Show Me the Money

Sarena Malsin, Sports Editor

This might be a shocking statement to throw down, so bear with me here: The professional sports world is rife with sexism. Recently, the U.S. Women’s National Team, already known for speaking out against homophobia and various unfair sporting practices, did something about it.

On Wednesday, March 30, five popular, professional soccer players on the USWNT — goalkeeper Hope Solo, co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoe — filed a federal complaint to accuse U.S. Soccer, the U.S.’s soccer governing body, of wage discrimination. On top of having to use inferior facilities and being generally overlooked by an organization created to ensure regularity and safety in their sport, the women’s team is earning just 40 percent of the men’s national team’s wages as of last year.

At this point, few need reminding that the women’s team has now taken home three World Cup titles and gained considerable international respect and acclaim in recent years. By comparison, the men’s team has no titles and has placed the institution of U.S. Soccer in a laughable light to the point that their successes come as surprises rather than as impressive victories. This is only one aspect of why this pay gap demonstrates an embarrassing level of close-mindedness, sexism and traditionalism on the part of U.S. Soccer.

Even economic reasoning in support of these wages doesn’t check out. Arguments citing women’s games generating smaller revenue through broadcasts to justify unequal pay are crumbling more by the minute given the rising popularity of the USWNT, especially since their 5–2 victory over Japan in the most recent World Cup final became the most-watched game in U.S. Soccer history. On an even broader scale, the U.S. Soccer Federation’s annual fiscal report credited the women’s team “almost exclusively” for the organization turning projected profits in 2016. So the USWNT’s case in particular, which has been submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, highlights the absurdity of this pay disparity between men’s and women’s leagues.

The stark contrast in performance between these two teams, along with the platform for other forms of activism USWNT athletes have already established for themselves, has given their accusations a refreshing amount of media traction. However, it’s important to note that soccer isn’t the only professional sports realm where these sexist practices are persisting, nor is it the only one where women’s leagues are speaking up. The USWNT may be dragging the dead weight of the men’s team along with them toward international legitimacy for U.S. Soccer, but that doesn’t make them the only team with enough of a reason to fight for wages comparable to their male counterparts.

VICE Sports offers a popular example about wage gaps between men’s and women’s basketball: Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi helped her team win the WNBA championship in 2014, in addition to making the All-Women’s National Basketball Association First Team and was paid the WNBA’s maximum salary at the time, which was $107,500. The Phoenix Suns used Dionte Christmas’ services for all of 198 minutes in the team’s 2013–2014 season, and he was paid the NBA minimum $490,180 for that time. This example shows a pay differential that again defies the economic reasoning that women’s basketball games garner fewer fans and TV viewers, because the gap it represents far outweighs gaps in popularity and viewership between the NBA and the WNBA. Even factoring in the size of the leagues, the numbers stand out as extremely unfair.

Beyond players taking action to speak against this inequality, gender equality activists have taken the WNBA’s cause in stride to call out sports governing bodies for using women’s sports’ weaker media presence as an excuse for sexist salary policies. Recently, there have also been investigations into the drastic wage gaps between men’s and women’s professional and collegiate coaches and the heightened difficulty women experience when trying to enter the coaching field in the first place. Female coaches’ attempts to receive equal pay date as far back as the 1990s when Marianne Stanley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Southern California, argued unsuccessfully for her pay to match that of the men’s coach at the time.

Of course, the tie-in here is that the wage gap exists in all professional spheres, far outside the world of sports. Men have long earned more than women for performing the same job, and professional sports organizations dictate the same for players, just with the added fun of delegitimizing female athleticism. It’s true that these athletes are still earning around $100,000 a year and aren’t the ones experiencing the crippling economic effects of wage gaps. However, the sports world offers a significantly different dimension to this issue: Viewers can watch women performing the same tasks as men on screen, using the same physicality, effort and endurance, and then see them earn drastically different payoffs. Experts of law and collective bargaining say that it’s hard for women in sports to prove equality of work and market conditions, a rigid legal requirement necessary to successfully obtain equal pay. But the fact that parallel “working conditions” are so publicly broadcasted can add critical salience to protests from female athletes for sports fans — if not for their parent organizations — and that public awareness is not insignificant.

That’s what makes the bargaining position of the USWNT all the more important, because they are publicly doing the same job as the men’s team — but better. U.S. Soccer can avidly deny that the women’s team stands to financially support their organization in the future, but they can’t deny which games their viewers are tuning into. They can’t deny that their salary numbers are making less and less sense and that people are starting to notice. If nothing else comes of its accusation, the USWNT stands to force a powerful number of people, in the sports world and otherwise, to confront gender inequality in wages. The team has used its position of power and popularity well, and I can only hope that its parent organization steps up to do the same.