Coronavirus is blocking the painstaking path to equal pay in sports

Long before coronavirus disrupted sports, the US women’s national soccer team was battling the US federation for equal rights.
Long before coronavirus disrupted sports, the US women’s national soccer team was battling the US federation for equal rights.
Image: AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter
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On Mar. 12, the US Soccer Association announced that all games schedule through April were canceled. This doesn’t come as a shock; sports industries all over the world, have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are postponed. But aside from the many disruptions of Covid-19, the US Women’s National Team has had to grapple with another man-made—(literally)—source of uncertainty, which has involved having to fight its own federation in court for the past year.

On Mar. 11, United States Soccer Federation president Carlos Cordeiro resigned following a firestorm of condemnation by sponsors, players, and the public over legal filings claiming that “indisputable science” proved that the players on the US Women’s National Team are inferior to the men. Shamefully, the US Soccer Federation also cited player Alex Morgan’s pregnancy and paid maternity leave in its argument to the US District Court to justify differential pay structures.

When the US Women’s Soccer team won the Women’s World Cup last July in France—their fourth since 1991—deafening chants of “Equal pay!” filled the stadium.  Their counterparts, the US men’s soccer team, have never advanced beyond World Cup quarterfinals, yet would have received pay six times that of the women’s team.

For years, the champion US women’s team has filled US Soccer’s coffers by attracting large crowds and devoted fans. The women’s team jersey is also now Nike’s highest-selling soccer jersey ever.

Last year on International Women’s Day, the US women national team players made a surprise kick on goal by filing a gender discrimination and equal pay lawsuit under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act against the United States Soccer Federation. The US Soccer Federation is the body that is supposed to represent the interests of both men and women players. Instead, 28 female national team players described “institutionalized gender discrimination” and unequal working conditions affecting their salaries, where they play and train, medical treatments and coaching, and how they travel to matches. They’re now seeking millions in back pay and damages in a trial scheduled to start May 5.

This battle for equal pay and human rights has been underway for years: At the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the team protested play on dangerous turf, and subsequently filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the federation in 2016.

But as the women’s national team picks up trophies and prepares for the 2020 Olympics (the women have won gold medals in four of the six Olympic Games since 1996), the pay disparity continues to escalate into embarrassing territory.

Is equality still too much to expect?

When leaders of the federation chose to fight the case by arguing the inferiority of the women players relative to the US men’s team, sponsors issued unprecedented statements in defense of the women’s team. Coca Cola, a US Soccer Federation’s official sponsor, said it was “extremely disappointed with the unacceptable and offensive comments.” Volkswagen tweeted: “we are disgusted by positions taken by US Soccer,” and “stand by the USWNT and the ideals they represent for the world.”

US women’s team defender Ali Krieger expressed the views of many when she wrote, “I am stunned and disappointed at the recent blatant sexism from US soccer. Was it too much for me to expect them to protect, support and encourage us (equally) to be our best?”

This fight matters well beyond US borders because the battles for equal pay are mirrored on playing fields worldwide. While the 2018 men’s FIFA World Cup had 3.5 billion viewers, the 2019 women’s FIFA World Cup still had 1 billion global viewers—yet all the global women teams competed for just 7.5 percent of the prize money awarded to the male players at the 2018 cup.

Beyond soccer, sports is at a moment of reckoning over discrimination, abuse and exploitation.  That reckoning should extend to athletic fields, and players of all levels, from schoolgirls to Olympic champions.

Humans to the center

The International Olympic Committee took a positive step this month when its executive committee made public that it is working on a strategy to entrench human rights across Olympic operations. This important step reflects a shift from a reactive and siloed approach to recognizing that human rights can identify risks, protect athletes, and ensure the Olympic movement lives up to its ideals.

Solutions in sports that center human rights and gender equality are an emerging positive trend. Perhaps the US should look to Australia, where soccer players struck a historic 2019 agreement Now the women’s national team, the Matildas, share an equal split of all commercial revenues with the men’s team, the Socceroos.

It is appropriate that the new head of US Soccer is Gold medal Olympian and two-time Women’s World Cup champion player Cindy Parlow Cone, a longtime member of the US Women’s National Team and the first woman ever to hold the job. But there’s a lot of progress we need to make. As the controlling body for all sports with statutes that guarantee gender equality, FIFA needs to implement its own rules and move toward leveling the pay playing field for women who compete in the World Cup and beyond.

While everyone, including in the world of sports, contends with the growing crisis and uncertainty of what the coronavirus pandemic will have wrought, conceivably for years to come, let’s not make this a means for the US Soccer Federation’s sexist policies to be pushed aside, or to let any purveyor of unequal treatment off the hook. While the world of live sports is placed on pause, players need equal treatment, care, and pay now more than ever.