Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 3, 2016

Taking A Stand, For Themselves And Many Others

Let us now praise famous women. On Saturday Victoria Azarenka won her 20th WTA singles title, defeating Svetlana Kutznetsova 6-3, 6-2 to capture the Miami Open. By doing so the 26-year old, known to her many fans as Vika (the first and last syllables of her two names), became just the third woman to capture the back-to-back events at Indian Wells and Miami. In the final at the BNP Paribas Open in the California desert two weeks ago Azarenka defeated top-ranked Serena Williams, also in straight sets.

With a pair of Australian Open titles Azarenka was herself the world number one for fifty-one weeks, from late January 2012 until early 2013. But then a series of injuries threatened to derail her career, and she saw her ranking fall as low as 32nd in the world. Last year she began the long journey back to the top of the tennis world, reaching the quarterfinals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Earlier this season she matched that performance at the Australian Open before losing to eventual champion Angelique Kerber. This week she avenged that defeat with a straight set semifinal win over Kerber in Miami. With her consecutive titles Azarenka will climb to 5th when the new rankings are released this week.

Sunday the women of the LPGA completed the first of their five major tournaments, the ANA Inspiration, forever known to golf fans of a certain age as the Dinah Shore. Although it’s been played for more than four decades, the event was not considered a major until 1983. Still that gives the ANA Inspiration seniority over the two majors played overseas, the Women’s British Open and the Evian Championship.

Golf fans are familiar with the par-5 18th hole at Mission Hills Country Club, with Poppie’s Pond fronting the final green. In 1988 Amy Alcott was the first winner to celebrate her victory by jumping into the pond. It took six years for the leap to be repeated, this time by Donna Andrews. Since then the victory jump has become a tradition, and now typically involves not just the winning golfer but also her caddie and often members or her family or support team.  Sunday that jump was taken by Lydia Ko, the world number one who captured her second major title with a come from behind victory, three weeks before her 19th birthday.

Also on Sunday the Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team moved to within a game of making college basketball history. With their 80-51 victory over Oregon State in the national semifinals, the Huskies advanced to the championship game Tuesday night against the winner of the Washington versus Syracuse contest played later Sunday evening in Indianapolis. The overall number one seed and heavy favorite, UConn will become the first women’s program to win four consecutive championships with a win on Tuesday.

When the UCLA men’s program was winning seven straight times under Coach John Wooden from 1967 through 1973 freshmen were not eligible to play varsity sports. That means that a fourth title would make the Huskies’ seniors, led by Breanna Stewart, the first college basketball players, men or women, to achieve such a feat. If they are denied by their eventual opponent in the final, the women of that team will be rightly hailed for pulling off one of the greatest upsets in NCAA history.

As remarkable as these accomplishments are, each is a reminder that women athletes continue to struggle for recognition and reward in a male-dominated sports world. As the Indian Wells fortnight was just starting, tournament director Raymond Moore made clear what he thought of women’s tennis. In an interview Moore said “In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Aside from the crude sexual innuendo in suggesting that women should “get down on their knees” Moore’s statement was stunning because the BNP Paribas Open, like the Grand Slam events and the Miami tournament that followed, pays out equal prize money to its men’s and women’s champions. Most of the weekly stops on the tennis circuit do not offer equal prizes but instead pay male winners significantly more. Moore was also apparently oblivious to the fact that at last year’s U.S. Open the women’s final sold out long before the men’s. Fortunately Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who owns the Indian Wells tournament, wasted no time in making Moore the former tournament director.

The LPGA meanwhile has to be thankful that there is a cable network devoted exclusively to golf. For if there wasn’t a Golf Channel even the major events on the women’s calendar might not be on television at all. Sunday’s leap into Poppie’s Pond by Ko, the winner of the first major golf tournament of the year, was nowhere to be found on the traditional networks; just one week before CBS will offer hours and hours of first tee to final green coverage of the Masters, the first men’s major of 2016.

Even as he guides his UConn team toward a record-setting fourth straight championship and eleventh overall, Coach Geno Auriemma must deal with carping from male sportswriters that his team’s dominance is somehow bad for the sport. That’s a complaint that Wooden, rightfully hailed as the Wizard of Westwood, never had to endure.

All of which makes it both timely and appropriate that this week five soccer players on the U.S. National Women’s Team filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Goalkeeper Hope Solo, team co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, and fellow players Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe joined in the action. A player on the men’s national team receives $17,625 for a win against a top opponent in a friendly match, and $5,000 for a loss. The women receive $1,350 for a similar victory, and nothing at all for a loss or tie. Men who make the World Cup squad get nearly $70,000 for doing so; women less than half that amount.

The disparities are all the more dramatic when one considers that the women’s team has captured gold at the last three Olympics and is the reigning World Cup champion. Last year’s Women’s World Cup final between Team USA and Japan was the most watched soccer match in this country ever. The men’s national team, on the other hand, was feared to be in danger of missing out on the field for the 2018 men’s World Cup after a recent loss to Guatemala. Even when they do make it into the tournament, clear-headed fans will be happy if the mediocre men advance to the knockout stage.

For the most part men’s sports are more popular than women’s, perhaps figure skating and, at least in this country World Cup soccer excepted. No one can reasonably argue that where there is a gap in fan interest, there will inevitably be economic gaps as well. But popularity and interest is driven by media coverage, and members of the male-dominated media far too often let their inherent bias show. Men who look down on or belittle women’s sports are ultimately the losers; for they don’t know what great athletic performances they are missing. In a world where change comes slowly, it’s good to see that five women in a position of strength decided to exercise their power.

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