As They Head to the Olympics, Women's Soccer is Fighting to Win Equal Pay

Members of the US Women’s National Soccer Team are pushing for higher pay.

It is as traditional as the Olympic flame: For two weeks every two years, media outlets actually care about female athletes. Despite the huge fanbases rooting for women’s soccer, basketball, and tennis, it’s rare to see pro female athletes on TV—in 2014, ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted just two percent of its airtime to women’s sports. Just like the onslaught of commercials starring Olympic champions shilling for vitamins, cars, and healthy snacks, during the Olympics, our TVs are filled with inspirational videos about the courage and accomplishments of women athletes. Then as soon as the flame is extinguished, women athletes go back into hibernation to await the next blare of the Olympic horn. Except that they don’t.

In reality, Olympic athletes work hard during non-Olympic years. The Olympics are of course a huge honor and raise athletes’ profiles, but professional sports and product endorsements are where athletes actually earn livings. Except for most women professional athletes, who often have to hold down second jobs in addition to being on their top of their games.

Case in point, the U.S. women’s soccer team. The team is entering this year’s games chasing a record—to be the first team to win the World Cup and then the Olympic gold medal. But they’re also entering the games having filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over their pay. Though they won the World Cup last year, the national women’s soccer team is paid way less than the men’s team.  In the National Women’s Soccer League, the minimum salary for a player is $7,000. The minimum for a men’s player is $60,000. The maximum salary for women in the National Women’s Soccer League is $39,000. The maximum salary for men is $3,000,000.

Five of the sport’s biggest stars—Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, and Becky Sauerbrunn—filed a federal complaint demanding that they be paid what they’re worth. The size of the actual pay gap between the teams is hotly debated, but one thing is for sure: The women are not being paid even close to what the men receive.

Fans of the U.S. women’s soccer team get it, too. The day before the USWNT’s match in Chicago in July against South Africa, I held a small rally outside of U.S. Soccer’s national headquarters; the organization governs men’s and women’s soccer in the United States and is the target of the female players’ wage gap campaign. Outside of their headquarters on the July afternoon, a handful of fans rallied to support Equal Play, Equal Pay, letting U.S. Soccer know that fans care about how players are treated. The next day during the game, I was heartened to see several fans waving signs amid the crowd at Soldier Field demanding equal pay for the players. As fans, we see the players fight through pain, play though bloody noses, and run hard after the ball until the very final whistle.

Our rally outside US Soccer. Fair pay, please! 

I get that worrying about whether an elite group of women make more money can seem out of touch in a world where most of us are still fighting just to make $15 an hour. Why work to bring attention to what this small group of women are earning while one in seven women in the United States lives in poverty? Watching the game at Soldier Field, I thought a lot about the way athletes are role models. It’s powerful that my 13-year-old daughter can see these women work hard and win a World Cup. It’s equally powerful—in a negative way—that she has to watch them fight for fair pay.  

Girls are watching and learning from soccer stars. Over the past 20 years, the number of young girls playing soccer in the United States has grown 37 percent. If there is one women’s sport that holds a hope of sustaining itself as a major force in U.S. sports, it’s soccer. A women’s soccer league, given enough time to grow and allow for today’s 13-year-olds to grow up and have their own families, could outshine the men’s league. Or at least be on par with it.

PBS created an infographic that details how much each player receives from U.S. Soccer based on performance. The U.S. women have earned three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals and are currently ranked number one, while the men have zero World Cups or Olympic medals of any color and are ranked 25th.

Infographic by PBS.

The conversation surrounding the wage gap and fair pay often circles back to women’s choices. How many times have women been told that they would be paid more if only they would “Wait to have children”? “Work in male-dominated fields”? “Not stay home too long to care for children”? “Work longer hours”?” The wage gap conversation always finds a way to point a finger at women and women’s “choices.” Women are assumed to work less and to be in less competitive fields and never to perform as high-quality work as men. Women are told that if they want what men have, they need to play their game and play it just as well.

Well the U.S. women’s soccer team has. In spades. 

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by Veronica Arreola
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Professional feminist, former Bitch Media board member, mom, and writer. Creator of #365FeministSelfie.

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