as well. And in a supreme irony, the women’s final was a much more closely and hotly contested affair than was the men’s, which was a one-sided blowout.
Serena and Victoria (“Vika” for short, which is how I’ll refer to her from now on) were asked about Moore’s comments in press, and they gave pitch-perfect responses.
Serena: “If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number. So I don’t think that is a very accurate statement… I think those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very inaccurate… You know, there’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man, which is not – we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”
Vika: “I think it’s still a problem in the world. It’s not just in sports. It’s in business. We try to talk about the equality. Sometimes it just gets unrecognized. I think what women do best is rise above those comments… I mean, if that makes that person feel better or bigger or whatever, it’s a pretty sad person, I think. Because if you’re happy you don’t care what other people do. You just take care of you… That’s what women players and examples like Venus and Serena and other players have been doing for – you know, we got it from Billie Jean King where she proved everybody, hey, look at me. I started something, so let’s go after it.”
They were absolutely right. There’s no excusing Mr. Moore’s comments, even as he apologized a few hours later. But the damage was done. Pandora’s Box had been opened, and his response was too little, too late.
It’s my view that a CEO of a joint tennis tournament has no business making comments like those and expect to keep his job. I don’t think he’ll lose his job, which is unfortunate. There are too many people who (secretly or not-so-secretly) agree with him to keep his job from being in jeopardy. Edited to add: since I wrote and published this, Moore has indeed lost his job. He resigned from his position in the evening on March 21. Whether he resigned on his own power or was “encouraged” to resign is up for individual interpretation…
The sad thing is, I now have to bring my favorite tennis player and athlete into this, and this is where my heart is going to be aching. I think if this had gone no further, I probably wouldn’t even be writing this right now. But Novak Djokovic was asked about Moore’s comments after his final match (he of the 6-2, 6-0 shellacking of Milos Raonic), and his comments were not what I had hoped they would be.
I don’t have the heart to write them out here, so instead I’ll post a link to what he said.
While I didn’t have the heart to write it all out, I will dissect it as much as possible so you understand where I’m coming from.
First, let me start with what I think Novak got right, because I don’t think everything he said here was wrong-headed. I appreciate that he said women deserve respect and admiration for what they’re doing. He insisted that he respects and admires women in the sport.
Maybe he didn’t need to get into women’s biology. We know women are built differently from men. Maybe he didn’t need to point out that women have to deal with biological factors that men don’t have to – men should, on the whole, probably stay away from talking about female biology because they really don’t know what it’s like and they should probably not act like they do.
Maybe he didn’t need to point out that women make sacrifices that men don’t have to make, but I don’t think it was necessarily a bad thing that he did. Maybe saying “I’m completely for women power” was patronizing, but I don’t think he meant it to be.
Unfortunately, Novak got a lot more wrong. I’m going to start with his failure to strongly and firmly condemn Moore’s comments, which was what disappointed me the most about his responses to the controversy. I will assume that Novak did not have a chance to actually read Moore’s comments and merely “heard about them” secondhand. While he was given exact quotes in the press conference, he might not have realized they WERE exact quotes.
I wish I could say that I think Novak’s response would have been different had he realized those were exact quotes. But I’m not sure it would have. One of Novak’s greatest strengths is his diplomacy, but at a time like this it is also one of his greatest weaknesses. I think Novak was trying to be delicate and not step on any toes. An hour or so before this press conference, the man in question had given Novak a trophy and told him that because he had won so many times, perhaps the court should be renamed the “Novak Djokovic court.” It’s difficult to turn from that and slap down that same man for making offensive comments.
Do I think he should have done so anyway? Absolutely. Novak has shown a willingness to stand up for what he firmly believes in even when there’s a risk of pushback. Witness the way he stood up for his friends Viktor Troicki and Maria Sharapova when they were facing significant bans for doping violations.
When Novak said that “we have to be fair to say that it’s not politically correct,” he downplayed Moore’s comments in the worst way possible. He made it sound like Moore only made the mistake of not being politically correct, rather than being horribly offensive to female tennis players. Maybe Novak doesn’t realize just how offensive it was. I don’t know. But I feel like he had a tremendous opportunity to be a leader and say “No, we can’t talk about female tennis players like this, this is wrong,” and he didn’t take that opportunity. That, to me, is disappointing.
Finally, let’s talk about the rest of Novak’s comments. He made reference to the fact that male tennis players currently deserve to receive greater prize money than female tennis players because they draw more attention and more spectators. In response to another question about whether women would deserve to receive greater prize money if they were the ones drawing more spectators, he answered with a resounding “yes.”
If there’s one topic I’m even more tired of hearing about in tennis than grunting (which is saying something because I start tuning out the moment I hear anyone mention grunting), it’s equal prize money for men and women. So I’m really annoyed with Novak for even bringing this up. And he did bring it up, unfortunately; he wasn’t even asked about it.
I have heard the arguments before. I’ll sum up quickly. The two reasons I’ve heard for why women’s and men’s tennis should not receive equal prize money are thus: 1, because the men attract more spectators and thus, more money, so they should receive more of that money. 2, because men play best of 5 sets and women play best of 3. So, more work should equal more pay.
I’m going to start with the latter argument first because I think it’s the more spurious argument. There are only 5 tournaments in the world where the men actually play best of 5 sets these days. Those tournaments are the 4 Grand Slams and Davis Cup. Davis Cup is not a joint tournament, so it’s dismissed from the conversation. That leaves only the 4 Slams.
Now then. Whose fault is it that the men play best of 5 and the women don’t? Is it those pesky women who refuse to play best of 5? Nope. The WTA has long said that they are more than willing to play best of 5. But the tournaments won’t allow it, and you can see why; it would quickly become a scheduling nightmare.
But is it then fair for the tournaments to then turn around and say, we’re going to pay the women less because they don’t play as many sets? Of course not. That’s ridiculous.
The economics argument – that the men should get more pay because they draw more spectators – was Novak’s argument, and I understand it. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.
However, there are two problems with this argument. Here’s the first: the men aren’t always the biggest draw. There have been times in tennis’ history when it was men’s tennis that was struggling and women’s tennis that was thriving. People like to point to the halcyon days of Chris and Martina, but even more recent history shows how much interest Serena and Venus brought to the sport during a time when the men’s game was struggling mightily with its nearly suffocating parity issue. Check out this Sports Illustrated article from 2002.
Not only was the men’s game struggling, but they were struggling so much that they were trying desperately to snuggle a little closer to the women’s game so that they could stand in the shadow of that white-hot spotlight.
Want something even a little more recent? Guess which U.S. Open final sold out more quickly last year? It was the women’s final, and it wasn’t even close. And do you remember which match at the U.S. Open generated the most buzz? The celebrities? The flash bulbs of media attention and interest? That’s right: it was the women’s match between Serena and Venus Williams. I don’t think even the men’s final between Novak and Roger Federer attracted quite as much attention.
My point here is this: It is in the interest of both tours to share their resources and distribute prize money equally. It is in both tours’ interest to ensure that they remain linked together, so that when the women’s game is struggling, the men’s game can help them up, and when the men’s game is struggling, the women’s game can help them.
There’s one last point I want to make. And this is going to get esoteric and probably really difficult for me to explain eloquently, so this might run long. My apologies in advance.
Boiling down the equal-prize-money debate to be solely about economics misses a big part of the beauty of sports. The beauty of sports is only partially that it gives us the opportunity to see hard work paying off, the best and brightest and toughest and strongest around the world compete to see who is the best and brightest and toughest and strongest.
The biggest beauty of sports, in my opinion, is that they have tremendous opportunities to right wrongs, to bring healing, to be inclusive, to bring people together.
For example, this is a huge reason the Olympics are so popular. What other event in the world gives hundreds of nations from all over the world a chance to intermingle? The Olympic games have plenty of issues of their own, no question, but they have an amazing opportunity to bring together multimillionaires from some countries and poverty-stricken athletes from Third world countries with little more than a dream. They bring together a multitude of languages and ethnicities.
I can remember when South Africa was shut out of the Olympics for years because of apartheid. You can’t tell me that part of the reason apartheid finally fell apart wasn’t because of that.
I wasn’t alive when it happened, but I think nearly all of us have heard about that beautiful moment when Jesse Owens won an Olympic gold medal right under the nose of Adolf Hitler in fascist Germany.
On a tennis level, look at Arthur Ashe traveling to South Africa for Davis Cup – a move that was tremendously controversial, but ultimately its own act of defiance and bravery.
Look at the Special Olympics and the Paralympics. From economic standpoints, these sporting events make no sense. Bring together a bunch of disabled athletes to compete? What sense does that make? From a sociological standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world. It gives these men and women a beautiful opportunity to revel in what they can do with their bodies and lives, rather than what they can’t do. And it gives us the chance to revel in the beauty of the world’s differences.
You see, equal prize money in tennis doesn’t have to be strictly about economics. It can be a chance for tennis to say, “We value women just as much as we value men.” It can be a chance for tennis to say, “Women’s tennis is just as worthwhile and exciting and interesting as is men’s tennis.” It can be a chance for tennis to say, “The world is filled with sexism, and it sucks. We’re taking a stand against it because we think women are amazing and completely equal in value to men.”
This is where I think Novak missed the boat in his comments. He has shown that he understands that because he can maneuver a tennis ball better than anyone else on the planet, he has a platform and an opportunity to do good in the world. He has stood up for young children – typically the most undervalued segment of society in the entire world – because he knows that, being the number one player in the world, people will listen to him.
Remember when he stood up for Syrian refugees and encouraged the world to open its doors to them? Again, he did that because he realized that people will listen to him because he’s a famous athlete.
Another one of Novak’s strengths is that he is constantly trying to improve himself. He is willing to listen to others. Therefore, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that, if his attention is drawn to the fact that women worldwide who suffer not just from sexism but from suffocating discrimination and abuse could benefit from his words of support and encouragement, he will in time come to offer just that.
I remain a huge fan of Novak, even while I am very disappointed in him. I don’t think these comments entirely represented the type of person he is. I think he spoke without really realizing what he was speaking about, and without taking the time to measure his words.
The sad thing is that we’re about to go to another joint tournament, in Miami, and you’d better believe the men there will be asked the same things Novak was asked, and they will know exactly how Novak’s reputation has taken a hit from his comments. Which will mean that they will either a) clam up or b) offer the most polished and inoffensive comments possible.
Maybe, just maybe, a male tennis player will stand up and condemn Moore’s comments the way I wish Novak would have done. But we’ll never know if that player would have done so had he not had Novak’s negative example to stay away from.
So, to sum up:
- Raymond Moore deserves to be fired.
- Novak Djokovic does not deserve to be condemned, but he should be called out for his wrong-headed comments.
- I am sick and tired of reading about equal prize money in tennis, and I’m mad at both Moore and Novak for bringing it up.
Oh, and one more thing:
Women’s tennis is fantastic and I love it.