Going the Rounds: The debate for equal treatment of women’s sports marches on

By Rick Anderson

For the Grays Harbor News Group

Bill Laimbeer, the former “bad boy” of the Detroit Pistons who has reinvented his image as a successful coach and executive in the Women’s National Basketball Association, had some ideas to honor players selected for the recent WNBA All-Star Game.

Now head coach and team president of the Las Vegas Aces (who were hosting the game), Laimbeer recommended that this year’s all-stars receive upgraded hotel accommodations and additional tickets to the contest and first-class airfare to Vegas.

While agreeable to the first two provisions, WNBA officials — apparently fearful that the practice would establish precedent during the regular season — nixed the third.

Call me naive, but I was unaware that the likes of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were routinely subjected to the same cramped seating and pretzel snacks during road-trip flights that other economy-class passengers endure.

The incident also re-opened the debate over the treatment of female athletes. That controversy reached a crescendo last month when members of the gold medal-winning American women’s World Cup soccer team demanded pay equal to that of their male counterparts.

In the aftermath of the World Cup, two friends (one of each gender) sought my opinion on the equal pay issue.

My less-than-fearless response was that it depends upon the sport.

I’m a strong supporter of gender equity in the workplace. But sports, in my view, are primarily entertainment and subject to different standards.

Just as local lounge singers, regardless of their talent, won’t be paid as much as Lady Gaga, most female athletes can’t expect the same salary as Russell Wilson. The determining factors are public interest and the economic marketplace.

The American women’s soccer team, in my book, deserve equal pay on two counts. All athletes, male or female, representing the U.S. in international competition should be paid the same. In addition, public interest in the Women’s World Cup was intense.

Tennis is another sport in which spectator appeal justifies payment equality.

From the heyday of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to Serena Williams and 15-year-old phenom Coco Gauff today, the popularity of women’s tennis has at least equaled — and often surpassed — the men’s game.

One argument often floated by tennis traditionalists, that men play longer matches (best-of-five sets in the Grand Slam tournaments) and should be compensated accordingly, is bogus. If the length of the event is the sole criteria, Tour de France cyclists would be providing handouts to Tom Brady.

Novak Djokovic’s five-set victory over Roger Federer in last month’s Wimbledon men’s final was an undeniable classic. But you had to be a tennis diehard to stick with it throughout its 4-hour, 58-minute duration. That’s the equivalent of a seven-quarter Super Bowl (minus the halftime show and commercials).

In other cases, however, the inflated salary structure of professional men’s sports all but precludes equal compensation for the women.

Since they are frequently outbid for top talent by European teams, WNBA franchises could and probably should increase their player salaries.

But, let’s face it, the Seattle Storm would go out of business if forced to match the payroll of the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors. For all their commitment to social justice, I’ll take a wild guess that LeBron James and Kevin Durant would balk at accepting massive pay cuts in the interest of gender equality.

Women’s golf is in the same boat. As a regular spectator at Portland’s Cambia Classic, I can attest that the LPGA provides a more entertaining product than its reputation. It would be ludicrous, however, to suggest that Lexi Thompson comes within a par-5 of matching Tiger Woods in spectator appeal or corporate support.

Perhaps because the athletes aren’t paid, gender equity is a more attainable goal in the high school ranks.

Even there, female athletes endured some rocky moments in gaining public acceptance in the first decade following the 1972 adoption of the Title IX amendment. Sadly, we in the media — present company very much included — were partly to blame.

Looking back, I’m frankly embarrassed at our coverage of female sports in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The only excuse is that we sometimes took our cues from school administrators at the time.

When an Aberdeen girls basketball team led by Sharon Fackrell, Jill Smith and Tina Dixon captured the 1980 district AAA championship, the title game against Evergreen of Vancouver was assigned to Miller Junior High School’s tiny gym.

I had long assumed that AHS officials were unwilling to displace a boys basketball game at Sam Benn Gym in order to accommodate the girls. But in researching this column, I discovered that the Bobcat boys were playing a road game that night. So I have no idea why Benn Gym was unavailable.

Those days are mercifully long gone. During the winter and spring, at least, most media outlets are diligent about balancing their coverage of boys and girls sports.

In the fall, however, no girls sport has come close to approaching football in popularity. If some radio station attempted to launch a Prep Volleyball Game of the Week series, the odds are good that they would be scrambling to find sponsors.

That might not be fair. But that’s entertainment.