Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
This week, the women’s sports world got a rare dose of institutionally mandated good news: U.S. Soccer finally agreed to a collective bargaining agreement that will pay its women’s and men’s teams at the same rate. This move is the long overdue result of a years-long battle between the U.S. women’s soccer team and its parent organization, one that included a protracted and ultimately failed legal case that put U.S. Soccer’s core sexism on display for the world to see (the New York Times outlined much of the backstory here).
The U.S. Soccer fandango was a unique one in women’s sports. There are almost never scenarios in which men and women athletes are paid by the same organization for nearly identical labor — in which their salaries and treatment can be compared one-to-one without some enormous caveats. The U.S. national teams offered that exact scenario, which (of course) only served to make the subpar treatment of their women athletes that much more obvious and clear-cut.
That it has taken so long to correct, then, makes this new taste of equality feel less like a victory. It’s infuriating, still, to think about how much money and time had to be wasted so that a non-profit organization devoted to promoting soccer in America could publicly posit the idea that “indisputable science” proved its women athletes are worse its male ones, and thus deserved to be paid less.
Not only did the one-to-one nature of this particular grievance make unequal pay along gender lines that much more glaring, it also made it possible to explicitly assert what so often has to be qualitatively argued: the women’s U.S. national team is better than the men’s U.S. national team. It’s been that way for a long time; they’ve won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, while the men can claim…neither. In that light, U.S. Soccer’s claim that its women were worse athletes than its men looks not just stupid but malicious — an attempt to undercut their — and all women’s — achievements.
It is really only through that persistent undermining, through that long battle, that equal pay looks like a victory. In this, one of almost no cases internationally where women athletes can claim equal pay to their male counterparts, the women had to be much better for much longer in order to get… the same treatment. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci pointed out, the U.S. men’s national team didn’t even make the last World Cup, meaning the new plan to split prize money would have left them with a healthy cut of the women’s winnings from taking the title.
Considering the possibilities for soccer’s equivalents across team sports — especially basketball, the only other American women’s team sport with an established professional league and successful national team — is challenging without that one-to-one comparison. USA Basketball has a significantly different pay structure, with far fewer high-profile international events. Comparing the WNBA and NBA is the stuff of YouTube trolls, while softball is an entirely different sport from what (most) men play. Making the pay disparity look as glaring as it did for U.S. Soccer is an uphill battle.
What those in charge of administering women’s sports might glean instead is a taste of the possibilities. Women’s soccer has grown domestically because it was widely supported at a grassroots level and, to a degree, an institutional one as well. For years, it was not considered a threat to men and male athletes — mostly and unfortunately because of a lot of sexist and racist assumptions about the sport — and thrived as a result. Finally getting equal pay is just an overdue and still-inadequate side effect; every women’s sport and woman athlete deserves that chance and so much more.