On Athletes, Expectations, and Fairness

during day fifteen of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on June 10, 2018 in Paris, France.

The tennis calendar is a relentless one. It barely seems like we’ve dusted off the last of the terre battue from Roland Garros, and yet, we’ve zoomed through the grass court warm up tournaments, and are awaiting the start of Wimbledon. Yet, I’m still sorting through my thoughts on equal prize money, Rafael Nadal, Simona Halep and Ion Tiriac. Not that these issues are limited to the recent Roland Garros champions — in fact, these issues continue to swirl around the tours, regardless of who is asking and answering the questions.

There was much to rejoice in Simona Halep’s victory in Paris — it was a story of true perseverance through very public, very painful defeats in Grand Slam finals. It was also the very candid story of a player learning to control the mental side of her game, with very public bumps along the road, including the exit and return of her coach, Darren Cahill. And yet, I found it hard to rejoice while watching Ion Tiriac joining in the celebration in her player box.

For much of sporting history, staying silent has been the norm for most players. Those who could afford to avoid the confrontation, often did so — most famously, Michael Jordan declined to support the opposition to openly the racist race run by Senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina, noting that Republicans bought shoes too. Those who have spoken out have been the outliers and the heroes — from Billie Jean King to Arthur Ashe to Muhammed Ali to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

So, perhaps it is too much to expect from Halep that she defy the man who is likely Romania’s equivalent of Bill Gates and Don King combined. But this is a different era for athletes — standing up for justice has become more a recognized part of being a role model, whether it’s LeBron James or Serena Williams recognizing the injustice of police killings in the United States, or Novak Djokovic’s incredibly nuanced support for the refugees going through Serbia. Even Michael Jordan has decided to come off the bench for justice.

And, let’s remember that Tiriac’s despicable conduct isn’t even a global issue — it’s rather his bigoted comments and unacceptable behavior within the confines of tennis. Specifically, Tiriac speculated on the skin color of Serena Williams’ baby with husband Alexis Ohanian and also criticized her weight upon her return to the tour post-childbirth. Halep encouraged us all to recognize that Tiriac was simply joking. Nope, nothing to look at here.

If there is anything we have learned since November 2016, it’s that jokes, especially racist jokes by those in power, are not just words. And staying silent in the face of those jokes, or, even worse, minimizing the impact of those words, is not acceptable anymore. Perhaps it was too much for Halep to disagree with Tiriac over this before, but one hopes that the mantle of champion will include a greater willingness to stand against such egregious conduct.

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Perhaps it’s not surprising that in a sport where comments like Tiriac’s are tolerated, we are still in the midst of the equal prize money “debate.” What is especially disappointing, however, is that Rafael Nadal decided to enter the fray by positing that men and women should be paid according to their respective popularity, citing the oft-used example of male models as men who, due to market forces, are not paid as much as female models.

Sigh. Rafa.

Fine, let’s talk about male models, shall we? Never has the plight of the male model been more invoked than by a man justifying unequal pay in another industry. In fact, starting now, any male player or official who invokes male models as an excuse should have to drop and do 50 push-ups immediately. First of all, modeling is far more individualistic a career than tennis is. Yes, tennis is an individual sport, but you can’t play tennis alone. I don’t see Rafa (and, not to pick on Rafa, we could easily insert any number of male tennis players who have seen fit to criticize equal pay), winning titles and gaining endorsements without playing at least seven matches every year in Paris, right? And he doesn’t begrudge the equal pay given to the guy across the net from him, who, in all cases except maybe that Swiss guy, is far less popular and marketable than Rafa, right?

The entire ATP tour is predicated on this idea that a rising tide raises all ships — that the players would band together so that they would collectively earn more than a few would on barnstorming tours or exhibitions. It’s been a huge success — a tennis calendar that is too long with too many tournaments, and many lucrative exhibition opportunities for the most successful on the tour. Is it perfect? No. Do the guys at the bottom deserve a bigger cut to make their careers more viable? I think so. But the basic principle, that working collectively will help enhance the sport, is one that few criticize. You don’t see the Gilles Simons of the world complaining that he’s making the same amount as Roger Federer does when they both win their respective second round matches, even though Federer is clearly more marketable. Literally look through every set of first round results, and note that every winner made the same amount of money, regardless of their popularity and ability to draw a crowd.

Yet, somehow, this logic, which has served the ATP so well, is apparently bonkers when applied to WTA players at combined tournamnets with both ATP and WTA draws. Come on. Anyone who has attended a tennis tournament can attest to the increased energy, TV coverage and ticket prices at combined tournaments compared to an ATP only or WTA only event. But there are still male players that begrudge the WTA their share of the prize money, for a tournament that markets both sides evenly?

I really don’t even know what to say anymore. Even if the principle of equal prize money doesn’t resonate, which it should, the logic that having WTA players at the tournament has significantly contributed to the success of a particular event isn’t hard to follow. I mean, there is a Nobu on site in Indian Wells! There are exceptions of course — the Citi Open in DC and the Beijing tournament are different tier levels on the WTA and ATP tours and the prize money reflects the difference in tier, but, in general, at non-Slam events, the women and men are offering exactly the same product — best of 3 set tennis, and the event is marketed as a joint event — so paying women less in prize money is much more a political statement than a practical concern. That isn’t to say that the WTA couldn’t do better in its own revenue generating efforts — its TV deal for starters — but the already uphill battle for women’s sports shouldn’t have to contend with the erroneous assumptions of their male colleagues as a starting point.

As for the Slams — good news, the prize money issue has largely been resolved in favor of equal prize money. Bad news — the difference between best of three and best of five always helps to revive the issue once again. Once again — no one asked Roger Federer to return 40% of his prize money because he won last year’s final in straight sets. Nor did anyone propose paying Marin Cilic less because he’s less marketable than Nadal or Djokovic. And while the one-sided ladies’ final might have provoked attacks on equal prize money, the even less suspenseful men’s final somewhat dissipated the likely attack. For now, anyway.

All I can say is this, there are genuinely terrifying forces at play in this world. Maybe some tone deaf remarks on equal pay by a bunch of tennis players aren’t the biggest causes to be fighting right now. But, as someone who spends a lot of time watching and thinking about tennis, I’m done with this debate. The “reasons” given for unequal pay (aside from the tournament tier one), are beginning to look like “whataboutism” and less like logic. And it’s simply unacceptable.