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Keith Strudler: The Definition Of Equal Sports Work

Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s World Cup match between the US and France, the Women’s American Team still has plenty of competition ahead of them. But some of it, namely what happens after the end of the World Cup, will be off the pitch – but perhaps of equal importance. That’s because 28 members of the Women’s Team and the US Soccer Federation have agreed, after the end of the Cup, to enter arbitration over a gender discrimination claim. This process will circumvent a likely public and embarrassing lawsuit for the sport, especially as the Women’s Team captures the fancy of the American sports public, one that was lost on the Men’s Team that failed to qualify for the 2018 Cup.

The details of the disagreement cover a range of possible imbalances, but they all come down to one basic accusation – that US Soccer treats the Men’s Team better than the Women’s, especially when it comes to how much they get paid. Some of the differences seem fairly nominal and easily fixed. Like how much they get per diem, likely a result of the timing and nuance of collective bargaining. Others are more obvious and at the heart of this dispute, like how much the Federation pays each player for their time and performance. And some differences go beyond the purview of the Federation, including the gross discrepancy FIFA pays men’s and women’s teams for their play in the World Cup. But regardless the cause, this cumulative discrepancy creates poor optics in the US, where the Women’s Team demonstratively outperforms the men’s.

There are several reasons typically given for the difference – both generally and specifically. At the core is an argument about the amount of revenue generated by men’s vs women’s sports, or in this case soccer. Such is the cornerstone of the vast delta between the pay scale of the NBA vs the WNBA. Similar arguments are made about soccer, where global viewership of the Men’s World Cup dwarfs that of the Women’s. The men’s game also attracts more sponsors and sells more tickets at a higher price point, all of which validates the divide, at least from FIFA’s perspective. It’s more difficult to explain when it comes to the US Federation, as the Women’s Team can quantitatively show how they’ve paralleled – and at times surpassed the Men’s fiscal potential. Which is just one reason why the US Soccer Federation wants to solve this case out of court and out of the court of public opinion.

That said, there are a couple of issues that go beyond whether the US Women’s Team prevails – and they will. First, it’s just as important to address the root cause of interest disparity as it is to fix its end result – namely, how much they get paid. With all due respect to both athletes and advocates, we’re a long way from women’s sports being as popular as men’s, at least as an aggregate. I’d suggest we take a long hard look at how that can continue to change at the ground floor, not simply in the penthouse. That means continued equal support for girls’ sports and fighting the good fight around gender stereotypes and norms.

Second, it’s important to have an honest discussion about the concept of equal pay for equal work when it comes to sports. We all know that women do in fact get paid a fraction of men for the same work. But this argument can unravel from the tension of the sports free market, where things supposedly are worth what they can command. Case in point, Serena Williams didn’t win the fight over equal pay by proving women’s tennis is equal work to men’s – especially since they actually play fewer sets. She won by proving she’s more popular. I’d advice women’s soccer to take the same tact.

And lastly, for all the discussion about equal pay for the national teams, the entire argument can be something of a red herring. Perhaps the reason that men’s national soccer teams can attract so much attention in the first place is because they’re supported by a massive pyramid of professional leagues, from the MLS to the Premier. That global enterprise makes the Men’s World Cup more than simply a platform for sports nationalism – it’s a chance to watch global icons at play, supported by corporations wanting to sell shoes and soft drinks on their athletic backs. So while earning equal pay for national team play is important – it’s more important to continue to build solvent, viable professional women’s sports leagues, which the US has struggled to do in soccer and otherwise. That, as much as anything, is where the fight must be waged, a fight that goes far beyond both the US Soccer Federation and the courtroom.

Of course, all of that will have to wait – at least for the next several days, when the US Women’s Soccer Team affirms it is truly worth its keep and much more.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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