Three steps forward, two steps back. That’s how it felt on Monday, when Norwegian footballer Ada Hegerberg was the recipient of the very first women’s Ballon d’Or. At just 23 years old, she’s scored over 250 goals for Norway and was the well-deserved winner of the prestigious football award.
However, the continued discrepancy between men and women in sport – in terms of pay, recognition and respect – was made all too clear when the host of the awards, French DJ Martin Solveig, thought it would be funny to ask Hegerberg if she could twerk, live on stage.
Her strained facial expression, followed by a quick “no”, is something that is relatable to most women. The “not again”. The “really?!” The “can’t believe I still have to deal with this”, hidden beneath a polite rebuttal.
Poignantly, the comment came after Hegerberg gave a heartwarming acceptance speech. “This is a great motivation to continue working hard and we will continue to work together to win more titles,” she said. “I wanted to end with some words for young girls around the world: believe in yourselves.”
There’s a bitter irony that this speech about working hard and inspiring young girls was undermined when the news coverage became not about her amazing achievement, but about the casual sexism of a man.
Solveig took to Twitter to apologise. “I explained to [Ada] and she told me she understood it was a joke,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, my apologies to anyone who may have been offended. Most importantly, congratulations to Ada.”
Hegerberg downplayed the incident, saying, “He came to me afterwards and was really sad that it went that way. I didn’t really consider it sexual harassment or anything in the moment. I was just happy to do the dance and win the Ballon d’Or.”
But she also said he could have “asked me something different, like how I was feeling with the Ballon d'Or” but stressed she “did not take it bad at all”.
There’s a line between humour and inappropriate, and Solveig crossed it. What does a woman’s dancing ability have to do with the countless goals scored? For helping her team, Lyon, to the French title and Champions League? Twerking – a sexual dance move – has absolutely nothing to do with her being a football player, and everything to do with being a woman.
It has absolutely nothing to do with her being a football player, and everything to do with being a woman
Former US football player Abby Wambach showed her outrage on Twitter. “Imagine having just been given the best award for your craft/job/passion, and this is the question you’re asked?!”
Wambach holds the record for the most goals scored in the sport, and was awarded the 2012 FIFA World Player. She was the first American woman to win the award in a decade – so, you can understand how she had no time for Solveig’s apology.
“This is not an apology, it’s an excuse. You say it’s a joke and that’s the problem. Your joke isn’t funny, it’s sexist,” she said. “Please don’t tell anyone that you respect women before you dig into your own sexism.”
Not only does Solveig’s “joke” display a complete disrespect for female athletes, by passing it off as “banter” he’s demonstrating zero responsibility for his actions because he doesn’t consider them wrong.
Wambach wasn’t the only high-profile athlete to criticise Solveig’s sexist “joke”. Andy Murray took to social media, asking, “What questions did they ask Mbappé and Modric?” (the male recipients of the award).
Murray wrote on his Instagram story: “And to everyone who thinks I’m 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.”
While it’s great that those outraged aren’t just women, we still need more than one vocal man to combat sexism in sport. Both women and men need to step up and call out sexism at every opportunity, as Solveig’s failure to grasp the weight of his actions shows the “boys will be boys” attitude is still alive and well. And it has got to stop.