Same passion: Why gender equality in sports matters

When Real Madrid goalkeeper Maria Isabel "Misa" Rodriguez celebrated their Champions League triumph over Liverpool, she uploaded her photo alongside a photo of Real Madrid men's team winger Marco Asensio with the caption "misma pasion," which translates to English as "same passion."

Her post, however, was met with a deluge of comments mostly from male fans questioning her sexual orientation, disparaging her abilities as an athlete, and demeaning her worth as a human being. Rodriguez was forced to take down her tweet. 

Asensio reposted the photos and echoed the caption "misma pasion" and urged Rodriguez not to be cowed to submission and silence. Other prominent players and clubs, not just in football, followed suit and flooded social network with the hashtag #SamePassion, a response and rebuke to people who still obstinately cling to anachronistic views on women.

As uplifting as the story is, it also casts a cloud of gloom over the sporting world, which in this day and age still is unable to provide a playing field where men and women are treated with the same respect and attention. 

This inequity reared its ugly head in the US NCAA March Madness when Sedona Prince of the University of Oregon shared a video showing the women's weight room having a single set of dumbbells while the men's room was fully equipped with training and weight apparatuses. 

The same experiences are par for the course for female athletes in the Philippines, where not only are they forced to take a backseat to their male counterparts, but they are also treated as sideshows, a supporting cast, or in some cases as mere novelty. 

This was most evident in 2016 when the PBA organized a 3x3 competition for female players. The league projected itself as a champion of feminism, yet the structure the PBA provided was built on the very primeval concepts that has impeded the advancement of women in sports.

The players were labeled "Baller Hotties" in the league's marketing materials. The commissioner's office took misogyny to an even more absurd and deplorable level when it issued a directive disallowing players from wearing long shorts and having short hair so as to accentuate their femininity.

Jack Animam, probably the most recognizable figure in Philippine women's basketball, has spoken in a previous interview with Rappler against the practice of highlighting the physical attributes of female athletes instead of their playing abilities. 

In the 2018 Asian Games held in Indonesia, 27 athletes from the Philippines brought home a total of 21 medals in individual and team events. Seventeen of those medalists were women. The 4 gold medals the country won were courtesy of Hidilyn Diaz (weightlifting), Margielyn Didal (skateboarding), Yuka Saso (individual golf), and Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan, and Lois Kaye Go (team golf). One of the two silvers earned by the Philippines was bagged by another woman, Kiyomi Watanabe (judo). 

Filipina athletes have through the years brought honor and glory to the country, yet to this day, it seems they still need to outdo themselves to be noticed and work doubly hard to gain recognition from fans, sponsors, and sports officials. 

Gender equality has different layers that have to be peeled away to understand the gravity of the injustice women in sports have to deal with. 

Central to this is the disparity in pay between male and female athletes. That men deserve to be compensated higher because they haul in more fans and generate more revenues is a rather limiting argument and relegates the whole gender discourse to a simplistic question of numbers and dollar/peso signs. Of course, one cannot discount the economics that fuel the sports engine. Commercial entities gravitate towards athletic figures that pull in the viewership.  

This is where the discussion degenerates into a chicken-and-egg debate. Some say benefactors cannot be expected to support women in sports when they cannot prove they attract audiences to justify the sponsorships. But how can women in sports prove they can bring in the crowds if they are not afforded the platform to showcase their athletic talents? 

For the longest time, Filipina ballers did not even have an avenue to continue playing after their collegiate careers ended. Only a handful like Animam, Allana Lim, Afril Bernardino, and Gemma Miranda have had the privilege of getting recruited to play professionally outside the country. It was only recently that the first professional league for women was established – the Women's National Basketball League, which is set to begin in the coming weeks.

For Filipina ballers, all they have been asking for was a chance to play, an opportunity to show that they can play. Volleyball is that rare exception in the country were female athletes have been given national prominence and crowds have come to watch their games. 

Equal pay is as much a moral obligation as a monetary proposition. It is an advocacy that Serena Williams and other women tennis players have been pushing for that has resulted in the 4 grand slam events finally relenting and giving the same prize money for both the men's and women's events. It is an advocacy which Andy Murray and lately, even Roger Federer, have lent their voices to.

Tennis legend Billy Jean King said this 5 years ago: "To have equal prize money in the majors sends a message. It's not about the money. It's about the message. Any time you discount another human being by gender, race, disability, however, we're not helping ourselves."

How women in sports are viewed by fans is largely influenced by how female athletes are depicted by the press. It is not uncommon to see sports stories where words and phrases like "statuesque," "pretty face," and "eye candy" are mentioned, as if these descriptors had anything thing to do with one's sporting abilities. 

Many times we have read articles highlighting "The Sexiest Volleyball Players in the Philippines" or "The Hottest Athletes in the SEA Games." Language such as these normalize the objectification of women in sports, leading to them being treated not as athletes but as commodities who are to be admired more for their physical appearance than their athletic prowess. 

Women should not be the only proponents of gender equality in sports. It is a cause that should be espoused by anyone who believes in fair play, respect, and accountability. All these are concepts relevant in sports and are universal values that hold true in life. Female athletes put in as much effort, time, and dedication to perfect their craft in their chosen field of athletic event. They play with the same passion, the same tenacity, and the same desire to excel. They too have earned the right to play, to be heard, to be watched and applauded, and to be celebrated. – Rappler.com