Late last month, five prominent members of the US Women’s National Soccer team filed a wage discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation. The grievance, filed with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), addresses the inequality of pay between the women and men’s national soccer teams in the United States. The lawsuit claims that on average, players on the US Men’s National Team earn four times as much as their female counterparts, despite the women’s team bringing in more revenue and profit for the organization in recent years.
The wage dispute highlights the discriminatory practices of the US Soccer Federation that have become customary for the organization since the women’s team was formed in the mid 1980’s . In an interview with PBS News hour, former USWNT goalie and world cup champion Brianna Scurry revealed that the women’s team has been fighting gender bias for “decades”. In the late 1990’s, she remarked, the difficulty for the women’s team was obtaining team trainers, massage therapists and to “even getting paid in general”.
The women’s team has encountered prejudicial treatment at the international level as well. Leading up to the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada there was dispute over the surface that the games would take place on. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, made the unprecedented decision to play the games on artificial turf as opposed to real grass. Neither the men’s nor women’s World Cups had ever been played on turf and FIFA then admitted they had no plans to play the Men’s World Cup on anything but grass. Some of the main reasons for this would be that alters the very game itself from the way the ball travels on the field to whether a player may be willing to slide on the field. Numerous studies focusing on football, rugby and soccer have found that the incidence of lower extremity injuries is higher on artificial surfaces than real grass.
This is why soccer should be played on grass! pic.twitter.com/fsNGi27oRY
— Sydney Leroux Dwyer (@sydneyleroux) April 15, 2013
FIFA’s decision to play the games on turf is not entirely surprising considering it came from the now infamous former president Sepp Blatter. In 2004, Blatter suggested that the female player’s uniforms should be more “feminine” and have “tighter shorts” in order to gain more widespread appeal for the sport. The US women went so far as to file a lawsuit against FIFA over the turf fields and threatened to boycott the World Cup altogether. However, due to US Soccer Federation’s (which has incredible pull with the international governing body) lack of support for the women’s team both the lawsuit and boycott fell silent.
The recent lawsuit references the large wage gap that exists between the Women’s and Men’s US soccer teams. The grievance alludes to several pay discrepancies that seem to be inexplicable in nature and blatantly prejudicial to the female athletes.
Proponents of this pay scheme would argue that the difference in pay is only logical considering the men’s game is more popular and brings in more money in revenue. However, for the last two years the women’s team has been the top-earning component of US Soccer bringing in more than $17 million in revenue in this past calendar year. Looking ahead to 2017, the women’s team is projected to make $5 million in profit for the federation while the men’s team will actually net a loss of $1 million. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, decorated soccer journalist Grant Wahl disclosed that when looking at a four year World Cup cycle, the men and women’s teams will bring in nearly the same amount of revenue (60 million to 51 million respectively), begging the question why the men are financially compensated at a rate nearly four times that of the women.
Some have asked, “Should the player’s salary even be tied to the revenue each team produces?” and it appears the answer is “no”. The US Soccer Federation is a not-for-profit organization that competes internationally with both amateur and professional athletes, unlike for example, international tennis.
The question may then be, “Does the men’s team earn more in TV sponsorship compared to the women and that explains part of the gap?” Again, the answer is no. US Soccer president Sunil Gulati explained, “The sponsorship and TV money are done collectively. We don’t break that down [with our] sponsors [or] in any of our accounting”.
For its part, the US Soccer Federation responded to the lawsuit brought by the five USWNT players. Their statement was at once condescending as well as self-congratulating:
While US Soccer’s assertion that they have been on the forefront of “building women’s soccer” in the US and around the world is undoubtedly true, it is quite misleading when most countries have only within the last decade even begun to financially support their women’s teams (of any sport).
However, it is very easy to be the best at something that very few others are doing. The letter essentially sends the message to female soccer players in the US that they should be happy with what they are allotted and not ask for more because nowhere in the world would they get the same level of “support”. It is also true that the current National Women’s Soccer League is in its fourth incarnation after three previous unsuccessful attempts. However, the Federation uses this as a red herring to distract from the essential issue: equality.
US Soccer is essentially saying that since women have not always been able to financially support their families through their professional league, the federation paying them a full time wage is really an act of graciousness. Yet, at a closer look, this argument has no real place in the debate and actually serves to highlight the injustice further.
Women’s soccer, and women’s sports in general, have always had to struggle for airtime and respect in male dominated society. Therefore, the growth of the sport has been stunted by our cultural norms and mores, which often see women as too dainty to play sports.
There has been a men’s US soccer team for over a hundred years while the women have only been competing at the international level since the mid 1980’s. Yet despite the longevity of the men’s game, it is arguably the women who have had the greatest hand in truly popularizing the sport in America: despite only being in existence for 1/3 of the time that the men’s team has been around, the USWNT has already surpassed their male counterparts in revenue generation and had the most watched soccer game in history last year. This is absolutely unprecedented.
But even after winning several Olympics, World Cups, various tournaments and countless matches (most recently a 7-0 rout of Colombia and 2016 She Believes Cup Champions) the USWNT continues to earn far less than the men’s team. In fact, if the women were to win every game in a year, each male player would still make more in game bonuses for losing that same number of games (and the men have been losing some bad games, too… Guatemala, Jamaica…).
The contrast in records for the two teams could not be more different. Therefore, this author is left wondering should the question not only be why the women don’t get paid more, but also “Do the men actually deserve less?”. Of course they don’t, BUT, creating an equitable pay scale for both the USWNT and MNT is not only an investment in the future of the sport as it continues to grow — it is also the logical and right thing to do.