Last week, President Trump announced his intention to nominate two new Federal Reserve Board members: former presidential candidate and pizza chain executive Herman Cain (who has since removed his name from consideration), and Trump campaign economic advisor Stephen Moore. Moore, to be sure, has some controversial economic opinions, including calling for a return to the gold standard. But he has recently come under fire for his scathing critique of, in his view, the greatest issue facing American society: the “feminization of basketball.”
In numerous columns for the National Review, Moore criticized female athletes advocating for pay equality, describing them as demanding “equal pay for inferior work.” In a 2002 reflection on March Madness, Moore opined on one of the game’s female referees. “How outrageous is this? This year they allowed a woman to ref a men’s NCAA game…I see it as an obscenity. Is there no area in life where men can take vacation from women?” Later, Moore offered his suggestions to make the sport more palatable: “Here’s the rule change I propose: No more women refs, no women announcers, no women beer venders, no women anything.”
Moore has no personal stake in the matter — although he is well aware that “there’s no joy in dunking over a girl,’ he self-admittedly “can’t dunk (except on the eight-foot baskets).” But his comments reflect a widespread belief, amongst both athletes and sports fans, that women’s sports are just worse. It’s a belief rooted in media coverage, rhetoric of (male) sports commentators, and a deep-rooted pay inequity for athletes. And it’s a belief that needs to change.
“How outrageous is this? This year they allowed a woman to ref a men’s NCAA game…I see it as an obscenity. Is there no area in life where men can take vacation from women? Here’s the rule change I propose: No more women refs, no women announcers, no women beer venders, no women anything.”
The facts are clear: men’s sports are given more clout than women’s. Title IX, originally passed in response to gender inequity in collegiate sports, is often misconstrued as requiring equal funding for men’s and women’s sports. In fact, the law only requires that male and female athletes receive equal “treatment” and “benefits.” And in practice, one of its most significant effects has been a dramatic reduction in the proportion of female head coaches, from over 90% in the 1970s to less than half that (42.6%) in 2010. As coaching positions in women’s sports become higher salaried (and thus more lucrative), they are flooded with additional applicants — jobs that were originally only desired by women now hold appeal for men as well.
This has changed more than the job market: since 1999, 36 (male) coaches have resigned or been banned from the sport following allegations of sexual misconduct or inappropriate sexual behavior, and over 300 (primarily female) gymnasts have accused (male) coaches, gym owners, and team associates of sexual misconduct.
Okay, sure, so there’s a pay gap. But it’s justified because the men are better, right? Not necessarily. The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, for example, is the most successful team in FIFA Women’s World Cup history with a total of three championships (including the most recent, in 2014). The team has never finished lower than third.
The men? One top-three finish (third, in 1930), total. And yet, as the lawsuit filed against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) by all 28 current members of the women’s national team states, the men are taking home more — a lot more. According to the lawsuit, “The pay for advancement through the rounds of the World Cup was so skewed that, in 2014, the USSF provided the (men) with performance bonuses totaling $5,375,000 for losing in the Round of 16, while, in 2015, the USSF provided the (women) with only $1,725,000 for winning the entire tournament.” The women earned less than one third of what the men did, despite performing demonstrably better.
This pay and bonus discrepancy extends beyond soccer. The average salary for an NBA player, for example, is $6.4 million, while WNBA players make an average of just $71,635. While the number one pick in the 2018 NBA draft made around $9 million in his rookie season, the same pick for the women earns just $52,564. In March Madness, the conferences make $1.6 million in bonuses for each men’s team’s win — and not a cent for the women’s.
Yeah, but that makes sense — aren’t women’s sports just less profitable? According to the USSF lawsuit, not at all; in fact, the net profit for the women’s national team outstripped that of the men because the female prayers “were more successful in competition than the male players on the MNT — while being paid substantially less.” Further, even in sports in which the men’s league makes more than the women’s, the revenue shares are still allocated disproportionately. NBA players, for example, retain about 50 percent of their league’s revenue, while WNBA players get only 25.
This trend — of the continued treatment of female athletes as second-rate — has pushed women out of American sports and onto the international stage. In 2017, for example, three of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s star players chose to play for French and English teams instead of American ones. While they weren’t making significantly more in salary itself, they had access to the same state-of-the-art facilities as the men, a strong incentive to move away from their second-rate treatment in U.S. facilities.
Stephen Moore’s comments about women’s basketball are egregious, to be sure. But they’re just one manifestation of a larger problem: that we need to change the way we talk about women in sports. On the most surface level, this applies to the way we talk about female sports anchors and sports commentators, adopting the rhetoric that, in the words of Stephen Moore, “women are permitted to participate if and only if, they look like Bonnie Bernstein.” Bernstein is a sports reporter. She is also young, attractive, and blonde.
Moore continues, “the fact that Bonnie knows nothing about basketball is entirely irrelevant.” (To his credit, he said she could continue to commentate as long as she wore halter tops.) Moore’s not alone: just last year, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton laughed outright at a female sports reporter, Jordan Rodrigue, claiming it was “funny to hear a woman talk about routes like that.”
The public — and publicly patronizing — rhetoric around female sports anchors perpetuates the gender disparity within sports and exacerbates the discrepancy in sports coverage. Moore lamented that if you “turn on ESPN or even the networks these days…you’re as likely to see women playing as men. USA Today devotes nearly half its basketball coverage to the gals.”
Despite his claims, a study shows that women and girls account for over 40% of athletes but receive less than 4% of the coverage on news shows. Further, the study also found a “stark contrast between the exciting, amplified delivery of stories about men’s sports and the often dull, matter-of-fact delivery of women’s sports stories.”
Even the leagues themselves perpetuate these inequalities. On March 25, the NCAA tweeted, “when you find out there are no #MarchMadness games until Thursday,” with “a clip of the Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson throwing his computer in a dumpster.” Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart responded: “Sounds about right, coming from a page that has posted nothing about the women’s tournament. How can we get others to respect us when the NCAA doesn’t?! There was 8 WOmen’S games on the 25th.”
Female athletes, like female sports anchors, are disrespected by both the media and the sports organizations within which they operate. The disparities within both pay and coverage create a situation in which female athletes are treated as insignificant, exacerbating the existing inequalities. By normalizing rhetoric and attitudes like Moore’s, we perpetuate a system in which female athletes — athletes who are often better, and more successful, than their male counterparts — are permanently relegated to second-class status. They deserve better.