By LaKeshia N. Myers
All my life I have been immersed in and around sports. Whether watching on television or participating in team sports as a student, I’m very thankful that my parents made it their business to introduce me to various sports to develop athleticism, camaraderie and leadership skills—skills that I continue to use daily. It was also not lost on me that for the majority of women athletes, the pinnacle of their careers was encapsulated by a four-year build-up to the Olympics. For most, they had one opportunity to shine on the international stage. Using their quadrennial celebrity to leverage endorsements and join national tours for additional pay.
In select sports, mainly soccer and basketball, American women have enjoyed lengthy careers overseas for decades. Which is why I remember being most excited in the summer of 1997, when the WNBA launched. It is sad to say that nearly 25 years later, the pay gap between male and female professional basketball players is nearly six million dollars wide.
According to journalist Al Neal, A’ja Wilson, who was drafted first overall by the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces in the 2018 WNBA Draft, earned just $52,564 in her rookie season. By comparison, her NBA counterpart Deandre Ayton started his professional career earning $6.8 million playing for the Phoenix Suns — a difference of $6.7 million.
Within the equity conversation, pay is only one of many issues that showcase the stark divide between men’s and women’s sports. The other is scoring and overall penalization for athleticism and outspokenness. Recently, gymnast Simone Biles became the first woman to complete a Yurchenko double pike—a vault that requires one to launch off the vaulting table with a roundoff back handspring, into two flips in a pike position. Esquire Magazine’s Mandy Langmann called it, “a marvel of a move so treacherous that most gymnasts won’t even dare to practice it” (Langmann, 2021). For such an amazing feat, she was only given a 6.6 score.
Scoring also played a part when a chair umpire stripped Serena Williams of a game point during the 2018 U.S. Open after she called him a “thief” during the match, while there have been several documented instances where male tennis pros have cursed at umpires (cue John McEnroe footage). This double standard is reminiscent of the “Lew Alcindor rule”—where the NCAA once officially banned dunking the basketball because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly known as Lew Alcindor) was able to dunk. Deliberately undercutting an athlete’s score seeks to diminish their personal athleticism and their ability to influence the sport.
It happens to women when they seek to challenge the status quo and stretch themselves beyond what is seen as “typical for a girl.” Professional athletes are professional athletes, women deserve parity in pay and equity in scoring. They’ve paid the price and should reap the same rewards as their male counterparts.