Will sport ever have a meaningful #MeToo moment?

Sexism in tennis remains ignored.

In most circumstances, a match between Pedro Sousa and Enrico Dalla Vale on an outside court at the Florence challenger would not garner much attention. The majority of people watching on the live stream would be gamblers. As such, players and officials can usually get away with almost anything. Match-fixing is rife and surprising results frequent. However, this time, when an official stepped out of line, it was caught. Gianluca Moscarella, an umpire with ten years of Gold-Badge status (the highest rated official status in tennis), was recorded on the live stream saying to a young ball girl “Sei fantastica…molto sexy… Sei accaldata, fisicamente o emotivamente? [You are fantastic… Very sexy … Are you ok? It’s hot. Do you feel hot? Physically or emotionally?]. 

Allegedly, this was not Moscarella’s first foray into these types of comments, previously telling a senior ATP official that “you provoked me by having big tits and a big ass.” Whilst Moscarella denied this allegation, there are other similar allegations made by journalists that can be found on the internet. After some external pressure, Moscarella was suspended indefinitely from umpiring but the media backlash was muted in comparison to the offence. 

This issue is not isolated to tennis. When cricketers Lasith Malinga and Arjuna Ranatunga were accused of sexual harassment (the former by a prominent singer), there was almost no attention in the cricket-mad Australian media. Even when soccer star Cristino Ronaldo was accused of sexual harassment, this was not reported as widely as could be expected for a person of his stature.This is in stark contrast to the entertainment industry, where there has been much greater scrutiny into allegations of harassment and misconduct. This begs the questions: will sport ever have a #MeToo movement like the entertainment industry?

When examining this question, it is important to recognise that the structures of power in sport and entertainment differ vastly. At least at a superficial level (such as on the stage), there is some degree of gender parity in entertainment. Although global numbers are unquantifiable and men still dominate the screen in many ways, musical theatre casts are often comprised equally of men and women and often bands achieve relative gender parity when all things are considered. Whilst this is a simplistic and reductive idea that does not interrogate the structures of power that lie behind the superficiality of the stage, it does heavily contrast with the world of sport. Gender parity in sport is still such an emerging concept that it almost seems foreign. Even in Australia, where women’s sport is thriving, sports like cricket will only generate a fraction of the crowd. This could certainly be construed as creating a tiered system of “belonging” in sport where men in sport bureaucracy believe that they are superior on the basis of gender. 

How does this apply to tennis though? After all, tennis was the first sport to introduce equal prize money and at most grand slams (the biggest tennis tournaments in the world), women actually play more than men on the main show courts. On the surface, it seems like a sport that would have greater gender parity than any other. And it does. However, can this explain the behaviour of officials who think that it is acceptable to harass very young ball girls? In a way, it stems from the perceived gender parity in tennis. As tennis has been at the forefront of social change in sport, there is the potential for tennis authorities to deny that sexism persists and for officials like Moscarella to think that this change can excuse poor and harassing behaviour. For example, in response to the initial Moscarella allegations (published as part of a larger piece on a tennis blog), the ATP said ”This report relates to a disgruntled former chair umpire contractor who has not worked for ATP since 2014. The article makes numerous untrue statements about ATP and its personnel.” Whilst this should not be the case, it does reflect the hegemonic structures of masculinity that have always and continue to dominate sport. Judy Murray, mother of tennis stars Andy and Jamie Murray, has said “I think anybody would tell you that there are examples,” regarding abuse of women in tennis. Until these structures are meaningfully and comprehensively interrogated, there is little that can change in this regard. 

There is also a public relations aspect to the persistence of sexism in tennis that must be noted. The #MeToo movement has garnered a lot of negative attention for the entertainment industry simply by being in the press. Sports administrators seem keen to deflect from the problem simply by ignoring it. The surface level “equality” in tennis does not equate to equal structures of power. Hence, as true parity is not achieved, sports administrators still have the ability to deflect the conversation.  If it is not perceived to be a systemic issue, then there will not be a media bandwagon to the level of #metoo in entertainment. Without the media attention, the perpetrators will largely be able to continue in stealth and in silence. 

So, is sport capable of having its own #MeToo moment? Maybe sometime in the distant future but to do so requires a comprehensive examination of hegemonic structures of masculinity in sport. Whether this will happen as women’s sport continues to rise remains to be seen. The one thing that is clear is that to address an issue like this requires media attention and the media to acknowledge that sport and entertainment aren’t all that disconnected. 

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