Leveling the Playing Field: How the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is Leading the Fight Against Income Inequality

Leveling the Playing Field: How the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is Leading the Fight Against Income Inequality

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the summer of 1999. I was twelve years old and a tomboy through and through. On this particular afternoon, I was wearing my Mia Hamm t-shirt, a Celtics baseball cap, and my beat up Nikes. I can’t remember why I was at my grandparents house that day, but there was nothing better than visiting my grandma. She stuffed us to the brim with candy and cookies, and she had every Disney movie on VHS. Her house was a grandchild’s dream. In the living room sat myself, my grandparents, and my cousin, and best bud, Ryan. We all sat anxiously awaiting the big game to begin. Normally, we’d be watching the Red Sox in mid-July, but today we were watching women’s soccer. Yes, women’s soccer. My Army veteran grandpa, my cookie-baking grandma, and my male cousin were as excited as I was to watch the United States women’s national soccer team defeat China in the World Cup.

For most, the iconic moment of the game came when Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey in celebration. Chastain’s chiseled abs and sports bra forever changed how we viewed American women. She was the first to show us that strong was the new sexy. For kids like me, it was something else. It was the realization that it was okay to look up to athletic girls. It was the first time I saw incredibly gifted, intelligent, and muscular women and said “I want to be like that.”

The 1999 World Cup was one of the most defining moments in women’s professional sports. It was a turning point and instrumental in creating legendary female heroes like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Julie Foudy. It changed the way we viewed female athletes. Suddenly, it was cool to be a girl-jock.

Fast forward to 2015. I haven’t followed women’s soccer as closely as I did when I was a kid, but I’d been keeping an eye on the women’s national team as they prepped for the World Cup. The talent level of this new roster was unreal. It’s amazing how much the game has progressed in fewer than 20 years. The women I grew up watching are long gone. There’s a new batch of superstars poised to become some of the most famous, wealthy, and successful female athletes on the planet. When they defeated Japan 5-2 in the World Cup final, led by Carli Lloyd’s incredible hat trick, I felt like I was 12 again.

The 1999 team opened the door, actually they kicked opened the door, for women with big dreams and ambition. The 2015 team, honored their predecessors by continuing to chisel away at the glass ceiling through more litigious means.

So what did the women’s national team do after becoming the most successful soccer team in American history? They demanded equality. In April of 2016, five members of the women’s national soccer team filed a wage-discrimination suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This was the first time professional athletes have filed a complaint in this regard. Players Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo are leading the charge to level the playing field, and they have more than a few compelling reasons.

Decades of Dominance

The women’s national soccer team has outperformed their male counterparts in nearly all facets of the game. The women’s team has won three World Cups and four Olympic Gold Medals. The men’s team has failed to medal in the Olympics or reach a World Cup final. The women’s team is consistently one of the best in the world. They’ve maintained dominance in their sport for two decades. The men’s team cannot say the same.

Yes, men’s and women’s soccer are different. Yes, I understand men are bigger, faster, stronger, and there isn’t much comparison. But that’s not the point. The point is the women’s team deserves equality with their male counterparts, and they haven’t gotten it.

Let me break it down for you.

How They Get Paid

The women’s team is paid a salary, the men are paid per game. The women are given benefits and maternity leave, the men have fewer personal benefits. So what’s the problem?

Well, take a look at the two starting goalkeepers: Tim Howard and Hope Solo. They made comparable money in 2015. Solo raked in $366,000 after salary and bonuses. Howard made $398,495. Seems fair, right? Well not when you break it down by game. Howard played in only 8 matches, Solo appeared in 23. Tim Howard made more than three times as much as his female counterpart per game.

The argument for female athletes not getting paid as much as the men usually has to do with ticket sales and tv ratings. I’ve heard it countless times, “No one watches or attends women’s sports, that’s why they don’t make as much.” But what happens when that’s not true? Will the pay automatically become equal and fair? The women’s soccer team says that’s just not happening.

According to U.S. soccer’s projections, the women’s team will net about $5 million in ticket sales this year. Not too shabby. In contrast, the men’s national team will lose about a $1 million in ticket sales. That’s a $6 million difference in the women’s favor.

The television ratings tell a more complex story. Around the world, men’s soccer is far and away more popular. But in the United States, people are watching the women win and succeed. The 2015 women’s World Cup final was the most watched soccer match (men’s or women’s) in American history. More than 30 million people tuned in. The second highest rated game was a 2014 match between the U.S. men vs. Portugal with 18.7 million viewers. The 1999 women’s World Cup final had 18 million American viewers. People are watching this women’s team. That is a fact.

Unfair Conditions

There’s even more to this story though. The women also claim they’re being treated unfairly when it comes to team travel, playing conditions, and equipment. Case in point: the women fly in coach and the men fly in first class to all games.

The women play more games too. Between 2012 and 2016, they played 110 compared to the men’s 76 matches. They also won 88 of those games, compared to 44 for the men. So it does seem as if the women are putting in more work for less than equal pay.

Much of the mistreatment of female soccer players comes from the FIFA culture. The Federation Internationale de Football Association, is basically the soccer mafia. It’s made up of men who see women as inferior and they haven’t been subtle about it. For example, the corrupt former head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter (yes, that’s his name and not a form of venereal disease), suggested the women would be more popular around the world if they wore tighter shorts. He then decided to not attend the women’s World Cup finals in 2015. As far as FIFA prize money goes, the men’s winner of the World Cup receives $35 million, the women’s winner gets a mere $2 million.

Stars Sydney Leroux Dwyer and Hope Solo also chronicled on social media the sub-par field conditions the women’s team is subjected to. They went as far as boycotting a match in Hawaii due to horrible turf conditions. It was unsafe and something the men’s team would never have to deal with. You can see pictures of their torn up legs, the ripped seams of the turf, and general shitty conditions on the players’ Instagram accounts. Days before the Hawaii boycott, midfielder Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL on a loose grate along the sideline of a horrible field they were forced to play on. She missed the Olympic qualifiers because of it.

Money, Money, Money…

Opponents of equal pay in soccer keep coming back to the same tired arguments. Women don’t bring in as much revenue as men. Here’s the problem with that statement though. FIFA refuses to promote women’s games as much as men’s. They also won’t publicly release any monetary data on how much women’s soccer is making for them, mostly in fear they’ll be accused of discrimination. They are hiding the true data and statistics in an effort to keep women’s soccer inferior to men’s. This is a case of powerful men intentionally holding back women who threaten their historical dominance. This seems familiar, where have I heard this story before?

What’s next?

Last week, the women’s team decided to restructure their union in order to restart talks for a new collective bargaining agreement. The union will include more players, new leadership, and alumni involvement. The restructuring was welcomed by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati who believes a new deal can be reached with the women’s team soon.

A high profile fight for equal pay and working conditions is perhaps what America needs to see. These women have dedicated their lives to being the best soccer players in the world. They deserve the same treatment as the men’s team. Why haven’t we afforded them the same opportunity?

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