OPINION: NIKE COMMERCIALS, EX-ABL STAR HAVE A POINT
By Al Mattei
Theresa Edwards is spending the final summer before her fifth Olympic basketball tournament in an incongruous situation: unemployed, while in the midst of a booming economy in general, and in women's pro basketball in particular.
While resting from some of her grueling workouts in her Atlanta abode, she can turn on the television and see a Nike commercial that neatly sums up her plight.
There, the fictional disc jockey Mrs. Jones points out that, in many sports, there is a pay disparity between men and women athletes.
This point is not in dispute, whether the workplace is a field of play or an office: male and female do not make equitable pay for the same work. In the American workforce, it is estimated that women make as little as 55 cents to every dollar men do for comparable tasks.
Sport is guilty of the same. The inequities in pay for some athletes, whether in golf, the Grand Prix track circuit, or tennis, is often staggering.
There are exceptions: the U.S. Open tennis tournament, the New York City marathon, many professional figure skating promotions. You can call the 2000 Indianapolis 500 equitable in pay as well: no matter if Juan Montoya or Sarah Fisher finished first, the check would be the same.
Edwards' dispute over pay equity is not exactly the same as in the Nike commercial, but there are parallels. Edwards is a former member of the American Basketball League, competitor to the Women's National Basketball Association.
When the ABL folded in its third season, the WNBA said it would take in the former ABL players, but at a lower pay scale than those who were drafted out of college.
Edwards, almost in a Curt Flood-esque sign of defiance, is staying away from the WNBA.
"I felt I was being disrespected," Edwards said in Atlanta. "I didn't think they respected my talent. I don't want to just be paid for my name or what I have done. I want to be paid for what I can do. The money you are talking about is peanuts compared to what the NBA players are making. It's almost embarrassing to discuss what the girls are making. I wasn't asking for the top dollars. I mean, I settled for nothing, OK?"
This is an echo of Mrs. Jones: "Are they playing any less hard than the fellas? Is their blood any less red? ... [T]heir sacrifice is the same, yet women receive less."
It can be said that Edwards' argument is specious when it comes to basketball. The NBA plays an 82 game season, while the WNBA's season is much shorter.
Calculate it out: The NBA's 29 teams play a total of 1,189 games a season. The WNBA's 16 teams play a total of 248 games. That's a huge disparity in the amount of gate receipts, especially when ticket prices are kept low for WNBA games. Factor in the small crowds in places like Cleveland and Charlotte, the revenue is even less.
The thing is, Edwards' argument is more about the respect that she should get signing with the WNBA out of the ABL as a two-time league MVP.
Remember her words: "I don't want to just be paid for my name or what I have done. I want to be paid for what I can do."
But, when you try to build towards the utopia of equal pay for equal work in the WNBA, what happens? Will Cynthia Cooper get $23 million a season? Probably not.
Will someone like a Chamique Holdsclaw be held responsible for $10 billion of the world economy? Probably not.
Will the WNBA be expanded to parallel the NBA in terms of size or length of season? I think so.
But the deeper meaning of equal pay-equal work is not in this dichotomy: it is the phrase "equal opportunity."
Women want a chance to run race cars. Women want to play baseball. Women want to draw scholarships for everything from lacrosse to volleyball.
These things are happening. The pay will follow.