Equal Pay and Lack Thereof - Dominyka Obelenyte

Published on by Dominyka Obelenyte

Photo Credit: Mike Calimbas @mikecalimbas

I first started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when I was a wee nine-year-old with few ambitions and a hankering for snacks and TV. The main motivation that drove me to continue to pursue a life of martial arts was purely material. I wanted medals, I wanted fame and notoriety, I wanted something nice and shiny to put on a college application. It seems I got there. I got into a good school, earned my place in the community by winning Worlds four times and just recently became a double gold champion. But it’s still not enough. It’s only hit me recently why I am plagued with a feeling of restlessness. Believe it or not, it dates back to an event in the fall of 2014.

I was in attendance at the BJJ Pro being held in New York, not to compete, but to cheer on and support my teammates and friends. There were a few reasons I wasn’t competing, one was the fact that I was recovering from an injury, the other was because the tournament itself made me wrinkle my nose in distaste. Black belt men were being paid per division. Black belt women were being paid for absolute only. Black belt men were receiving $5,000 in prizes per division. Black belt women were only paid if they won the absolute division (prize amount: $1,500). At first I was miffed. Then I got angry. Soon, I was complaining to everyone within earshot at the tournament.

“It’s crazy right?” I implored. A lot of women nodded furiously. A lot of men agreed and offered unwarranted apologies. One response spurred me to do something about it.

“Stop complaining about it.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You have the power to do something about this. You can make a big stink out of it. But you’re not doing that, you’re complaining. So if you’re not going to do anything to change it, don’t complain about how unfair it is to me.”

And so it’s been almost a year. I am done complaining. I’m done whispering to my female friends and teammates about how unfair treatment for women in BJJ is. The reality is, we are tired of having to reassert our roles as athletes to be taken seriously. Tired of reminding people that we are not on the mats to get boyfriends, and that yes, you can roll hard with us. Tired of seeing competitions constantly skimping on the payments professional athletes deserve in this sport, but even more tired of seeing women get the short end of the stick when payment is made available.

Photo Credit: Jeff Chu @jeffreyschu

The fact is, more combined divisions, less prize money, less willingness for sponsors to take us on, less overall media attention and international support is what women athletes receive in repayment for the same work put into training, the same intensity put into rolling, the same pain felt when injuries undeniably happen, the same fees paid to the doctor, to the gym, to the GI and equipment brand, to the airline, the hotel, and the tournaments. We go through the same steps everyone goes through in BJJ. We learn the same moves. We sweat the same sweat. We aspire to be World Champions and famous athletes. We hope to be the best in the world. And we are rewarded less for it.

The movement that myself and a large group of people are backing, the movement asking for equal pay for both sexes, is the new wave of equality I wish to see being utilized in all tournaments, but especially in those organized by the IBJJF. After all, tournaments like Five Grappling provide both sexes with equal prize opportunities, and they’ve lined up a sizeable group of well-known and well-liked athletes to vouch for them. I want people to understand that women are not second-class citizens, and that we have strong presence in BJJ and are here to stay.

Let’s examine what happens when women are shown they are worth less than men. We feel unwanted and undeserving. We feel indignant towards the wrongdoing we see. We refuse to participate in a situation that supports such behavior. That seems to be the same case for what occurred at the 2014 NY BJJ Pro. Black belt male prizes totaled to $20,000, 13x more than what the female competitors were being offered.

"Does that make a female black belt competitor looking to compete at the Pro only worth 1/13th of a male black belt?"

With this being the impression, it is unlikely that many women would take the time out of their day to compete. In the male categories, there were many competitors there, not only from the opposite coast, but from international waters as well. My theory is the attractiveness of the $4000 first place prize and the $1000 for falling short of first. These prizes were, no doubt, a lucrative opportunity for talented BJJ black belt men to buy their plane tickets, rent out their hotels, and take a shot at winning the grand prize. The reason we may not see the same female competitors we do at Worlds, or Pans, or the Abu Dhabi Pro, is because they may not be able to afford the trip, and the headache of the trip itself, if they are only going to have a tiny chance of going home with any money.

That being said, eight black belt men have the opportunity to walk away with some prize money. Only one woman does. That woman also has to be willing to win said prize money competing in the absolute division. BJJ competitors are never required to do absolute, and there is a good reason for this. Many smaller men and women will be paired off with an opponent a few feet taller and sixty pounds heavier, and with a match up like this, risk of injury increases, which many people are rightfully turned off by. Female black belts, however, regardless of size, must forfeit their right to compete against opponents their own size, if they stand a chance at receiving any prize money.

Photo Credit: Jeff Chu @jeffreyschu

But one might say, who cares about the prize money? There have been competitors swarming to many other IBJJF organized tournaments, and have never been given the added incentive of prize money. Well usually, the tournaments being swarmed with people are the ones held in high regard by the rest of the BJJ community. Competitions like the World Championships draw the talent that they do because there is a prestige that comes along with competing and winning a World title. It is an impressive addition to an athletic resume, a turning point for sponsorship deals and media attention, and generally, a magnet for international respect and acclaim. The relative newness of the BJJ Pro, and the lack of hyped-up advertisement that went along with the event, obviously garnered less of an enthusiastic response from the BJJ community as a whole. It was, and still may be looked at as a tournament only a little better than any Open. Because of this, the tournament’s popularity, and willingness for people to attend, dwindles.

Now before I get ahead of myself, my overall goal is not to chastise the IBJJF. It is not to discredit male BJJ practitioners, or blame them for any of my concerns. It is definitely not to cause a disparity within the community, but to simply ask that women are offered the same opportunities as our male counterparts.

My one wish, besides getting our movement to gain more speed, is to actually have a direct conversation with anyone involved with the IBJJF to negotiate a possible solution to the problem. If division sizes are of utmost concern, it could be in their best interest to create a minimum standard before offering prizes. For example, at least four people must be signed up for a division for prizes to be offered (obviously equal prizes for both sexes). Or, create an invitational style competition for black belt athletes, so that an equal number of athletes are invited and are both paid the same. No matter what change is to come, women deserve to be considered as more than just 1/13th of a male black belt. The work we put in should be valued at the same level as the men’s, and I won’t allow this cause to stop until an actual change is implemented.

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Please sign the petition https://www.change.org/p/ibjjf-give-women-athletes-equal-prize-money-2


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