U.S. women’s soccer team equal pay settlement sets a dangerous precedent

Last week was a great one for U.S. women’s soccer. On Wednesday night, the U.S. Women’s National Team won the 2022 SheBelieves Cup in a 5-0 win over Iceland. This is its fifth win in the seven-year history of the tournament. But the USWNT had an even more important win on Tuesday, when its settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation was announced, ending the team’s long fight for equal pay. Current and former members of the team who were involved in the class action described the settlement as a “huge win” and a “historical day.”

Expecting girls and women to be exceptional just to be considered equal only perpetuates the dynamics by which girls and women experience discrimination in the first place.

Indeed, it is historic. While other women athletes, like tennis players Billie Jean King and Venus and Serena Williams, the U.S. women’s hockey team and Women’s National Basketball Association players have advocated for equal prize money, comparable salaries to male athletes and better working conditions, the USWNT case is believed to be the first time women athletes in the U.S. sued their employer for gender discrimination — and succeeded.

In a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, the USWNT alleged that despite the women’s team generating $20 million in revenue the year before, the team paid the women players four times less than the men. Now the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body, has agreed to pay the players $24 million, including back pay, and made a commitment to compensate men and women players equally in competitions, including the World Cup.

While the U.S. women’s soccer team may have won its fight for equal pay, the outcome doesn’t signal a win for the larger battle for equality in women’s sports. A true win for equality would be for women athletes to be compensated fairly, and for both the men’s and women’s teams to receive equal treatment by the federation, regardless of how much revenue they generate and how many titles they win.

The USWNT players were viewed as deserving of equal pay in large part due to their unparalleled athletic achievements. Players and fans have frequently underscored the sheer competitive dominance of the team, which had won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. This was in stark contrast to the lackluster record of the men’s team. The USMNT failed to even qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the third consecutive missed Olympics for the team, and has never won a World Cup — its best finish coming when it placed third in the first World Cup back in 1930.

Advocates have also pointed to the USWNT’s high television ratings. The 2019 Women’s World Cup was the most-watched English-language soccer match (men’s or women’s) in U.S. history. Globally, the 2019 Women’s World Cup reached an estimated 1.2 billion viewers. In 2019, the 2019 USWNT home kit became the highest-selling soccer jersey in the U.S., despite the fact that Nike grossly underestimated the demand for the women’s jerseys, initially releasing only 1,000.

Taken together, these stats combat some of the well-worn arguments that have existed throughout the history of women’s sports to justify unequal treatment: that women athletes weren’t as good as the men (indeed, U.S. Soccer argued in 2020 that the USWNT players were paid less because they didn’t have the same ability as the men in terms of speed and strength) or that the women’s game was not as exciting as the men’s, or that women’s games didn’t attract as big audiences or as much money.

As a fan of U.S. women’s soccer and someone who has advocated for equitable treatment of girls and women athletes, I also find these arguments compelling. Yet equality will not be possible if women, in order to be treated fairly and equitably, must surpass the achievements of men. What happens if the USWNT is no longer the dominant force it has been over the past three decades? Why must women athletes be the absolute best in their sport to be considered equal to men?

This is an issue not just for women’s soccer but for all women’s athletics at the professional, collegiate, high school and youth levels. Is equality in their sports contingent upon the number of wins, championships, fans in the stands, jerseys sold and viewers tuning in? Are women only deserving of equality if they can outperform their male counterparts both on and off the field?

Expecting girls and women to be exceptional just to be considered equal only perpetuates the dynamics by which girls and women experience discrimination in the first place.

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