Equal Pay for Equal Play: US Women's National Soccer Team

“Equal Pay for Equal Work,” has been a rallying cry for women in politics to fight for equal wages for women in the workforce. An equal pay struggle that is not as commonly talked about is the struggle for equal pay for women in professional sports. This not surprising considering white women, on average, get paid 81 cents for every dollar a white man gets paid and the pay gap is significantly larger for women of color. Women in professional sports get paid much more than the average working woman, but they still get paid significantly less than their male counterpart and have been struggling for equality for a long time. 

Billie Jean King, a former U.S. tennis player, led one of the most famous fights for equal pay in professional sports. In 1973, she successfully pressured the U.S. Open Tournament to pay women and men who won the tournament equally by threatening to not compete in the tournament. Even after King’s large victory, the struggle for equal pay in professional women’s tennis is still ongoing.

Additionally, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has one of the largest pay disparities among professional sports. The starting salary for WNBA players is $50,000 and the starting salary for NBA players is $580,000. The WNBA’s 2018 top draft pick was paid $53,000 and the NBA’s top draft pick is expected to make 6.8 million dollars in just one year. 

The players of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) have been speaking out against their unfair treatment by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), in comparison to the Federation’s treatment of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT), for many years. On March 8, 2019, all 28 players on the USWNT filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles against the USSF for gender-based discrimination, demanding equal pay and equal working conditions. The lawsuit is class-action which would allow former USWNT players to get reparations from the USSF because not only are they demanding future equal pay, but also compensation for lost pay due to discrimination.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time that the USWNT has taken legal action against the USSF. In 2016, four players filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While there was no immediate gain from that charge, it did recently result in a letter from the commission giving the USWNT permission to sue the USSF. The United States Soccer Federation has defended themselves by saying any pay gap is the result of the two team’s different collective bargaining agreements and, more recently, in an open letter the President of the USSF has stated that he was surprised by the lawsuit. The union of the UMNT has issued a statement of support for the USWNT's struggle for equal pay. 

On average the U.S. Women’s National Team gets paid just 38 percent of what the U.S. Men’s National Team gets paid per game, despite the fact that the USWNT secured nearly $20 million more revenue in 2015. They also play more games and are more successful than the USMNT. The USWNT won three World Cup Championships (1991, 1999, 2015) and four Olympic Championships (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012). Additionally, they have placed in the top three the other four years they have competed at the World Cup Tournament (1995, 2003, 2007, 2011).

In comparison, the USMNT has not won a World Cup Tournament since 1930 and in 2018, they failed to even qualify for the World Cup. In 2016, after the 2014 Men’s World Cup Tournament and the 2015 Women’s World Cup Tournament, the New York Times reported that the bonus for the women winning the 2015 World Cup was $75,000 per player, while if the men’s team would have won each player would have received a bonus of $390,625. From the Federal International Football Association, the USMT received nine million dollars after getting knocked out in the 16th round and the USWNT received two million dollars for being the World Cup Champions. The FIFA pay gap is unrelated to the lawsuit against the USSF, but it shows the magnitude of the pay gap issue in professional soccer. 

Importantly, the lawsuit against the USSF is about much more than the pay gap. One major point of contention the USWNT has consistently had with the USSF is on the playing surface of turf. Turf is a form of fake grass with small rubber pellets within the grass. The benefits of turf are mainly that it does not need as much upkeep as real grass, but the USWNT has cited the negative effects that turf has on players such as rug burn, infections from the pellets, uneven surfaces and increased risk of serious injury.

The USWNT has often boycotted games that were scheduled on turf and even filed a failed lawsuit against the Canadian Soccer Association for scheduling a tournament on turf. Men, more often than not, play their soccer games on grass, while women are often forced to play on turf. One example is the 2014 and 2015 World Cups, the Men’s World Cup in 2014 was played on grass but the 2015 Women’s World Cup was played on turf despite protests by professional women soccer players around the globe. Additional examples of gender discrimination mentioned in the lawsuit against the USSF are unequal marketing tactics and unequal medical assistance. 

Some experts suggest that the reasoning there is a general gender pay gap is due to the hours of work lost from women due to their motherly duties. Many people even justify the gender pay gap with biological differences between men and women. Some sports reporters have said that the gender pay gap in professional sports, especially soccer, is because of the differences in revenue each gender makes in their sport, but this argument doesn’t necessarily hold up for the USWNT since they provide a significantly larger profit to the USSF than the USMNT does.

Another sociological expert, Rachel Allison, suggests that the gender pay gap in sports can be attributed to the perception of differences in worth ethics based on gender in sports. Allison also argued, “their experience (is) similar to the type of discrimination that women in other physical, male-dominated professions frequently face.” The conclusion can be drawn that society does not value women’s work as much as they value men’s work even when the work is obviously comparable and even supreme, as in the case of the USWNT. 

The US Women’s National Soccer Team has been a national and global leader in the equal pay for equal pay movement, they have often consulted other national soccer teams from other nations and other professional women’s sports teams in the United States. The issue of gender discrimination in sports is widespread across every sport and every country. This struggle is not about an isolated incident, it is about a systemic issue. 

If you want to hear the US Women's National Soccer Team talk about their movement more, check out Hasan Minhaj's profile on the USWNT for The Daily Show. 

If you want to support women's professional soccer patron your local team associated with the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) and watch the 2019 Women's World Cup this summer. The NWSL team in DC is The Washington Spirit and their home-field is the Maryland SoccerPlex. Check out their schedule and buy tickets here


(Photo Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)