I have been embroiled in an interesting facebook debate on this question, initiated by a thoughtful trouble-maker, henceforth referred to as AC. His argument was that in many sports (though he conceded not all), the women’s game is far inferior, therefore it attracts less audience and subsequently less revenue and sponsorship opportunities. Ergo, the female players in, for example, football, ought to be paid less.
Part of our debate hinged on this notion of ‘ought’. Just because there is less revenue attached, does that justify the situation of gender inequality in sport where England’s top player Steph Houghton earns around £65,000 a year whilst Wayne Rooney earns £300,000 a week? AC thought it did, because the revenue streams are so much greater around Rooney, unlike Houghton who many people could not identify if shown a picture of her. A battle ensued concerning if both players put in an equal amount of work, shouldn’t that imply equal wages? A snipe from BL asserted this notion does not work because if a blind cripple also put in the same amount of labour time, then this would not justify equal wages because they would be hopeless. So, merit also has to be a consideration. Obviously, there’s no point in only paying sportspeople according to labour time expended because that trivialises the spectacle of winning and succeeding and putting on a good show, the essential life-blood of any sport, or indeed much of entertainment, as a whole. But is merit and achievement the only consideration? Why then, has tennis ace Serena Williams attracted less total revenue than Maria Sharapova, given she has won far more tournaments?
Whatever the case, it remains somewhat troublesome that there is such a stark gap between the top women and top men in sport. Furthermore, it seems that even when women do attract a greater revenue stream than the men, they still don’t get paid as much! Revenue from the USA’s women’s soccer team amounts to £14m more than the men’s game, yet a female player only gets £30,000 whereas a man would get £48,000. Five US female players are going to court against US Soccer to try and sort out this anomaly.
So what of the argument that the women’s game is inferior to the men’s? It could be argued this is for historical reasons. The women’s game has been chronically underfunded for centuries with less coaching opportunities and little financial incentive that can reward talent. So, the argument about superior quality may be a ‘chicken and egg’ thing. What came first – women’s exclusion from sport that creates a poorer performance when they do play, or an ‘inherent’ poor performance that might justify less investment?
An article in ‘The New Statesman’ argues, “Victorian society viewed sport as “inseparable from the philosophy of Muscular Christianity, which defined itself against femininity and ‘softness’,” says Tony Collins, the author of Sport in Capitalist Society. It did not think much of the notion of women playing. Nor did Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic Games, in 1896. He described women’s sport as “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate” and advocated that the games be reserved for men, though a few females were allowed to compete from 1900. In 1921, the Football Association in England deemed the sport “quite unsuitable for females” and banned its clubs from loaning pitches to women.”
So perhaps what is happening now is a redress to sport’s shameful past that systematically excluded women. However, this is not without naysayers. AC thought the promotion of women’s sport that is happening today, most recently with the Women’s European Football, is actually ‘social engineering’ and therefore distasteful if the women’s game is inferior. But if the women’s game is not inherently inferior, but appears so only as a product of history and society, then the notion of ‘social engineering’ needs to be stripped of its negative connotations. The promotion of women’s football need not incur negative feelings among men unless they have a problem with equality in general. (And besides which, lots of people do think the women’s game is just as good as the men’s albeit with different qualities).
Regarding the huge sums of money thrown at men’s football where someone like Neymar can earn a quarter of a billion pounds compared to Steph Houghton’s £65,000 a year, this is merely money from the surplus product of society as-a-whole that cannot find a profitable investment in industry. It is leisure-capital that doesn’t even seek much of a return on its investment, it is luxury consumption, and thus these top male footballers have become playthings of the rich. It is a popular perception that football stars are overpaid, but we need to ask why? It is because some people literally have tonnes of money to burn where investing in healthcare or education isn’t as sexy. Nevertheless, the indication is that there is such a thing as a gigantic surplus product in society that needs to be better used, and perhaps some of that could go to paying sportswomen equally. It is only a capitalist class that is desperate to cling on to what little remains of its traditions that is throwing massive money at the male footballers as a last show of chauvinist defiance in an era when women’s equality has become a popular prejudice.
But all things considered, what is really needed is for sport to be brought down to earth. Rather than have everything decided by elites and their committees, more social democracy is required over sport. In that way, people could collectively discuss how much a sportsperson should be paid – to choose whether we have equality based on equal labour time expended, how much merit should be extra-valued, the degree of corporate sponsorship permissible (or intrusive government advertising as well). Perhaps the banning of ‘offensive’ chants at football matches, the increasingly sterile atmosphere, the policing of football fans, goes hand in hand with the overpayment of the stars, because both are symptoms of an underlying problem, the private appropriation of a social event. We need our ball back, and properly investing in the women’s game will make it seem more natural to introduce equal pay between men and women with an eye on the balance between effort and achievement, as decided democratically. What’s clear at the moment, is that leaving everything to blind market forces is creating chaos.