If you haven’t heard by now, on Sunday while lauding Serena Williams as the best female tennis player of all time, legendary American player John McEnroe also said that if she had played on men’s circuit she’d probably only be “like 700 in the world.” This of course prompted an outcry from many who took issue with McEnroe creating rankings out of thin air and many who believe Williams’ talents would place her higher than 700. For her part, Williams remained a regal as ever and politely asked McEnroe to keep her name out of his mouth. Despite the clamor, we didn’t get an apology from McEnroe. Instead, he doubled down on his comments and suggested that rather than speculating about how men and women tennis players match up; players should start engaging in more battles of the sexes.
You might recall that in 1973 Bobby Riggs opined that the women’s tennis game was far inferior to the men’s game and that he, at the time a 55-year-old retiree, was still too much for the top women players of the time. These comments led to the famed Battle of the Sexes which pitted Riggs against Margaret Court, Riggs against Billie Jean King and, later in 1992, Jimmy Connors against Martina Navratilova. The matches were entertaining and proved that women produced quality sportsmanship. But the thing is, they never should have happened.
Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs
Throughout sports history, women have always been compared to men. The comparisons initially and often had their source in men like Riggs who aimed to degrade the efforts of women. Their style of warfare against women was to compare the speed, size and strength of men and women. Because women would undoubtedly average slower times, display smaller frames and exude less strength; women’s sports would always be inferior to men’s (or so their rationale went). Those arguments continue today. Men use the same excuse not to watch women play basketball because the game they produce isn’t as fast as the men’s and doesn’t involve high-flying dunks and other theatrics. Women’s hockey and baseball (for instance) don’t receive support because they’re supposedly men’s games that women just can’t play as well.
Over time, in an effort to defend ourselves and earn equal pay, women have adopted the comparison model too. We fight long and hard to prove the sports product we produce is just as good as the men’s. In fact, the fight for equal pay in tennis, soccer and hockey are prime examples of women arguing that we should be paid equally to men because we we’re just as good. We win just as much (if not more), we bring in just as much (if not more) revenue and we work just as has hard (if not harder) as the men. In women’s basketball we’re constantly trying to prove that the WNBA provides quality basketball just like the men’s game and trying to convince the world not to be turned off by UConn’s dominance.
But here’s the thing, there is no comparison. Men and women are different. We are different anatomically, physiologically and socially. We’re different for good reasons like procreation, diversity and good old fashioned excitement. These differences lead us to produce and express ourselves differently. Our differences mean that women are going to play sports and be athletic in ways that are different than men. Men will be able to do things women can’t do and women will be able to do things that men can’t do. And you know what, that is ok. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being different. Different doesn’t mean inferior or superior. It just means different.
Rather than appreciating and celebrating that men and women are not the same kind of athletes, men and women place too much energy into comparing apples to oranges. Men and women in sports have shown us greatness in their own rights. Serena Williams is great regardless of how many points she can win off Novak Djokovic. Britney Griner is a master at her craft even if she never dunks against on Russell Westbrook. And there’s nothing anyone can do to take away the legacy that is the US Women’s soccer team. Women play sports with our own form of power, grace, elegance, strength and strategy. How about we celebrate that instead of comparing us to something we’ll never be, men.
Oh, and in case you forgot…Serena is Queen. 😉