“We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships and four Olympic championships… men’s players get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships,” said Hope Solo, US soccer goalkeeper, in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016. Statistics claim that apart from the period of major sporting festivals, women’s sports receive only around 4% media coverage, and out of that little coverage, women are often objectified or demeaned. The idea that the value and relevance of work depends on which gender a person belongs to is disturbing in itself. Even as society continues to attach stereotypical comments and attitude to sportswomen, board room meetings remain yet another male-dominated space where women struggle to be heard.
In this age of meritocracy and supposed equality, there is an invisible barrier that exists between sports and women at community level. Gender is a social construct formed and shaped by society and it is a very fundamental way in which humans classify each other. The fact that men are strong and aggressive, and fast and competitive, while women have all the contrasting traits from men, make sportswomen an anomaly in society. A woman who chooses sports is not only classified as not-so-feminine, but also deals with lack of financial and mental support.
John Clammer is of the opinion that social inequalities are seen as “natural” and thus, society does not tamper with these. The world of sports has been witnessing incidents of the dominant group (here males) pulling the strings and the subordinate group (here females) accepting things the way they are. The stereotyping does not start on the field itself, it is a result of the ancient practice of giving a boy football and a girl Barbie doll to play with. In the catalogue of marginality given by Tatum, the dominant group takes the inequalities for granted and females, who belong to the subordinate group, believe in these differences and lose faith in their own abilities.
As science and technology continue to dominate, myths and superstitions have not stopped casting their shadow in the arena of sports. There are families around the globe today who have a firm belief that vigorous activities are not meant for women. This leads to invention of lighter and less demanding sports such as net ball, because basketball was deemed too manly for women. Gender is reinforced as a dominant mode of social classification when men act as a dominant force in sports. Sweeping gender inequality in the world of sports under the rug has been an age long tradition.
Personalities including Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, remarked that even a toughened female sportsperson is not shaped enough to sustain certain specific shocks. Even though UNESCO in 1978 recognised physical activity and sports as a basic human right, women’s sports activity has been classified as “not entertaining”. From Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president, remarking “female players could wear tighter shorts” and Manoj Rana and Chandan Pathak verbally harassing female gymnast Snehal Pradhan at the Asian Games of 2014, sexism in the sports industry is only increasing.
Discrimination in sports on the basis of gender is witnessed in different forms today, with pay gap, harassment, sexist attitude and less media coverage being a few of them. Global Sports Salaries Survey, 2017, claims that a male basketball player in National Basketball Association (NBA) earns 90 times more than their female counterparts. The situation in India is worse; the very first name that comes up while naming an Indian sportsperson is Sachin Tendulkar or maybe Virat Kohli. With blatant disparity and supremacy of cisgender heterosexual males in the world of sports, controversies regarding biological differences, skirt length and differing penalties are rampant.
Approximately 12% of sports news is presented by women. Moreover, accommodating women in a 20km away local institution during the South Asian Federation Games of 2016 while giving men a nearby four star hotel to stay in shows biasness towards men. Hockey, the pinnacle sport of India, has a tenfold wage gap between its men and women players. From Sania Mirza being criticised for the length of her skirt to the Squash Racket Federation of India not recommending Dipika Pallikal for Arjuna Award even though she was the first Indian to rank in the top 15, the world of sports has its roots in deep seated patriarchy.
An entire section of our society still stigmatises LGBTQIA+ sportspersons. Dutee Chand became India’s first athlete to come out as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in 2019, and the amount of backlash she received from her village was humongous. However, individuals from different sexual orientation not always experience apparent discrimination, but softer forms of exclusion such as bullying and fear.
From Santhi Soundarajan, an athlete from Southern India who attempted suicide as a result of rejection from the local sports federation because she failed the “sex test”, to Pinki Pramanik being drugged and made unconscious for examination, certain women have spent their entire lives to be told that they are not women enough to participate in sports. Women have been mistreated during medical tests and have been labelled as “male pseudo hermaphrodite” (incapable of having penetrative sex), which goes on to say that apart from capabilities, sexual characteristics are of utmost concern.
The list of unfortunate incidents in the world of sports is endless. It will take both time and effort to break the rudimentary notion that men deserve more pay because the public is more interested.
To place all genders, binary or non-binary, on an equal footing, critical mass theory needs to be applied that goes on to state that when the size of a group (here, women/LGBTQIA+ community) reaches a certain mass or threshold level, that group gains trust and influence to thereby help in inclusion. With pro-inspiring legislations and charters such as Title IX, the Brighton Declaration on Woman and Sport, and European Charter of Women’s Rights on Sports being implemented in different countries of the world, India still has a long way to go. Football organisations/clubs, namely Lewes FC, Norwegian Football Association and the New Zealand Football Body have decided to grant equal pay to both their men’s and women’s teams. This goes on to prove the saying, “There is always hope, always.”
The invisibilisation of certain genders, with domination of one over the rest cannot continue. With the world of sports limiting its language to two communities, there is zilch certainty as to when discrimination will cease to exist. The claws of inequalities have not left even famous sportswomen including Serena William, who is paid less than a male tennis athlete, or Sania Mirza, who was used as ‘bait’ to pacify Leander Peas for the doubles team. There is not only a lack of inclusion in terms of policies and rules, but also in terms of infrastructure i.e. stadiums and fields having gender-neutral changing and rest rooms. Blatant ignorance and marginalisation was defeated when Kerela hosted India’s first ever transgender sports meeting in 2017.
Bringing in intersectionality in the world of sports is not only crucial but also the need of the hour. The narrative of sports can be rewritten to spread better and utopian ideals, and as Lisa Sthalekar says, “We want the media to critique performances. Be analytical – something that the media and journalists are with the male side of the game.” It is time we change the saying of the an old nursery rhyme that says, “Young women are made of rings and jings and other things fine, mothers are made of ribbons and laces and sweet pretty faces, and old women are made of reels and jeels and old spinning wheels.”