Over the years, I've had hundreds of assumptions crushed. "Adults act like grown ups." "Judges are fair." "Love occurs at first sight." Making documentaries for a living makes assumption crushing easy.
Another assumption: Women who are elite professional athletes, better then 99.99 percent of all other people on earth at hitting, kicking, running, dunking, jumping and punching will make a decent living off their excellence and dominance in their discipline. Right?
After interviewing some of America's top women athletes, it became clear that being the best in the world simply isn't enough. Male pro-athletes are distinguished from amateurs in that they are paid for their efforts. But when it comes to women, most of our country's top female athletes end up working other full-time or part-time jobs in addition to their training, practice and competition schedules. Male athletes in the big four sports earn big money for their work on the field. Most female stars achieve financial security on the side.
This financial reality makes the brass ring of endorsement deals crucial. This is not just gravy we are talking about, or the difference between owning a Bentley vs. a Benz. What it boils down to is the viability for these extraordinary athletic talents to compete at all. If the public accepts and values them as a "personality" and corporations use them to sell their wares, then they get to compete. If not, they are essentially on their own. The passing of Title IX has not translated into financial feasibility for professional women athletes. That just hasn't happened yet.
Still, Title IX in itself has had an incredible impact on women who play and excel in sports at the amateur level. Competition is expected and supported from grade school onwards. Several generations of young men have grown up competing alongside women. In fact, most girls I've spoken to about this are genuinely surprised when they learn that athletic excellence wasn't always encouraged. This is all very good news.
With the advancement of women in society and the changing ideals of body image and sexuality, female sports champions challenge conventional notions of beauty and are making deep strides. All this gives these women more image options to work with, other then the conventional "sexy babe" or "the girl next door." As our culture adapts and evolves, female athletes will benefit. I believe it will eventually elevate their earning potential and bring in sponsorship dollars.
But we still slip as a society. This summer two separate incidents at Wimbledon offered some embarrassing examples by the press and commentators that covered the women's competition.
Serena Williams, the number 1 singles' champion in the world, winner of 31 Grand Slams, and a 4-time gold medal Olympian, was asked at her post-match press conference if it was tough not having her father in the audience to lend "support." Reducing one of the finest athletes in history to a lost little girl is quite simply, pathetic. I think she's got this, folks.
A few days later, underdog Marion Bartoli became the Grand Slam winner in women's singles, falling to her knees after an unexpected and exciting win over Sabine Lisicki. BBC presenter John Inverdale took this opportunity to tell listeners: "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little, 'you're never going to be a looker, you'll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight?" Um. Did he just call the winner of the whole thing ugly? And this comes from the world of tennis, which is one of only a handful of sports in which women can genuinely claim equality of opportunity and prize money.
As those Virginia Slims ads used to say, "We've come a long way baby." But we ain't there yet.
BRANDED premieres on August 27th at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN as part of ESPN Films' and espnW's Nine for IX series.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and ESPN, in conjuncture with the latter's 'Nine for IX' film series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX was a landmark legislative victory for justice that prohibited discrimination by gender in schools and sports. To see all the posts in the series, click here. To learn more about 'Nine for IX,' click here.