Balancing out the Scoreboard

By Abi Rahman-Davies

Friday, June 7, kicked off the 2019 Women’s World Cup. And exactly a month later, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) finished their final game, victorious. The World Cup has long been a joyous and exciting event, and since 1991 has been a chance for women’s soccer teams from across the globe to show off their skills on the world stage. The USWNT were the favorites from the start — but throughout a month of hard-fought matches and exhilarating wins, a dark cloud has hung over the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body of both the USWNT and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT).

As of a lawsuit filed by USWNT against the U.S. Soccer Federation in March of this year, the team alleges that they are being paid considerably less than their male counterparts, the USMNT. USWNT and the U.S. Soccer Federation have reportedly agreed to mediation, but the women’s team’s recent win (and notorious lack of wins from the U.S. at the men’s World Cup) has sparked international conversation about equal pay in athletics.

Several organizations have huge pay disparities between their female and male sports organizations: for example, a referee in the NBA makes more than a WNBA player. More often than not, these pay disparities are excused with claims that male athletes bring in more money than those on women’s teams. But in the case of the U.S. Soccer Federation, not only does the women’s team have more accolades, but they also bring in more money than the U.S. men’s team. Since 1999, the USWNT has won the World Cup three times; on the flip side, the men’s team did not even qualify for the last World Cup series. The USMNT’s biggest World Cup wins date back nearly a century, with two 3-0 victories against Belgium and Paraguay in 1930. And to really drive home the pay disparity, 2015 budget figures showed a $23 million increase in revenue attributed to the women’s team’s World Cup win and victory tour — more than what the men’s team brought in during that time period.

As a female student athlete, I pay special attention to women’s sports, especially women’s basketball and soccer. Even I was surprised at the pay disparities between men and women in professional sports, because at the college level student athletes are not paid and they are protected through Title IX, which protects students from sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

The USWNT’s lawsuit highlights “institutional gender discrimination,” meaning that the players believe the U.S. Soccer Federation purposely set out to discriminate against them based on gender. The team has proof of this — proof that goes beyond pay. The lawsuit mentions that the U.S. Soccer Federation’s gender-based discrimination isn’t limited to pay and is prevalent in every aspect of their work, from training, to travel, to promotion. The lawsuit even addresses how the women have to play on artificial turf significantly more often than the men’s team does, leaving them more prone to injury. The U.S. Soccer Federation has responded that “the jobs the women and men do are fundamentally different — and therefore are subject to different compensation structures.” This is a strange argument though because both teams play the same sport with the same rules, so where the differences lie are up to speculation. The USWNT fundamentally disagrees with this argument, leading to the continuation of the lawsuit.

While this battle is playing out on the soccer field, workplace discrimination is not unique to athletics. The USWNT’s lawsuit speaks to a systemic issue of gender-based pay inequity in the U.S. that ensures that women receive less than men for the same work. In fact, “women in America make roughly 80 cents for every dollar men make and that figure is much less for women of color: Black women earn about 61 cents on the dollar, and Latina women make about 53 cents on the dollar.”

While it is very clear that the work the men’s and women’s soccer teams are doing is at least the same — and for the USWNT, the work is arguably inequitable as the team brings in more revenue than the men’s team — gender-based discrimination continues to permeate in the sports world. Ethically, it is right that women are paid equitably for the work that they do. In addition, the U.S. Soccer Federation paying the USWNT equitably would send a strong statement that would reverberate around the world: no matter what your gender is, you deserve to be compensated equally and fairly. A statement like this could even encourage other sports and companies to follow suit: a kick needed to score in the goal of equality to balance out the scoreboard of civil rights.

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