Serena Williams’ outburst during the US Tennis Open final is the latest memorable moment in a year that’s seen significant change in the global sporting scene on gender equality.
Organisations such as the International Tennis Federation are under increased pressure from female sports stars, social media fans and sponsors to address entrenched gender bias in the rule books and on pay, like never before.
Regardless of whether you support Williams’ remarks during the match – in which she accused umpire Carlos Ramos of unfair and sexist penalties during her loss to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in the women’s final– what’s clear is that the debate around gender equality in sport is being taken seriously and will continue.
To ignore it from an organisational or even sports sponsorship point of view is seriously detrimental at this point in time, and to debate it with dated rules is also foolish. Organisations now have a choice: be proactive on gender issues or be called out by the stars of the game.
Since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements started really driving social change on women’s rights in 2017, women’s sports has been a key beneficiary– and fairly so.
Only last week for instance, the World Surf League caved to decades of pressure, and recent social media shaming, to announce that from 2019 female athletes will be paid the same amount as male athletes, across 180 global events.
Other meaningful changes are underway in sport at a local level. This year, the NRL kicked off a significant women’s Premiership, and the W-League announced that all 57 games of the 2018/19 season would be televised.
The AFL also learnt a sharp lesson when it announced a ‘two-conference’ system for its recently expanded AFLW competition (meaning not all teams would actually play each other). The code came up against a storm of viewer backlash, with some fans even threatening to boycott the game.
These are wins for women in sport.
In the AFL’s case, recent backlash demonstrates how quickly fans came to love the women’s competition and how fiercely they would fight for it to be upheld.
In a similar vein, Serena Williams called out double standards: A powerful move by the highest paid, and most celebrated female sports star of all time.
The fact that high profile male athletes are speaking out in support of their female counterparts suggests that sporting organisations can no longer hide behind rulebooks, which are looking increasingly out of touch.
It’s fair to assume that sponsors may seek to align with stars who speak their minds on such issues, and may even apply their own pressure on sporting organisations to get with the times.
Read more on the fallout from the US Open final, in this piece cross-published from The Conversation examining how The Herald Sun’s Serena Williams cartoon draws on a long and damaging history of racist caricature