Want more coverage of female sports stars? Be careful what you wish for

by Paul Thomas / 17 June, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - PT Sport

Australian tennis great Margaret Court, pictured in 2003, has been branded a bigot for her homophobic remarks. Photo/Getty Images

Tiger Woods' mugshot is Exhibit A; Margaret Court's comments are Exhibit B, writes Paul Thomas.

A letter writer suggests this column be renamed Highly Paid Blokes’ Sport. She has a point, although it’s a mouthful (of which more later).

Leaving aside its popularity, highly paid blokes’ sport gets so much media coverage because of its capacity to generate controversy. Games, tournaments, championships come and go: if you missed this week’s drama, there’ll be another next week on a similar stage and with much the same cast. Controversy, however, elevates sport from the back page to the front page. It shifts sport from its self-contained artificial construct into a socio-cultural context.

Most controversies involve bad behaviour, whether on-field – for instance, cheating or foul play – or off it, where, unlike the stars of show business, famous athletes bear the burden of being celebrities who are expected to be role models. This is where women’s sport suffers by comparison: by and large, female athletes are better behaved, more circumspect, far likelier to engage their brains before activating their vocal cords and just plain nicer than their male counterparts.

British and Irish Lions Kiwi coach Warren Gatland, for example, had barely set foot in the country before he directed a withering sledge at Sir Graham Henry, claiming the former All Blacks coach buggered up his Lions campaign – in Australia in 2001 – on “day one”. Which isn’t to say blokes have a monopoly: has netball been more talked about in recent years than in 2013, when veteran Australian coach Norma Plummer trashed several of our leading players, including the saintly Irene van Dyk: “I could show you some unbelievable stuff on van Dyk and you’d be bloody shocked”?

One of the most shocking sport-related acts was American figure skater Tonya Harding’s conspiring to maim arch-rival Nancy Kerrigan with a view to putting her out of the Winter Olympics. In a dispiriting example of notoriety being almost as rewarding as fame, filming is now under way on I, Tonya the biopic. The glamorous Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street renown is playing Harding, which is a bit like casting George Clooney as the lead in I, Gerry Brownlee.

And a couple of old campaigners waging their own private culture war have created more of a buzz around tennis than the baseline bore-fest that is Roland-Garros. This was a heavyweight clash: in one corner, Aussie Margaret Court, winner of 24 Grand Slam singles titles; in the other, naturalised American Martina Navratilova, winner of 18.

Court, 74, an ordained minister of the fire-and-brimstone persuasion, sounded off about predatory lesbians in women’s tennis. As Navratilova is the highest-profile gay in women’s tennis, it fell to her to return fire, which she duly did, branding Court a racist and homophobe. Apparently, Court offered some uncritical musings on apartheid back in the day.

In a follow-up rant about transgender children, Court name-checked the devil and A Hitler, prompting Navratilova to call for the Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne’s National Tennis Centre to be renamed the Yvonne Goolagong Cawley Arena, despite that being “a mouthful”. One’s immediate reaction is that such a step would be an unwelcome intrusion of political correctness into sport: the arena is named after Court because she’s Australia’s greatest women’s tennis player; the fact she’s a dinosaur and may well be a bigot doesn’t change that.

Just to remind the ladies what they’re up against, Tiger Woods, one of the highest-paid blokes of them all (estimated net worth $1.04 billion), was arrested for driving under the influence. The mugshot that flashed around the world could be Exhibit A for the proposition that a picture is worth a thousand words.

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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