Commentary

Have some respect, Gilles Simon

Updated: June 28, 2012, 3:56 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND -- The easy route would be to dismiss Gilles Simon as a chauvinist whose belief that women do not deserve equal pay at Grand Slam events is simply not evolved for the year 2012. Certainly, he has a right to his opinion, as does the International Tennis Federation, which announced it would be paying men and women equally at Wimbledon and obviously disagrees with Simon.

The players, such as Roger Federer and Samantha Stosur, demurred on the issue Wednesday, essentially calling the equal-pay issue in tennis a never-ending, annual debate in which people will fall to one opinion or another, or land somewhere in between, or not care at all. It makes sense for them to answer that way. They have (or in Stosur's case, had) other things to do in this tournament, like pay attention to their day job of focusing on winning tennis matches.

[+] EnlargeGilles Simon
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesAt the heart of the issue is this: Gilles Simon showed an obvious lack of respect for women tennis players.

Federer, who is on the ATP Player Council, said it is a matter of "who believes what." Simon cannot and should not be so simply dismissed, however, because now as a fellow member of the council, he is not just a guy with a point of view, but a figure of authority. His opinion is not just a personal thought but one that carries power because of his position. He is in the position of representing male players.

Gender, like race and religion, is a third-rail topic, dangerous and explosive, and being simply impolitic on the subject could make Simon both a villain to the community where political correctness is paramount and also a hero to people who are tired of the idea of political correctness.

Yet Simon, who lost in straight sets to Xavier Malisse on Thursday, is wrong, not necessarily because he voiced an unpopular position or his refusal of public tact and decorum, but because of his illogic and lack of professional respect for female tennis players.

Afterward, Simon clarified his comments and, in doing so, widened the gap:

"I never thought it was a good idea for women to play five sets. It was just about entertainment," he said. "My point was that I have the feeling that men's tennis is actually more interesting than women's tennis. As in any business or anything, you just have to be paid just about that. It's not because we play five sets and they are playing three."

In the purest, coldest, business calculation, Simon has some points. Money is the lifeblood of any capitalistic enterprise. He cited ticket prices at the Grand Slam events, where the women's semifinal and final prices are less expensive than the men's -- more than $25 less here at Wimbledon.

However, not every component of a prosperous industry or society should be measured completely on money. The prosperous elements of any society should accept the responsibility of subsidizing the necessary but less profitable ones, not simply for cultural improvement but also because not every industry -- like schools and libraries -- is designed to make money. There is a cultural benefit to having women participate in sports, the same cultural benefit as having college baseball -- a non-revenue sport that is essentially subsidized by big-time college football and basketball.

Taking Simon's logic that the women's game as a whole doesn't generate the same interest level or revenue as the men to its fullest extreme actually undermines the livelihood of Gilles Simon the tennis player, for few paying customers, if any, attend a men's tournament to see him. Simon is a nice player who makes a terrific living hitting a ball with a stick, but -- since Simon has reached only one Grand Slam quarterfinal in his career and entered the year 16-43 against the top 10 -- people come to Grand Slam tournaments to see Federer and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and perhaps the rest of the top 10. Simon doesn't exactly move the financial needle.

Moreover, he may be ranked 12th in the world, but Simon is nowhere in the category of Venus Williams, Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova in terms of drawing power or marketability or interest or name recognition. After defeating Tsvetana Pironkova, Sharapova took issue with Simon, reminding us that, "I'm sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his."

"It's not about me, one player or another one," Simon said. "Maria is more famous than me. I know it. She deserves to win more money than me. That's not the problem. Just check the ticket prices from the men's final and the women's final for example. It's not about me anymore; it's about the tennis. That's the way it works in life and everything."

If revenue generation was the sole measure of any tennis tournament, the Grand Slams could be reduced to weekend tournaments, like golf, with the quarterfinals on a Thursday, the semifinals on a Friday and the finals on a Sunday -- and tickets for a Federer, Andy Murray or Nadal match would cost more than a match for say, Gilles Simon. Taking pay-for-performance a step further would award the more popular player a greater share of each individual ticket sold -- Simon would earn less for a match against Federer, for example -- and turn tennis into boxing.

It would be the Barclays Masters year-end final, and players like Simon -- if showcasing only the best players and money is the only element that matters -- and the rest of the field could use the pre-Slam tuneups at Queen's Club and Montreal and Cincinnati and Rome and Madrid as virtual qualifying tours.

The most disturbing element to Tuesday's comments was Simon's dismissal for the female professional athlete, who practices and suffers and sweats and grinds as diligently and committedly as her male counterparts. Simon was upset that women earn the same as men while playing only the best-of-three sets at majors. Simon is also misguided in the suggestion that Federer winning in three or four dreary sets is more compelling than Serena Williams winning in three intriguing ones.

"Oh, my gosh. Why do you put me -- you know I can't bite my tongue," Williams said after defeating Melinda Czink on Centre Court on Thursday. "Definitely, more people are watching Maria than Simon. She's way hotter than he is. Women's tennis, I think, is really awesome. It's a great fight. We fought for years with Billie Jean King, and Venus as well, really set the pattern on what we should do.

"I started playing tennis at 2 years old. I'm sure he started when he was 2 years old as well," she said. "I worked just as hard as he did. I'm sure he continues to work hard as I work hard, as well as everyone that's on a professional level."

One of the beauties of the sport is that tennis is one of the few in which the genders are more blurred. Unlike most team sports, John McEnroe commentates on women's matches just as Mary Carillo does men's, and the transition took place -- unlike basketball, in which male viewers tend to dislike hearing woman's commentary on the game -- without incident.

Equally disturbing is both the silence that has come from the ATP so far. It could be read as tacitly condoning Simon's position or as yet another blind spot from an organization in a superior position, as well as the silence so far from many of the male players.

Some of it is understandable: Players are here to compete, not to be caught up in a sociopolitical debate while trying to concentrate on winning an important tournament. Still, some women players have spoken -- from a teenager like Sloane Stephens (who has disliked Simon since he once hit her with a ball when she was a ball girl in Florida and didn't apologize) to a Grand Slam winner like Kim Clijsters (who said she hoped Malisse made Simon pay for his words). They have chosen to speak their minds, while the men have been largely silent. Federer has two daughters whose futures -- beyond tennis but never beyond gender -- depend on the decision made today.

Simon was upset because the ATP was not consulted on the matter, adding that all 128 players in the men's draw feel as he does. If this is the case, then instead of being silent and allowing Simon to be the only one to articulate a unified position, they should say so from Federer, Nadal and Djokovic at the top to Michael Russell and Dudi Sela and Albert Ramos on. The good news is that even without round criticism from his ATP members, Simon's position was inherently discredited because his attitudes and dissent did not prevent the ITF from doing the right thing. Money isn't, and shouldn't be, the only measure of value.