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Why Novak Djokovic's remarks about women deserve rebuke, too

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Djokovic: Men should fight for more prize money than women get (0:28)

Novak Djokovic explains why he believes that the ATP should fight for more prize money than the women earn. (0:28)

Note: This column was published before Novak Djokovic issued a statement about Sunday's comments.

Novak Djokovic misstepped badly Sunday when he piggybacked off some sexist remarks by Raymond Moore, the disgraced CEO of the BNP Paribas Open, and used the opportunity to reopen the decades-old debate about equal prize money in tennis. Djokovic entered long-settled territory that not even Moore, misguided as he is, strayed into during his ramblings about how "lady" tennis players are "riding the coattails" of the men's tour and should "get down on their knees at night" and "give thanks."

But what's registered even louder since Djokovic and Moore made their statements just hours apart is Moore apologized later the same evening and resigned under fire by Monday night. Yet by midday Tuesday, Djokovic -- the world's No. 1 player -- hadn't amended or taken back a word he said.

That's a problem. So is the disappointing lack of blowback from Djokovic's male peers.

Djokovic's patronizing remarks about women's hormones and his contention that equal pay should again be on the table "because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches" were, in their own way, just as retrograde as the 69-year-old Moore's descent into old tropes of discussing the physical attractiveness of the younger women's players coming up behind Serena Williams, or saying Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have been doing the really important work of making the entire sport go. It's all thanks to men, men, men, men, men.

The BNP Paribas Open, which is held in Indian Wells, California, is one of the biggest joint ATP-WTA events outside the Grand Slam tournaments. Williams, speaking after her finals loss to Victoria Azarenka on Sunday but before Djokovic dismissed Milos Raonic in the men's final, expressed shock that Moore would make such comments six months after the women's final at the US Open, spurred by the buzz over her possible Grand Slam sweep, sold out before the men's for the first time in tournament history.

"I'm sorry, did Roger play in that final?" Williams asked. "Or Rafa, or any man play in that final that was sold out before the men's final? I think not."

Like Moore, Djokovic needs a history lesson and some diversity training.

It's been one thing in recent years to hear an inconsequential career hothead like Latvia's Ernests Gulbis (a self-described "idiot") say women's tennis players should concentrate more on having children, or to hear Gilles Simon, a far more established player, gripe about equal prize money shortly after he was elected to the ATP Player Council in 2012.

But Djokovic is the top-ranked player in the men's game. He's an 11-time major title winner who is still given an outside chance of overtaking Federer as Best Ever. He usually shows a keen awareness of world events and the responsibilities that come with such a high station inside tennis.

When you're the face and voice of a sport, your words carry extra weight.

Until Djokovic explains otherwise, the men's side of tennis is apparently led right now by a man who sees nothing wrong with turning back the clock to arguments that were first harpooned four decades ago.

"I think that our men's tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches," Djokovic said. "I think that's one of the, you know, reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.

"I think as long as it's like that and there is data and stats available and information, upon who attracts more attention, spectators, who sells more tickets and stuff like that, in relation to that it has to be fairly distributed."

"I think that our men's tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches."

Novak Djokovic

If Djokovic doesn't know it, someone should tell him the details about how equal pay debate has been around tennis dating back to when Billie Jean King and a handful of others founded the Women's Tennis Association in the early 1970s. Back then, the most prominent tournament director insulting women's players was named Jack Kramer, not Raymond Moore, and King was hurt when even male players who were close friends of hers scoffed and told her things like, "No one is going to ever pay to watch you birds play." Even the great Arthur Ashe, despite all the ways he's been knighted since, was an early opponent of equal pay.

The contours of the debate have barely changed since King's day and shouldn't be reopened now. As Martina Hingis has pointed out, there have been eras where the women's game was more popular and eras where the men's game has been more popular. It's cyclical.

The oft-revived argument that men deserve more because they play best-of-five matches at the Grand Slams while women play best-of-three? That was long ago debunked by King, too. She was the first athlete to argue a notion that's commonplace today: Athletes are entertainers, said King, and as such, their pay isn't determined by how many hours they punch the clock, but the value they deliver to spectators that choose to come see them.

"I thought we settled that issue years ago," Martina Navratilova said after Djokovic spoke.

That doesn't stop people like Djokovic or Simon from occasionally bringing it up.

Djokovic should know better. His disclaimer Sunday that he's all for "women's power" wasn't persuasive proof of his gender enlightenment either. Not after he launched into a related riff about how some of his best friends happen to be women, he likes women, and, hey, in case anyone forgot, "I am married to a woman." Then he expressed his deep admiration for how women athletes "fight" in the face of the unspeakable biological challenges they face.

"You know, the hormones and different stuff -- we don't need to go into details," Djokovic said. "Ladies know what I'm talking about."

"Sports are a microcosm of society, so it teaches you how the world still perceives gender inequality. It's not fun. It's really sad actually."

Billie Jean King in 2014

Huh? The hormones nugget was especially humorous coming from someone on the male side of the sport, where players have lost the plot dating back to Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors and no one accused them of having too much estrogen.

Many of them have actually profited nicely from acting deranged.

Most of the time, Djokovic is a treasure to his sport. The next time he opens his mouth, let's hope he says he has some regrets about his Indian Wells remarks.

Rather than crib talking points from the likes of Raymond Moore, he should consider echoing something King said in 2014, when the equal-pay debate also flared up: "Sports are a microcosm of society, so it teaches you how the world still perceives gender inequality," King said. "It's not fun. It's really sad, actually. ... Just the way the culture is set up, the way we're brainwashed.

"I would hope," King added, "that since we're in this world together, men and women, that we would champion each other more."

And then? "Then we would all win," King said.