With a three-time UEFA Women's Champions League winner, the 2016 UEFA Best Player, the BBC Women's footballer of the year on the stage, it was a moment of genuine celebration for one of the sparkling talents in women's football when Lyon's 23-year-old Norwegian forward Ada Hegerberg was announced as the first recipient of the newly instituted FIFA Women's Ballon d'Or. But then, it all came crashing down as presenter and DJ Martin Solveig asked if the newly crowned best player in the past calendar year could "twerk" " a comment which not only brought out immediate reactions from the likes of Kylian Mbappe, but also sparked a debate everywhere.
So much so that Andy Murray, champion of gender equality in sports, commented after, "and to everyone who thinks people are overreacting and it was just a joke¦it wasn't. I've been involved in sport my whole life and the level of sexism is unreal." Even more demoralizing for young girls aspiring to take up football following Hegerberg's exceptionally touching recipient speech must have been Antoine Griezmann referring to her as "the girl from Lyon" later in the night.
That the institution of sports is one of the most gender-traditional social arrangements is a barely denied fact, but the fact that the first ever Ballon d'Or Feminin had to even face such a ridiculous question is deplorable by all counts. It is not, however, the first instance of a celebrated female athlete encountering misogyny; neither is it the first instance when women's football has clearly been held in a lesser esteem than men's football.
The long-drawn saga of the US Women's National Soccer Team fighting for an equal pay as that of the men's team, especially in light of their terrific performances and their eventual victory in signing new contracts was one of the awe-inspiring conquests of the so-called fairer sex when it comes to the beautiful game and its social structure. The sheer amount of perseverance and effort it took, however, was a testimony to the odds stacked against women in football.
That those in the highest offices of the sport are oblivious to the problem and occasional active participants doesn't help the cause. After all, who can forget Sepp Blatter's degrading comments about the attire of women footballers. "Female players are pretty," Blatter had said appallingly, before adding, "let the women play in more feminine clothes, like they do in volleyball."
It is a fairly common notion that while men's football is all about skill, flair and finesse, women's football is a sport which merely exists " be it stadium attendance, TV revenue or sponsorship options, women's football has consistently lagged behind and not due to any lack of quality. Gender discrimination is not exclusive to only football though and draws to almost every sport, with tennis being another notable one, despite its comparatively less disproportionate prize money.
Serena Williams, a certified legend of the game, has faced ridicule time and again owing to her superlative achievements. From Williams' exhilarating athletic abilities on court to her choice of match outfits, every aspect of her game has been scrutinized year after year. While her return to competitive circuit following post-pregnancy complications ought to have been celebrated with much fanfare, it was her catsuit, designed as such for medical purposes stole all the limelight during the French Open.
It isn't just about Williams or those at the top of their game, but the concept that women are supposed to convene to a particular set of norms is ingrained deep into the culture of the sport, so much that even someone like Novak Djokovic opposed equal prize money for both genders.
While incidents such as those with Hegerberg or Williams are extensively discussed among sports enthusiasts and media, there are countless other episodes of sexism which happen on a regular basis irrespective of the type of sport. Eugenie Bouchard was asked to 'twirl' following a first-round victory in the 2015 Australian Open, an incident which did not really stir much controversy. Often, it does not capture the attention of the public, for instance, the hardcore bullying and misogyny female basketball players have to tackle in the WNBA is rarely talked about.
Sports is only a microcosm of society in general with sexism and patriarchy inherent in every aspect of life, for generation after generation. After all, Alix Kate's Shulman once said, "Sexism goes so deep that at first, it's hard to see, you think it's just reality."
FIFA and UEFA have adopted a number of excellent initiatives to stop racism and promote equality across the game, allowing a much safer and better environment for spectators in recent years. A similar approach is of utmost necessity when it comes to gender disparity. The change has to come from within the system for it to be effective at a grander scale, until which time the likes of Hederberg will continue to be added as mere footnotes in the massive ledger of sexism through the history of the sport.