Venus Williams’ Other Career as Equal Pay Activist : Revisiting ESPN Film’s Documentary ‘Venus Vs.’

Post written by guest blogger @BlackPearlMoi 

ESPN FILMS first Nine for IX espisode: Venus Williams documentary "VENUS VS."
ESPN FILMS first Nine for IX espisode: Venus Williams documentary “VENUS VS.”

Venus Williams’ Other Career as Equal Pay Activist : Revisiting ESPN Film’s Documentary ‘Venus Vs.’

Many knew of Venus Williams’s domination on the court, but very few – and even ESPN executives – had heard of her fight to close the gender pay gap in tennis, even though she went so far as to lobby the British Parliament for financial equality.


There’s a reason why sports make for compelling movies. They’re inherently narrative, with winners and losers, blood and tears—serving up hard-fought drama on a silver trophy plate. ESPN decided to approach the topic from a new angle, focusing not on the theatrics found on the field, but the battles fought off of it.


The producers of the network’s popular ’30 for 30′ documentary program decided on a series called
‘Nine for IX’; only it’s focus is solely on women in sports.

Libby Geist,  Senior Director of Development, ESPN Films
Libby Geist,
Senior Director of Development, ESPN Films

“A year ago almost exactly was the fortieth anniversary of Title IX,” explains Libby Geist,associate director of development at ESPN Films, referring to the portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that protects against discrimination based on sex. It was this anniversary that inspired Nine for IX, which will include nine female-directed episodes about women who have overcome adversities in the athletic realm.

Geist agrees that the goal of the series as a whole is to chronicle unknown or forgotten events. “Women really have their own history now,” she says. “It’s not all happy and fluffy necessarily, but we’ve got our own stories to tell and we’re ready to tell them.”

The sports network approached Ava DuVernay, winner of the Best Director award last year at Sundance for her film “Middle of Nowhere,” to make a film about any topic in women’s sports. She choose Venus Williams’ fight for equal pay at Wimbledon — a big story in Britain, but not widely known in the United States.

'Venus VS' Venus Williams documentary, first of ESPN series Nine for IX
‘Venus VS’ Venus Williams documentary, first of ESPN series Nine for IX

The film follows Venus Williams as a child phenom to her first championship at Wimbledon in 2000 — and again in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008.  Endorsement deals made her one of the most powerful athletes in the world — but not worthy of equal pay at arguably the most prestigious Grand Slam event.

venusbilliejeanInspired by Billie Jean King, Williams led the charge for all the other women on the court.

The director does a superb job of telling the total story of Venus and her conscious choice to step forward, with the full weight of her brand, and take the lead in the fight for financial equality for women in tennis.VENUSLEFTPROFILE

“It would be uninformed to do a story on her and her influence on the tour without acknowledging that at one point she was an outsider, and she was an outsider based on cultural politics,” DuVernay stated at a screening for the film.


“But she and the tour and her fellow players matured by having her and Serena on the scene, to the point that the one who was an outsider became the ultimate insider and the champion for this cause.”


“We say in the film, a fight for equality in any space contributes to our overall psychographic terms,” says DuVernay.

duvarney “This is part of that story, part of that narrative for women’s equality across the board, and the fact that we don’t know about it is something Venus wanted to remedy as much as I did.”

(NOTE: On Dec. 11, 2014 Ava DuVernay was nominated for best director of a feature film – ‘Selma’. She is the first woman of color and only the fifth woman ever to be nominated for the Golden Globe Award.)

The film ‘Venus Vs.’ is a phenomenal movie, and stands as evidence…both DuVernay and Williams are masters at what they do;

Williams and director Ava DuVernay on the set of “‘Venus Vs.’ (Howard Barish/ESPN Films)
Williams and director Ava DuVernay on the set of “‘Venus Vs.’ (Howard Barish/ESPN Films)

and mutual admiration is to be expected…speaking of the significance of what Venus did, the director commented, “I think you have to speak truth to power,” said the filmmaker. “If truth is not being spoken, then power doesn’t shift.

The Story has a Happy Ending

Venus Williams after winning the Wimbledon title in 2007. (Credit: AP)
Venus Williams after winning the Wimbledon title in 2007. (Credit: AP)

This time the All England Club finally agreed to do the right thing: When Venus won her fourth Wimbledon championship in 2007, she became the first woman to earn exactly the same as Roger Federer: $1.4 million.

Champions Roger Federer and Venus Williams pose with their trophies at Champions' Dinner at London's Savoy Hotel, Sunday July 8, 2007. "I was really motivated because no one picked me to win. They didn't even say, 'She can't win.' They weren't even talking about me," said Williams, who reached No. 1 in 2002 but entered Wimbledon ranked No. 31. "I never would doubt myself that way."   (AP Photo/Bob Martin, AELTC pool)
Champions Roger Federer and Venus Williams pose with their trophies at Champions’ Dinner at London’s Savoy Hotel, Sunday July 8, 2007.
“I was really motivated because no one picked me to win. They didn’t even say, ‘She can’t win.’ They weren’t even talking about me,” said Williams, who reached No. 1 in 2002 but entered Wimbledon ranked No. 31. “I never would doubt myself that way.”
(AP Photo/Bob Martin, AELTC pool)


Watch  video: Director Ava DuVernay shares about making the Nine for IX documentary film
“Venus VS.” which aired on ESPN



Speech Venus Gave to the Wimbledon Board Members the Day Before the 2005 Final

BACKSTORY: Things were really heating up on the equal pay issue prior to the 2005 Wimbledon tournament. The Australian Open and the U.S. Open were already offering equal pay, therefore Wimbledon became the issue’s focal point.

Apparently, the day before the women’s final at Wimbledon, the representatives of all the Grand Slams and every important tour person met for a board meeting. Well, the day before playing in the HUGE 2005 final against Lindsay Davenport, Venus chose to appear at that meeting and made a speech.

Picture this now…never before in history had a player appeared at this meeting!

With the strength of her conviction, Venus boldly stood  up in front of the members of this important Board and told them to close their eyes. “No peeking,” he said.

The respect Venus commanded saw them comply with her request…a they closed their eyes.

She instructed them to picture being a little girl with a dream–whether it’s tennis or politics or business. Then she said…

Imagine that you can’t earn as much or achieve that dream just because of your gender.

The next day, Venus played what many consider one of the BEST women’s tennis finals ever…beating Lindsay Davenport 9-7 in the third set of the Wimbledon final – to win her first major in four years. Behind the entire match, she dug deep in her arsenal of resolve, to win over a familiar and very talented foe. That final lasted longer than the men’s final that year, and in my book, IS the best women’s Grand Slam finals ever – because of high quality play from Venus and Lindsay…from start to finish!

In the ‘Venus Vs.’ documentary, Venus emotionally recall her little sister Serena’s advice to her before that final, which was: “If you take your opportunities, more will come.”

As she was serving for the match at 8-7, Venus shares, those words of her sister’s, were the exact words she repeated to her herself in that defining moment on court.

Wimbeldon 2006: Champions Venus Williams and Roger Federer
Wimbeldon 2006: Champions Venus Williams and Roger Federer

Venus won that Wimbledon and the IRONY is that the women’s prize money not being equal to the men’s – meant she was forced to accept earning less money than the men’s champion, Roger Federer.

The Letter Venus Published Before Wimbledon 2006


After all of her advocacy work in 2005 came up short, Venus published the following op-ed letter in the London’s Times before Wimbledon in 2006;  and, the question was raised in Parliament. Most agree that the letter became the defining moment of the entire battle for equal pay in tennis…Reprinted in it’s entirety:

Wimbledon has sent me a message: I’m only a second-class champion

Venus Williams

The Times & The Sunday Times

June 26, 2006

The time has come for it to do the right thing: pay men and women equal prize money

HAVE YOU ever been let down by someone that you had long admired, respected and looked up to? Little in life is more disappointing, particularly when that person does something that goes against the very heart of what you believe is right and fair.

When I was a little girl, and Serena and I played matches together, we often pretended that we were in the final of a famous tournament. More often than not we imagined we were playing on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Those two young sisters from Compton, California, were “Wimbledon champions” many times, years before our dreams of playing there became reality.

There is nothing like playing at Wimbledon; you can feel the footprints of the legends of the game — men and women — that have graced those courts. There isn’t a player who doesn’t dream of holding aloft the Wimbledon trophy. I have been fortunate to do so three times, including last year. That win was the highlight of my career to date, the culmination of so many years of work and determination, and at a time when most people didn’t consider me to be a contender.

So the decision of the All England Lawn Tennis Club yet again to treat women as lesser players than men — undeserving of the same amount of prize money — has a particular sting.

I’m disappointed not for myself but for all of my fellow women players who have struggled so hard to get here and who, just like the men, give their all on the courts of SW19. I’m disappointed for the great legends of the game, such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who have never stopped fighting for equality. And disappointed that the home of tennis is sending a message to women across the world that we are inferior.

With power and status comes responsibility. Well, Wimbledon has power and status. The time has come for it to do the right thing by paying men and women the same sums of prize money. The total prize pot for the men’s events is £5,197,440; for the women it is £4,446,490. The winner of the ladies’ singles receives £30,000 less than the men’s winner; the runner-up £15,000 less, and so on down to the first-round losers.

How can it be that Wimbledon finds itself on the wrong side of history? How can the words Wimbledon and inequality be allowed to coexist? I’ve spent my life overcoming challenges and those who said certain things couldn’t be achieved for this or that reason. My parents taught me that dreams can come true if you put in the effort. Maybe that’s why I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players.

I believe that athletes — especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women — should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message: 128 men and 128 women compete in the singles main draw at Wimbledon; the All England Club is saying that the accomplishments of the 128 women are worth less than those of the 128 men. It diminishes the stature and credibility of such a great event in the eyes of all women.

The funny thing is that Wimbledon treats men and women the same in so many other respects; winners receive the same trophy and honorary membership. And as you enter Centre Court, the two photographs of last year’s men’s and women’s champions are hung side by side, proudly and equally.

So why does Wimbledon choose to place a lesser value on my championship trophy than that of the 2005 men’s winner Roger Federer? The All England Club is familiar with my views on the subject; at Wimbledon last year, the day before the final, I presented my views to it and its French Open counterparts. Both clearly gave their response: they are firmly in the inequality for women camp.

Wimbledon has argued that women’s tennis is worth less for a variety of reasons; it says, for example, that because men play a best of five sets game they work harder for their prize money.

This argument just doesn’t make sense; first of all, women players would be happy to play five sets matches in grand slam tournaments. Tim Phillips, the chairman of the All England Club, knows this and even acknowledged that women players are physically capable of this.

Secondly, tennis is unique in the world of professional sports. No other sport has men and women competing for a grand slam championship on the same stage, at the same time. So in the eyes of the general public the men’s and women’s games have the same value.

Third, athletes are also entertainers; we enjoy huge and equal celebrity and are paid for the value we deliver to broadcasters and spectators, not the amount of time we spend on the stage. And, for the record, the ladies’ final at Wimbledon in 2005 lasted 45 minutes longer than the men’s. No extra charge.

Let’s not forget that the US Open, for 33 years, and the Australian Open already award equal prize money. No male player has complained — why would they?

Wimbledon has justified treating women as second class because we do more for the tournament. The argument goes that the top women — who are more likely also to play doubles matches than their male peers — earn more than the top men if you count singles, doubles and mixed doubles prize money. So the more we support the tournament, the more unequally we should be treated! But doubles and mixed doubles are separate events from the singles competition. Is Wimbledon suggesting that, if the top women withdrew from the doubles events, that then we would deserve equal prize money in singles? And how then does the All England Club explain why the pot of women’s doubles prize money is nearly £130,000 smaller than the men’s doubles prize money?

Equality is too important a principle to give up on for the sake of less than 2 per cent of the profit that the All England Club will make at this year’s tournament. Profit that men and women will contribute to equally through sold-out sessions, TV ratings or attraction to sponsors. Of course, one can never distinguish the exact value brought by each sex in a combined men’s and women’s championship, so any attempt to place a lesser value on the women’s contribution is an exercise in pure subjectivity.

Let’s put it another way, the difference between men and women’s prize money in 2005 was £456,000 — less than was spent on ice cream and strawberries in the first week. So the refusal of the All England Club, which declared a profit of £25 million from last year’s tournament, to pay equal prize money can’t be about cash. It can only be trying to make a social and political point, one that is out of step with modern society.

I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.

So ends the story of the woman tennis player who
took on Wimbledon as an opponent…


and finished in Victory.
Not bad for a gurrl from Compton! ‘-)

Reviews of Nine for IX documentary film

“Venus Vs.”

“It’s a stirring story that is skillfully rendered here. Throughout the tight, well paced film, Williams emerges as a colorful, combative, articulate presence.”

“Venus Vs. is a film not only triumphant in its subject matter, but in offering a narrative that is at once as empowering to female athletes, young girls looking for heroes and feminist activists, but also to all sports fans. To everyone, for that matter.”
Craig Carpenter | HUFFINGTON POST

“Elegantly made.”
Alison Willmore | INDIEWIRE

“Director Ava DuVernay further displays the fascinating reaches of her talents with her latest project, Venus Vs. a sports documentary for ESPN centered exclusively on the inspirational Venus Williams.  As with DuVernay’s previous works, her latest is not to be missed.”
Nicholas Bell | IONCINEMA

“The movie is taut, compact, and strong—just like its titular star.”
Jonathan Scott | TENNIS.COM

“The crusade that Williams — and others long before her like Billie Jean King — fought is memorably captured in a new documentary by director Ava DuVernay called Venus Vs.”
Murray Jacobson | PBS NEWSHOUR

“Visual choices, so striking and so precise, open up Venus Vs. to yet another set of contexts, extending beyond the ongoing effort to achieve women’s equality in sports.”
Cynthia Fuchs | POPMATTERS

“DuVernay chose a story that both fits the celebratory theme of the Nine For IX series and breaks new ground.”

“Cleverly, DuVernay incorporates footage from some of Williams’ most stunning matches as a way of not only communicating visually the blood, sweat and tears going into the battle for women’s respect on the courts, but also as a demonstration of how ludicrous the hoary claim is that women’s matches aren’t as ‘entertaining’ as men’s.”

“The documentary benefits from a directorial specificity that makes the subject matter fresh and exciting. There’s a great athletic energy and pacing.”
Nijla Mumin | SHADOW & ACT

“Venus Vs. will grab your attention from its first frame as DuVernay very aptly presents the film’s central narrative and moves the story forward in a succinct and entertaining way.”