Which is more significant, a sexist statement of Stone Age proportions, or the worldwide facepalm it inspires?
Last week, U.S. Soccer, in its attempt to defend itself in a $67 million equal-pay lawsuit filed by the U.S. Women’s National Team, made just such a dated declaration. It is “indisputable science,” the federation and its attorneys asserted, that the “overall soccer-playing ability” of the women’s national team is inferior to that of the men’s.
According to U.S. Soccer, the men’s and women’s don’t perform “equal work requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions.” For one thing, the women don’t have to contend with the same type of “fan hostility” that the men do when they play on the road—or, apparently, at home.
“Even the hostility of fans at home crowds for the Men’s National Team in some friendlies can be unlike anything the Women’s National Team faces,” lawyers for U.S. Soccer wrote.
Shouldn’t a lack of hostility from home fans count in the women’s favor?
If you’re like me, your jaw dropped a few millimeters with every word you read from U.S. Soccer. To base their case on the idea that, essentially, the men’s team can beat the women’s team sounded so…last century. Never mind that the U.S. women’s team has won the last two World Cups while the men failed to qualify in 2018. Never mind that America’s most high-profile and prominent soccer stars at the moment play for the women’s team.
Fortunately, there seemed to be a lot of people like me. U.S. soccer’s filing was “widely condemned as misogynistic,” according to The New York Times. Five major sponsors—Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Visa, Deloitte—joined in the condemnation. Members of the women’s team played a match in Japan with their jerseys inside-out, to obscure the U.S. soccer logo. Most drastically, Carlos Cordeiro, the president of U.S. Soccer, resigned, saying the documents were “unacceptable and inexcusable.” Most telling to me were the reactions of old-guard pundits like Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, who host the Pardon the Interruption show on ESPN. Neither is known as a feminist, but both were left speechless by U.S. Soccer’s argument. Even for these 60-something males, the time when you could argue that men should be paid more just because they’re men was long past, and didn’t even merit a response.
If that time really is past, it’s tennis—in particular its women players over the last 50 years—that we can thank. For the first century of the sport’s existence, from 1873 to 1973, the U.S. Soccer attitude was also the norm in tennis. Al Laney, sportswriter for The New York Herald Tribune and one of the most respected tennis journalists of the amateur era (he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979), wrote extensively and enthusiastically about Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills in his 1968 memoir Covering the Court. But he also wrote this:
“In looking back over a few pleasant decades of attending sports activities on both sides of the Atlantic, there are discovered few games played by women that seem worth recalling in detail….Nearly always it is clashing personalities rather than skill or outstanding performance that make the occasion memorable. Unless something other than actual tennis has intervened to grace the occasion, you will search long through the history of the game to find matches suitable for embalming in the hackneyed superlatives of the sportswriter.”
Another respected tennis writer, former amateur player Gordon Forbes, admitted at the end of his 1978 memoir A Handful of Summers, that he had “used up all my adjectives on the men players.” Forbes sums up the prevailing male attitude toward women players during the amateur era this way:
“The girls were as much a part of this section of tennis history as the men. We watched them, were amused by them, and annoyed when their matches went too long and held up the starts of our own. We laughed at their funny service actions, and the mighty female swings they made at overheads.”
A few paragraphs later, Forbes notes the shift in that attitude that occurred during the 70s:
“Billie Jean and her colleagues soon changed that,” he wrote. “Players such as she, Margaret Court, Maria Bueno, Virginia Wade, or Darlene Hard could bury overheads with the best of them…Billie Jean is the modern American woman through and through and a great tennis player. More than great.”
What happened to make Forbes change his mind about women’s athletic abilities? The Battle of the Sexes, of course, and the rise of the WTA. That same year, 1978, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova would begin their rivalry in earnest with their first classic final, at Wimbledon. Since then, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, and especially Venus and Serena Williams have built on that athletic legacy. We still watch women’s matches for the clash of personalities, of course, but we watch for their skill and shotmaking, and for the drama and tension that their close matches create—all the reasons we watch men’s tennis, in other words. Last year’s US Open winner, Bianca Andreescu, is just 19, but she's already as tactically savvy and creative as any male player in the game today.
In A Handful of Summers, Forbes concludes his brief summary of the women’s game this way:
“Thinking back about all the girl players whom I watched, I find that there were only a handful who really perfected the simplest and most complicated of all things in tennis—the classic service swing.”
It’s safe to say Forbes would agree that Serena has perfected it in a way that few players of either gender ever have. As much as anyone else, its Serena’s dominance and commitment over a 20-year span that have made the old sexist notions about women’s tennis being an amusing warm-up act largely a thing of the past.
I say “largely” because, as we can see from the U.S. Soccer controversy, the old tropes about women’s athletic inferiority linger. And while equal pay has been the rule at all of the Grand Slams since 2007, there are still plenty of people in tennis who will never accept the idea. All of which makes me think of something that Billie Jean, quoting another King, said to me a few months ago:
“Coretta Scott King has this great quote—do you know it?—about how struggle is a never-ending process,” BJK said, “and every generation has to fight for its own freedom.”
The fact that sports officials can still issue sexist comments of Stone Age proportions means that fight must go on. The worldwide facepalm it inspired shows that women tennis players haven’t been fighting it in vain.