Give Female Athletes What They Deserve

Written by Thomas Duke and J.A. Windham

11.38 seconds. That’s what it takes to be truly in a class of your own at the Olympic Games. As Katie Ledecky blew away the field and her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle, we couldn’t help but marvel at the results of her incredible training and talent. But despite winning multiple gold medals in Rio, Ledecky—and so many heroic athletes like her—has little chance of enjoying financial rewards comparable to her male counterparts.

Of course, this isn’t just an Olympian issue. Female athletes consistently make less than similarly-successful men across the sporting world. This pay gap even made national headlines last summer, when the US women’s soccer team shattered records to win the Women’s World Cup. Sadly, far from receiving a hero’s welcome, the team came home to a country that not only hadn’t heard of them, but which also paid them far less than a lackluster men’s team received just for showing up to games. So they took the issue public, openly demanding equal pay. While the President cheered them on, the Senate went one step further, passing a resolution urging the US Soccer Federation to treat the women’s team as they “deserved” to be treated.

But this raises a broader question: do female athletes actually deserve equal pay?

To answer, we start by recognizing that to “deserve” something is to deserve it from somebody. When we complain that we aren’t being treated “fairly” or “justly,” this is what we mean: that a particular person is being unfair or unjust. Which makes sense, because the good things in life—love, respect, wealth—don’t just grow out there on the justice tree, to be picked by any claimant who feels “deserving.” Nor does justice have to do with some sort of cosmic calculus or karmic score; one doesn’t “deserve” the good life from the universe. Rather, because real people have to cultivate the love, respect, or wealth we seek, what we deserve is a function of our value to them.

Consider an example from the entertainment industry, an actress. Were she to conclude that she wasn’t being compensated appropriately, her rightful complaint would be with the producers who hired her. Were she to contend that her film wasn’t being received well enough, she would take issue with the standards of critics or the tastes of fans. Or were she to protest that she was snubbed for an Oscar, she would direct her grievance at the Academy Awards.

But naturally, the actress would need some basis for her complaint—some standard by which to conclude, “That wasn’t fair!” And as suggested above, the basic standard here is that we deserve what we’ve earned from others. To make her case, the actress would explain to her producers that she was worth more to them—that she made them more money, that she performed better, that she garnered higher praise—than her original contract anticipated. She would contend to critics and fans that she treated them to a far more enjoyable experience than they seemed to appreciate. She would point out to the Academy Awards that by their own criterion, she was the better choice.

Also key to determining what we deserve from others is the relevant context. For instance, suppose you’re making a film and weighing how much to pay your lead actress. Whether you ought to compensate her like Megan Fox or an actress from the Royal Shakespeare Company depends on the goal of your movie. Are you aiming for box-office gold? Because while Fox probably deserves top dollar for a chance to scale the charts, to pay a Royal Shakespeare actress as much—skilled as she may be—would put you in dire financial straits. Or are you shooting for artistic excellence? Because in that case, even Fox—who would probably tank the production—wouldn’t deserve the relatively modest salary of a Royal Shakespeare actress. The point is, justice doesn’t demand that you commit yourself to ruin for the sake of others—nobody “deserves” your immolation.

By the same token, female athletes are not charity cases. Whether a particular athlete deserves to be paid more by her team owner, sponsor, or tournament organizer depends on who she is and who she seeks the payment from. In the world of commercial sports, while an athlete’s popularity and talent are valuable in different contexts, neither carries the day. Rather, both are important ingredients in a broader analysis of whether paying an athlete more will turn a profit or break the bank. And female athletes simply do not deserve “equal pay” at the expense of their employer’s viability.

Of course, none of this is to say that these women work less hard or lack the skill of their male counterparts. To the contrary, athletes like Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles are giants of grit, world-class talents, and stars in their respective sports. Nor is it to say that there’s no injustice at work here. But just like in our acting analogy above, it’s critical to be clear on who these women deserve better treatment from.

While sports employers are largely justified in paying women less than men, sports fans are often guilty of allowing the incredible achievements of female athletes to go underappreciated. Though this is a well-debated question, there don’t appear to be any conclusive data explaining just why female athletes are underappreciated. However, the most common explanation seems to be that both the rules of the game and physiological differences seem to make women’s sports, on the whole, less interesting to prospective spectators.

The rules argument has little sway. Women’s sports today continue to be plagued by a number of outdated rules which find their basis in now-defunct assumptions about the female body’s capacity for endurance. Where those exist, there’s no question that they should be revised or abolished (just like the different media production techniques which make women’s sports seem slower than they really are).

However, the physiological point does have some basis in fact and intuition. There’s no denying that women are, on average, less nimble, less tall, and less muscular than men. And it follows that female athletes typically don’t swim as fast, throw as hard, or jump as high as male athletes do. For the casual fan, who consumes commercial sports in his leisure time or as part of an exercise in social bonding, this doesn’t seem like a terrible reason to prefer watching men’s sports.

But that it’s not terrible doesn’t mean it’s sufficient. You should want the best in life—whether in work or in play. The “bigger-is-better” approach of the physiology standard doesn’t do justice to the elements of competitive sport—the prowess, the passion, the pursuit of ever-greater achievement—that make it so enriching.

Take boxing, for instance. No one would watch Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson and complain that Mayweather doesn’t hit as hard because he’s not a heavyweight—or that he’s less interesting to watch as a result. What makes both Mayweather and Tyson so worth watching is the complete mastery of their craft, the excitement of their next big fight against an upstart rival, or the suspense of not knowing whether a knockout is right around the corner. It was factors like these that made watching MMA’s Ronda Rousey during her historic UFC run so enjoyable. She was the best—and it was thrilling.

So even if you’re only a casual sports fan, we’d like to suggest a more fruitful standard for deciding what you watch: approach sports with a view to watching excellent athletes perform—whatever the context. In so doing, you’ll open yourself up to a wealth of new pleasures in the sporting world. You’ll appreciate that Serena Williams dominates just like Roger Federer—that Simone Biles, diminutive though she may be, towers over her competition just like Usain Bolt—that the US women’s soccer team can and has carried the hopes of a nation just like the men’s team—and on and on.

Unlike a sports team, your bottom line isn’t your solvency—it’s your happiness. As a fan, you owe it to yourself to watch these heroic women perform. And they deserve it. What’s more, if you do, they might even get that paycheck after all.

Creative commons-licensed image from Wikimedia

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