Egalitarians were buoyed recently by the news that New Zealand Rugby had agreed to award professional contracts to 30 members of the women's national rugby team, the Black Ferns. Most observers agreed that it was a step in the right direction, even if there's a long way to go until we reach full gender equality.
These observers apparently assume that there's only one reason the men are getting more than the women: patriarchal norms. We're used to valuing what men do over what women do, and that's why we pay them less. That's worsened in the case of sport by a sexist culture which sees physical activity as a male domain.
So, it's worthwhile asking: how is pay set? There are two theories. The first follows classical economics and states that people get paid according to how much other people are willing to pay for what they're doing. This has the advantage of being true (more or less). The other theory is the Marxist one that pay is a reflection of the work that someone puts in. This is rarely actually the case, but it's a nice ideal.
On either of these two theories, the Black Ferns are getting too much. Virtually nobody watches the Black Ferns play. That may be because of sexist norms, or it may be because sports fans have a clear preference for seeing the best athletes in action, and the Black Ferns are nowhere near being the best rugby players in the country. In any case, nobody watches them, and so they don't actually generate much income.
If you look at how much work they're putting in, things aren't much brighter. Under the new contract, Black Ferns will get about $40 000 for about 50 days of training with the squad. It's less money than the men get, but then the men are full-time professionals who work year-round.
At this point, you might well ask, 'Well, if the Black Ferns aren't earning that money through tickets and TV deals, where does it come from?' The answer is: the All Blacks. New Zealand Rugby is shifting money earned from the men's game to subsidise the women's game.
And you might think this is fair enough. Maybe putting money into the Black Ferns will lead to more interest in the women's game, to the point where the old sexist assumptions wither away, and the Black Ferns can support themselves financially.
As we've seen, though, sports fans have a clear preference for watching the best athletes in any given sport in action. And that means that it's very unlikely that the Black Ferns will ever generate the same interest as the All Blacks. In the meantime, New Zealand Rugby is taking money generated by the best players in the country and giving it to...the best women players in the country.
That might seem reasonable - the best players make a lot of money, so maybe we should share some of it around. Great - I agree. But who should we give it to? Luckily, we don't have to organize any sort of competition, because rugby is a pretty good competition in itself. And it gives us a pretty good idea of who the next best players in the country after the All Blacks are.
They're other male rugby players - pretty much all male rugby players, until you get to the schoolboy level, at which point the Black Ferns might better (though even that's not a sure bet). That's probably not because the women aren't trying hard enough, or are too stupid to do proper training. It may be because of the patriarchy, but there's a another explanation that clears the whole thing up without us having to resort to conspiracy theories.
It's that men are much heavier, stronger, and faster than women, and rugby is primarily a game of force and pace. (Of course, men's higher testosterone levels also makes them better coordinated, and hence demonstrably superior at virtually all other sports too, but we'll stick with rugby for now).
One of the advantages of looking at sports like rugby is that there's (literally) a level playing field - the sport makes the same demands on everyone who tries to play it. It's just that some people are better at it than others, often in large part because of the bodies they were born with.
What New Zealand Rugby has chosen to do, in effect, is to give some players more money purely on the basis of their sex. They've chosen to hire out empty stadiums and pay for television time for a competition nobody watches, just because the players are women. They're pretending that the Black Ferns - a team chosen for their sex - are comparable to the All Blacks, who are chosen on merit.
A final objection might be as follows. 'So what? We know women aren't as good at rugby as men.' (It's a rare modern feminist who'd admit this, but we're hypothesizing.) 'But little girls aren't brought up to think they can get involved in sport, and seeing the Black Ferns on TV will inspire them and convince them that girls can play rugby too.'
And of course that's true. Girls can play rugby too. But they tend not to enjoy it as much as boys, likely because boys and girls have natural differences in aggression. (Boys engage in 'rough and tumble' play more often than girls in virtually all human cultures that have been studied.)
Of course, we should let the women who want to play rugby play the game. But the level of exposure they get should be dictated by how many of them take it up, not by ideas about social engineering. Promoting women's rugby for purely ideological reasons will just give girls the idea that rugby is more popular than it really is, which might in turn give them the idea that they should be doing it rather than something they happen to really like. But why spend money to try to convince people to take up hobbies they don't actually want to take up?
Some readers will no doubt be thinking, 'I don't know who Sam Butler is, but what a sexist!' Actually, it would seem that the true sexists are those who want to award professional contracts to players who are nowhere near the level that other players are held to, just because of their sex. If I was a second-tier rugby player, I would be feeling pretty unhappy at seeing all the money diverted towards a team that likely couldn't beat a good schoolboy team from Australia. That's why I agree with the feminist commentators - we've got a long way to go till we reach full equality in sport.
Sam Butler is an English settler in New Zealand, a writer and anti-intellectual. Follow him at @ErewhonNam.