Three lessons from landmark US soccer agreement on getting equal pay in sports

Here’s how the story goes: in a lawsuit that listed 28 of the team’s players as plaintiffs, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) claimed that they were paid less than the men’s team, and that it constituted a form of gender discrimination .. A judge ruled against them in May 2020, and the following year, USWNT filed an appeal.

The fight was acrimonious and public, but the team reached a $24 million settlement on Tuesday with US Soccer. Of this, $22 million is going to the players in the case and another $2 million “into an account to benefit the USWNT players in their post-career goals and charitable efforts related to women’s and girls’ soccer,” with players able to apply for up to $50,000 from this fund, according to a joint statement by US Soccer and USWNT.
The road to pay parity in US soccer has been a long and bumpy one with the statement admitting that “getting to this day has not been easy” and two-time World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe saying of the settlement: “We’ve been in this for a long time and coming from a long history of women that have fought to put this sport in a better place.”

This news is not just of consequence to fans and players of women’s soccer in the US. Disparities between what men’s and women’s teams are paid exist all over the world, with the size of that pay gap dependent on the sport and what conscious action has been taken to equalize pay.

In Ireland, for example, the national football association, FAI, announced in August 2021 that “players representing the Republic of Ireland Senior Men and Senior Women’s international teams will receive the same match fees on international duty” in what it called “a ground-breaking deal for Irish sport.”

So, what lessons — if any — can advocates and supporters of pay parity in other sports learn from the USWNT win?

The first thing is that leadership matters. “I would say the most immediate cause of [the victory] was Cindy Parlow Cone taking over as the new US Soccer president,” says Steph Yang, women’s soccer staff writer at the Athletic, who has been following the topic of equal pay in soccer since 2012.

“Cone understood the players coming from her perspective as a formerl national team player. But not just that,” Yang told CNN, adding that, “after your predecessor resigns, it does become imperative that you start tidying things up as quickly as possible.”
The second is public visibility and support. Neena Chaudhry, General Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, which supported the USWNT with its appeal, says of the case: “The law can certainly be a leader, but it is also about changing hearts and minds. Especially in the sports world, so much of what is behind the unequal treatment of professional women athletes is a cultural dismissing of women’s sports but [USWNT players] blazed a trail, elevating the issue in the public consciousness. People are paying attention.”
Members of the U.S. women's Olympic soccer team carry a U.S. flag onto the field Thursday, Aug 1, 1996 after the team's 2-1 win over China for the gold medal. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher)
“The United States loves gold medal winners,” echoes Yang, referring to the growth in popularity of women’s soccer after the team took home gold at the first Olympics to include women’s soccer: the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

The third lesson is that investment determines outcomes. Yang, Chaudhry, and countless others have made the case that human beings have no natural preference for men’s sports over women’s. What you put in is what you get out and USWNT put a lot in at the beginning, resulting in them standing head and shoulders above the competition, which in turn created buzz and public support.

If you make a modest investment upfront, “you’re going to outperform 95 percent of the rest of the field,” says Yang. She contrasts the investment made in women’s soccer in the 1990s to the lack of investment in women’s college basketball in the US today.

Last year a video shared by Sedona Prince, a basketball player for the University of Oregon, went viral as she showed the small stack of dumbbells she said were meant to be the women’s “weight room”, followed by the spacious, well-equipped space used as the men’s weight room. In the aftermath, a study conducted by an outside firm, commissioned by the NCAA, found that women’s basketball was indeed undervalued compared to the organization’s men’s teams. The NCAA Board of Governors released a statement saying it was “wholly committed to an equitable experience among its championships.”

“People don’t have natural inborn appetites for certain kinds of sports or gendered activities,” says Yang. “It’s completely determined by our cultures; the way we’re socialized. We assign the value to sports.”

Contingent on the ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), USWNT players will be paid at the same rates as the men. But gender parity in sports isn’t just about money in the bank — there are also differences in treatment and coverage to contend with, Yang explains and gives the example of parental leave.

“Parental leave is something that the women’s team would obviously negotiate for. But the men’s team, they’re like: ‘Well, my partner stays at home and takes care of the child. That’s not something that is ever expected of me so why would I ever want to negotiate for parental leave when there’s other stuff that I want to go for?'”

The ability to provide childcare without damaging your career is just one example of an area where the CBAs between men and women players might differ, Yang explains, though she hopes for a day when CBAs reflect a societal view that parental leave is a shared irrespective of gender. For now though, Yang says: “For women [soccer players] it has to be a cornerstone of any labor negotiation if they want to be able to have a career that lasts longer than three years.”

Still, Tuesday’s news is cause for celebration and hope. “The victory gives me a lot of hope because it shows what women are capable of; how persistence pays off,” says Chaudhry. “And I really hope it inspires women across our country and hopefully internationally to fight for what they think they deserve and what they’re entitled to.”

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“They said: ‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.’
I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

Egyptian feminist author Nawal El Saadawi

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