Monday, November 30, 2009

The Unquantifiable Gap in Women's Sports

Common talking points in arguments about prevailing gender inequalities in American sports typically zero in on big issues like unequal participation numbers, conflicting amounts and varieties of sports available to men and versus those available to women, and salaries for coaches and professional athletes. All of these points are important and germane to the topic of women’s sports; that said, these points are not as closely related to each other as many advocates and academics often believe them to be. Make a quick jump to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s website and you will find a page entitled “Pay Inequality Athletics” (hat tip to the Women’s Professional Sports blog). This page presents an array of bullet points that reel off numerous statistics that point out just how unequal the American sports landscape remains today. I’ll list a few:
  • Although the gap has narrowed, male athletes still receive 55% of college athletic scholarship dollars, leaving only 45% to be allocated to women.
  • Women's teams receive only 38% of college sport operating dollars and 33% of college athletic team recruitment spending.
  • In NCAA Division I-A, head coaches for women's teams receive an average salary of $850,400 while head coaches for men's teams average $1,783,100. This is a difference of $932,700.
  • For a WNBA player in the 2005 season, the minimum salary was $31,200, the maximum salary was $89,000, and the team salary cap was $673,000. For NBA players in the 2004-2005 season, the minimum salary was $385,277, the maximum salary was $15.355 million, and the team salary cap was $46 million.
Because disparities are most effectively expressed numerically, it’s tough to look at these statistics and still argue that women are getting a fair shake in both collegiate and professional sports. Numbers don’t lie—this why advocates like those at the Women’s Sports Foundation cite them. Taken at their face value, these statistics are more than enough to convince any rational person that there’s much more work to be done in athletics in order to level the gender playing field. Unfortunately, the numbers contained in these bullet points belie much larger philosophical issues, ones that transcend the numbers and, in fact, go on to show how unrelated these statistics are to each other and how grouping them together is (while good-natured) manipulative.

The common thread amongst most equality arguments—whether it is directly addressed or indirectly assumed—is money. Look again at the stats mentioned above. Scholarships, salaries, recruitment dollars… Whether the issue is high school, college, or pro sports, the elephant in the room is that men’s sports have access to more dollars. Sports, then, is absorbed into a larger gender inequality sphere of argument: economics. This is where the intentions of many women’s sports advocates become disingenuous: sports and economics, while often related, are not the same.

This is where a person’s own philosophical stance towards sports comes into play. Think of it this way:

- Sports as business, or
- Sports as pure athletic endeavor

This major philosophical difference is rarely, if ever, cited in arguments surrounding gender inequalities in American sports. Aside from the obvious reason that one outlook is quantifiable where the other is not, a big reason I think women’s sports advocates avoid the topic of ‘Sports as pure athletic endeavor’ is because the necessary requirement to realize this simple precept already exists: access. Salaries, endorsements and business models are not necessary requirements for those wishing to participate and experience the competitive thrill of athletic competition. Women (and men, for that matter) need only the chance or opportunity to a play a sport (high school sports, youth leagues, backyard games, anything) in order to realize the meaning and benefit of that sport. Clich├ęs like “for the love of the game” originate from the very real fact that sports themselves have an unquantifiable inherent value, and it is that value that supersedes any monetary benefits that a lucky few athletes are able to earn. As I mentioned in my previous post, opportunities for women to participate in a wealth of different sports has never been higher. Title IX’s efforts to sniff out discriminatory practices in events like sports have been extremely effective. Most advocates would not deny this.

It is at the professional-level—where the bottom-line is not the unquantifiable spirit of athletic competition but the quantifiable value of the almighty dollar—that the gap separating men’s and women’s sports is at its widest. Professional sports—not sports in general—are pure business. And if a fair businessperson is to properly run an enterprise the size and scope of a professional sports league, this businessperson should adhere to the laws of supply and demand. All participants in this league (owners, management, coaches and players) should be paid based on the revenue they produce. This is how fair and successful businesses operate.

You see where I’m going with this. It’s a cold, black-and-white way of viewing the world; it’s a way in which I hate discussing things. But if advocates for equality in women’s professional sports are going to invoke monetary statistics, they must also address things like the amount of revenue a women’s professional sports league produces and the actual demand that exists for women’s professional sports in general. The former is often discussed and excused with arguments like “women’s sports do not receive the same marketing pushes as men’s sports, so of course they make less money…” There’s a lot of truth to such points. But the issue of demand is hardly addressed (at least from the research I’ve conducted) at all. How many people are demanding women’s professional sports? And which sports are there demands for?

I want to leave off on a similar note as my last post. How can women’s professional sports be transformed into a viable economic product, one that best utilizes the abilities of our best female athletes? With recent developments like the inaugural season of the Lingerie Football League, it’s easy to see how this question can be answered in exploitative, insulting ways. There are better solutions, like re-inventing women’s basketball by tailoring the game to the unique abilities of its players. I’d like to hear some of yours…


andrewo said...

Interesting post; I've linked to it here, and would appreciate any insight you can share into the gender imbalances in small college athletics. As you may or may not be aware that the DOE has opened up avenues of quantifiability in this realm.

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