There’s a certain level of honesty you’re not likely to find on many internet message boards. In some corners of the web, for example, you’ll never find a keyboard warrior willing to admit that 9/11 was not an inside job; that typos don’t necessarily indicate deep-rooted character flaws; or that Meagan Rapinoe just might have a point.
Rapinoe — soccer superstar, outspoken gender equality advocate and lightning rod for politicized criticism — and her teammates on the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for its refusal to pay them as much as the American men’s team.1 Sadly, many within the halls of the USSF have adopted the tactics of internet commentators, wielding bad-faith arguments in defense of a status quo that, in true patriarchal fashion, pays mediocre men wildly more than women like Rapinoe who set the bar for excellence in their profession.2
The two teams operate under contracts with drastically different base salaries and incentives. If both teams lost every game they played, they’d earn roughly the same amount, but in the real world (where the women have won consecutive World Cups and their counterparts failed to even qualify for the most recent tournament), somehow the men come out on top financially.3
By a variety of metrics, many American women deserve to be paid more for their athletic efforts than their male counterparts. However, a pay gap that favored women would be just as illegal as the current disparity. Established federal law requires that members of both genders be paid equally for equal work. In other words, the only legal solution is equal pay for all athletes who represent the U.S.4,5
That’s why Congress must pass legislation compelling any national sports governing body to pay their athletes equally — or forfeit the authority to enter them into international competition.
Many of those who defend the USSF online — and, sadly, on TV and in courtrooms — argue that male athletes deserve higher pay because they perform on a higher level than women. Not only is this position predicated on the sexist belief that physical differences between genders, like generally bigger and faster bodies, justify unequal treatment,2 but there’s also a tiny detail undermining its logic: When it comes to performance on the international stage, American women have achieved a level of consistent success that men have never approached.
It goes beyond soccer. For example, at the most recent summer Olympics, women accounted for more than half of the United States’ medals, winning enough gold on their own to tie for first among all competing countries.6 The U.S. women’s basketball team has won 11 of the last 12 major international tournaments, too, while the much-celebrated men’s team has just seven gold medals in that stretch.7,8 The list of American women who excel on the international stage while earning less than their male counterparts goes on and on.
If you didn’t know all this, don’t feel bad. Women receive a fraction of the sports media coverage men enjoy, leading to disproportionately high awareness, viewership and attendance for male athletes and leagues.9 Even when the spotlight does find female athletes, it often casts them as wives and mothers — or even sex objects — first, and athletes second.9
Yet despite toxic media narratives and even more toxic masculinity from a segment of sports fans, women’s athletes are starting to gain traction with wider audiences. The last two Women’s World Cups make this crystal clear: In 2015, the women’s cup-clinching victory scored the highest TV rating for any soccer game in U.S. history.1 In this summer’s edition, the women’s title match had 20% higher ratings than the men’s championship the year before.10 Turns out, plenty of Americans would rather watch a winner perform than a “superior” athlete.
Even the people who decry women’s sports as an inferior product due to physical differences often refuse to appreciate the most athletically gifted competitors, instead choosing to ridicule big, fast and strong women as, ironically, too manly.
But all that sexism and misogyny,2 oozing from both internet message boards and mainstream media coverage, has not deterred fans from making the U.S. women’s soccer team’s jersey Nike’s best-selling soccer jersey ever.3 Or from spending more time watching the Wimbledon women’s championship, and less time watching the men’s.11
Ultimately, men’s and women’s athletics are a consumer good; when a sport or athlete attracts a following, comparing skill and talent is irrelevant.11 High TV ratings and jersey sales translate to big windfalls for corporate sponsors, which have been pouring money into U.S. women’s soccer of late.12 Like many American sports bodies, USSF makes over half of its revenue from sponsorships, TV deals and royalties, making the fact that it pays the women’s team less the men even more egregious.11
And that’s setting aside the fact that the pay disparity is flat-out illegal. Whether motivated by misogyny, greed or obliviousness, the USSF’s current pay arrangement violates established U.S. law. Both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibit employers from paying workers of different genders differently for the same work.4,5
The Supreme Court has said that complaints founded on the Equal Pay Act must prove that equal skill and effort are being compensated unequally.13 With American women out-working so many men, “equal” is a low bar for the USWNT’s suit to clear.
Some who defend take a more high-minded approach than those on the web, pointing out that FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, awarded $4 million to the U.S. women for winning it all this year12 — less than half of the $9 million awarded to the men’s team in 2014 for losing in the quarterfinals.14 But as reprehensible as that is, FIFA doesn’t tell USSF how to distribute prize money; USSF chooses to pay the men more.
For its part, USSF blames collective bargaining for the pay gap, effectively arguing that the men’s team negotiated a better deal. But that’s not an excuse — as the USWNT’s lawyer has pointed out, every instance of pay discrimination was at one point agreed to by the employee getting shortchanged.10 And as the Supreme Court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., Title VII is concerned with the consequences of gender-discriminatory pay, regardless of the motivation behind it.15
Of course, there’s an easy solution to all this, one that Australia has already proven works. There, the men’s and women’s soccer teams engage in collective bargaining together, recently negotiating a deal that not only pays both teams equally but also cements gender equality as a central pillar of their contract.16 But considering USSF is actively fighting the women’s lawsuit, this scenario is highly unlikely.
More likely, unfortunately, is that the organization’s flimsy arguments will withstand a judge’s scrutiny; anti-discrimination laws often serve only to provide cover for those who discriminate17 — if we’ve gotten away with it this long, the logic goes, then we must be within the law.
Hence the need for Congress to step in and pass a law stripping bodies like USSF of their right to enter athletes into international competition if they fail to comply with the Equal Pay Act and Civil Rights Act, regardless of the justification they put forward. Such a law would keep these organizations honest, even if they (and the trolls who defend them) refuse to be.
Ryan Newberry is in his second year at NYU Wagner. He is Managing Editor for Online Publications for The Wagner Review, Vice Chair of Wagner Advocacy and Political Action, and Communications Chair for Students for Criminal Justice Reform.
1. Killion A. Why does the U.S. women’s soccer team get paid less than the men? San Francisco Chronicle. March 14, 2019. www.sfchronicle.com/sports/annkillion/article/Why-does-the-U-S-Women-s-Soccer-team-get-paid-13689380.php. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
2. Manne K. 2018. Down girl: The logic of misogyny. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Kelly M. Are U.S. women’s soccer players really earning less than men? Washington Post. July 8, 2019. www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/08/are-us-womens-soccer-players-really-earning-less-than-men/. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
4. The Equal Pay Act of 1963. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/epa.cfm. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
5. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
6. Price K. Impacts of Title IX Still Felt by Team USA Athletes Today. Team USA. June 22, 2017. www.teamusa.org/News/2017/June/22/Impacts-Of-Title-IX-Still-Felt-By-Team-USA-Athletes-Today. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
7. USA Women’s National Team: History. USA Basketball. www.usab.com/womens/national-team/history.aspx. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
8. USA Men’s National Team: History. USA Basketball. www.usab.com/mens/national-team/history.aspx. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
9. Hanson V. The Inequality of Sport: Women < Men. The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research. 2012. fisherpub.sjfc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1069&context=ur. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
10. Glass A. Jeffrey Kessler on the USWNT and Their Fight for Equal Pay. October 1, 2019. www.forbes.com/sites/alanaglass/2019/10/01/jeffrey-kessler-uswnt-and-their-fight-for-equal-pay/#5f302c75d78b. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
11. Marar S. An Easy Fix for Soccer’s Gender Pay Gap. Foundation for Economic Education. July 16, 2019. fee.org/articles/an-easy-fix-for-soccer-s-gender-pay-gap/. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
12. Kaufman M. How big is the gender pay gap in sports? It’s much bigger than you think. Here is proof. Miami Herald. August 28, 2019. www.miamiherald.com/sports/article234425642.html. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
13. Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188 (1974). Justia. supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/417/188/. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
14. Clarke P. World Cup 2014 Prize Money: Payout Distribution Info and More. Bleacher Report. June 12, 2014. bleacherreport.com/articles/2082299-world-cup-2014-prize-money-payout-distribution-info-and-projections. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
15. Selected Supreme Court Decisions. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/supreme_court.html. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
16. Wamsley L. Under New Deal, Australian Women’s And Men’s Soccer Will Get Equal Share Of Revenue. NPR. November 6, 2019. www.npr.org/2019/11/06/776973749/under-new-deal-australian-womens-and-men-s-soccer-will-get-equal-share-of-revenu. Accessed on December 15, 2019.
17. Spade D. 2015. Normal Life:Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Durham: Duke University Press.