Discrimination, racism, homophobia, violence and regulations are all matters which are debated frequently and publically in the sporting world. Another issue of great importance to sportspeople is money. Some sports are still not regarded as full-time professions by fans and strangers alike – and we’d probably be surprised by which sports those are. It’s also not just the observers who don’t give athletes the credit they deserve: governing bodies can be guilty of this too.
The matter of funding is a tricky one. How does an association go about distributing meagre funds among professionals, whilst still allocating budget to development, grassroots sport and support staff? How are the rights to stage events decided, and how much support does an organiser receive? What happens when an athlete or an event receives a substantial income from an alternative source, are they worthy of less funding than an athlete who doesn’t have external support? Do you support the winners, those who potentially have a good infrastructure in place and natural talent to buoy them, or the losers, the athletes who have potential but are struggling to break through because they lack the assistance which could boost their standing? It’s like deciding which person of great importance to society should be kicked off the mythical survival raft in order to save the other members of the fated community.
One of the most famous sporting paycheque arguments of the last few years occurred in tennis. The world’s top female players lobbied for Wimbledon – a staunchly traditional tournament – to offer equal prize money to the competitors in the men’s and women’s championships. Some people argued that the women deserved less because they often spent far less time on court in order to advance and, ultimately, become champions. That it’s easier for a woman to win. And, in a way, this is true. But the fact that the women play on a best of three sets basis versus the men’s best of five isn’t the choice of the players, but the game’s administrators.
In the end, the women triumphed. Female competitors – win or lose – now take home as much prize money from SW19 as their male counterparts. A victory and another step forward for feminism, some people cried. My opinion may be controversial (and could perhaps be different if I were a professional tennis player): although I’m a woman, I’m with those who said that the women play fewer hours and therefore should earn less (for your information, tennis ladies, some sportspeople – male or female – have bigger problems than equality: in some sports, you actually lose money).
Which brings us to another angle of the debate: how should players be financially compensated, if not due to their ability to win or lose? To pay players per minute on court seems counter-productive: it would then be in their financial interest to make matches last for hours, or even days, although it wouldn’t be the best for their health. Indeed, this doesn’t work in the business world either – some people produce a higher-quality output from one hour of work than others produce in a week. Although some roles are paid hourly or daily and others are salaried, the world doesn’t measure efficacy and financial reward purely in terms of hours spent at one’s desk (though “presenteeism” has been increasingly important throughout the recession). Which part of society is taking the correct approach here?
Because it’s a recognised fact that salaries away from sport are unequal too. Despite legislation which is now decades old, the gender pay gap still exists. There are still more men in senior business positions than women. And, apart from this, there are ongoing ethical debates about the fact that those in “meaningful” or physically dangerous jobs such as community protection, healthcare and the armed forces, can earn far less than those plugging away in commercial enterprise organisations. The financial debate can become more and more complicated as we analyse it further, chipping away at inconsistencies and flaws until we perhaps lose sight of the original argument, even.
In many sports, the gender pay gap is still down to the fact that, as a commercial product, male sports are still worth far more. Spectators often regard them as more interesting and engaging, so broadcasters will pay an increased sum for the rights, sponsors and advertisers will pay larger fees due to the greater audience numbers, and the cycle perpetuates itself. Back here in the non-sporting world, the gender pay gap is generally believed to exist for two reasons: the fact that many women still take career breaks to have children (even if that’s “only” for as long as it takes to literally have a baby), and because lots of women apparently don’t ask for higher salaries, whereas men apparently speak up and demand more money.
Last month, I read one of the best sports articles I’ve ever seen. It’s long, I’d highly recommend reading at least the first few paragraphs. This piece is about Jamie Baker – British former-tennis player – and he muses about the wages in sport debate. It poses an interesting question: what if the richest athletes gave some money to the poorest ones? My thoughts went beyond this, wondering what would happen if some of the richest sports (football, golf, F1, for example) donated to some of the poorer ones (too many to mention). Or what might happen if some of the world’s wealthiest business people gave opportunities not just to people deemed as worthy mentees or successors, but to just average people with dreams unrelated to their benefactor’s own. These concepts could fail, because there are many reasons that some sports and industries succeed where others fail. But it would be interesting to try.
Whether we like it or not, money makes the world go round, and the spoils do not go to the neediest, but to the victor. Our society is ruled on entertainment and profit, rather than equality and fairness, and surely that has to change? Doesn’t everyone deserve a chance not just to do what they love, but to be successful at it?