Jul 20, 2021
Sexual and Racial Discrimination in Professional Sports
Female athletes and athletes of color have long endured inequalities in pay, game time, media coverage, and sponsorships. Female athletes and sports teams have been gaining well- deserved attention and recognition in past years, but how do we go about addressing the barriers that remain?
Emily VanGorder
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3 min. read

The 2021 ESPY Awards recognized University of Connecticut basketball point guard Paige Bueckers as the year’s best athlete in women’s sports. Buecker’s acceptance speech recognized her family, friends, and teammates for their support and role in her success, before speaking about the role of Black women in basketball. 


“I want to shine a light on Black women, because they don’t get the media coverage they deserve. They’ve given so much to this sport and the community and society as a whole and their value is undeniable. In the WNBA last season, 80% of the winners [in the postseason awards] were Black, but they got half the amount of coverage as white athletes,” Bueckers said. 


Professional sports offer a unique look into the racial, cultural, and gender biases present in American consumerism and investments. Discrepancies between players of different races and genders in areas such as pay, media coverage, and sponsorships remain a familiar and disappointing concept. 


An analysis conducted by Adelphi University comparing the average pay between players in the NBA and WNBA found that the highest- paid female players in the WNBA had been making less than the lowest- paid players in the NBA every year since 1997. In 2021, the rookie salary for NBA players averaged $898,310, while the rookie salary for WNBA players averaged $41,965. The salary cap for the WNBA is set at $50,000, while the cap for the NBA is $26,900,000. Another study found that the average salary for NBA players is around $7.7 million, while the average salary for WNBA players is closer to $75,000. In short, female players are making 1% of the salary of male players. 


This disparity is present across most U.S. sports teams. In 2019, players on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team filed gender discrimination lawsuits against the U.S. Soccer Federation before going on to win the World Cup. The team received national support and recognition, and players like Megan Rapinoe became instantly recognizable. However, the lawsuit, which argued for over $66 million in damages and working conditions equitable to those which the men’s team receives. 


Tennis is perhaps the sport that comes to mind when we think about notable female athletes. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Naomi Osaka are some of the highest paid female athletes in the world, and consistently make more money than male tennis players nationally (though men out- earn women internationally). Wimbledon, the American open, French open, and Australian open have all, over the last 34 years, given tournament winners the same amount of prize money regardless of gender. 


These inequalities are even more distinct when it comes to white and Black players at both the collegiate and professional levels. Cynthia Frisby, an associate professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism conducted a study of the difference in media coverage given to white and Black male athletes. In stories about player’s successes, accomplishments, personal lifestyles, and athletic skills, the majority of stories focused on white athletes. In news stories focused on crime, domestic and sexual violence, the majority were focused on Black athletes. Frisby is interested in continuing her research by looking into the race of the authors behind the articles and analyzing whether race has an impact on the perspective and focus of the article. 


Current and former NBA players like Chris Paul, Will Allen, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving have spoken out on the differences in treatment between male and female players and have advocated for women to receive equal pay and treatment. Irving, a point guard for the Brooklyn Nets, donated $1.5 million from his own salary to pay WNBA athletes who decided not to play during the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. 


Eradicating the inequalities faced by female players and players of color is a difficult task, but it is one which begins with consumers and ends with sponsors and sports media. Bueckers concluded her speech by talking about the importance of sports media and sponsors in indicating which players are valuable and worthy of attention. We as consumers have a responsibility to hold companies to higher and more ethical standards so that our desires and reflected in the respect and treatment shown to athletes. 


Do you have ideas about ways in which we can hold corporations responsible? Let’s discuss in our community Slack workspace! 


xoxo, GrasshoppHer