US soccer and equal pay: A mindless, non-sensical debate which must end

(Image courtesy of Reuters/New York Post)

The USWNT are a unique, inspirational case and their salaries should reflect their importance to the sport

It is a team and an issue which has long dominated American sport. On a day of three finals (an already incredibly disrespectful and shoddy lack of organisational judgement), the irony of inequality in the salaries of the US men’s and women’s teams reached an all-time high on Sunday.

Only a matter of hours before the men crashed to Gold Cup defeat on home turf against Mexico in the evening, the nation’s fabled women were making history. Again. Now, as the world champions retained their crown and reasserted their dominance in the women’s game, the debate regarding their right to equal pay as the men’s national team should end.

In an era of fiercely competitive men’s international football (the last three World Cups have featured six different finalists and three different winners), there is an undeniably dominant force in the women’s game. The USWNT arrived in France for this summer’s showpiece event as favourites, aiming to live up to expectations; continuing to inspire young girls and boys around the world while producing breath-taking, winning football that would see them return with the trophy for the fourth time. Inevitably they did just that, conceding just three goals in seven games while scoring a record-shattering 26 at the other end.

However, just as it had done for days, months and years prior to this particular triumph, one question lingered, echoing persistently via the world’s media following the team throughout France. Why are the USWNT not paid the same as their male counterparts? To be frank, even before Sunday’s double-header of finals featuring the US national teams, the arguments refuting equal pay were feeble. Now, they look plain ridiculous.

“There is more interest, popularity and engagement with the men. It makes sense that the USWNT are paid a fraction of what the men earn.” Incorrect. The comparison between these two sides is unlike any other, and the often-valid observation about the relationship between viewing figures and income is not applicable to US soccer, so who are the federation trying to kid? In fact, the USWNT’s shirt recently became the most-sold soccer jersey — men’s or women’s — in a single season on Nike.com. If it hadn’t already a long time ago, the tide has turned, and the US public are more interested in, proud of and engaged with their women’s national team, not their men’s.

If, for example, the issue of equal pay for the national sides was mooted in England (the United States’ semi-final victims), there would be little sufficient reason to suggest the English women deserve such — rightly or wrongly — given the incomparable viewing figures and stature of the men’s game versus the women’s.  In the US, the viewing figures are just as incomparable, but in reverse. The World Cup final averaged 14.27 million viewers on Fox, peaking at 19.6 million and smashing the viewership for last year’s men’s final in Russia. In comparison, the Gold Cup finale averaged just 2.9 million viewers.

For American soccer fans, the big game took place early in the day, as priorities lay with the women inspiring a generation. In the words of the later-released Nike commercial celebrating their victory: “[I believe] that a whole generation of girls and boys will go out and play and say things like, ‘I wanna be like Megan Rapinoe when I grow up,’ and that they’ll be inspired to talk and win.”

Megan Rapinoe inspired millions of fans as she captained the USWNT to another World Cup victory, their fourth of the eight tournaments that have taken place in history. (Image courtesy of Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

In America, the case is different because of the unquestionable greatness of the women’s side. After all, this group of women have trained their whole lives, reached the pinnacle of their sport and conquered it, bulldozing all in their path with an assertive combination of brains and brawn, of skill and strength. In relative terms, the men’s side are distinctly average and have had one of the worst period’s in the national team’s history.

A little over 18 months prior to them coming unstuck against an unimpressive Mexico side in Chicago, the USMNT couldn’t even reach the World Cup, losing out to debutants Panama and failing to qualify for the first time in 32 years. In what other scenario would a back-to-back World Cup-winning team full of superstar role models and elite footballers be paid less than their under-performing compatriots?

Another faulty argument regarding the equal pay conversation is the narrow-mindedness of direct comparison between the two sides. “The men’s team are better and would beat the women, of course they deserve to be paid more.” Without giving it too much recognition, this is an absurdly illogical argument.

In no other sport would this point ever be considered — aside from tennis perhaps — as the sporting world separates male sport from female sport, as it should. It is a basic issue of genetics to acknowledge the greatness of male and female athletes in isolation rather than in direct competition with one another and is simply unfair. Relativity and common sense must be applied to arrive at the only just conclusion where these women are viewed as the best female athletes in the world and are paid just as much, if not more, than their male counterparts whose stock is patently lower in the men’s game.

The ongoing furore regarding equal pay is universal, but cuts to the very heart of American sport. Soccer is the best case in point, given the disparity in the success of the male and female national sides which opposes the expected norm for a historically male-dominated sport. As a result of Title IX sanctions introduced in 1972 — which aimed to start a process of evening the playing field for men and women in sports — soccer became a game for girls just as much as, if not more so, than boys.

Now, as the men’s and women’s national sides continue to move in opposite directions, the disparity in achievements cannot continue to be masked by an unfair discrepancy in salaries. This feeling was exemplified by those lucky enough to be present to witness greatness at the Stade de Lyon. As on-pitch celebrations began, videos surfaced on the internet of American fans bellowing “EQUAL PAY, EQUAL PAY”, fitting recognition for the nation’s golden girls.

Of course, elsewhere, it can be argued that male national teams deserve their higher pay packets because of the demand for and popular culture of men’s football. Despite this, the United States Soccer Federation needs to wake up and embrace the long-awaited dawn of a new age, in which the unique nature of US soccer is reflected in the successes and rewards for their dominant women’s side. Just as poster girl and golden-ball-and-boot-winning captain Rapinoe stated on Sunday: “Everyone is kind of asking what’s next and what we want to come of all of this. It’s to stop having the conversation about equal pay and are we worth it.”

“I think it’s a testament to the quality on the field, and I don’t think everything else is matching that. So how do we get everything to match up and continue to push this forward. Because I think at this point the argument we have been having is null and void.” Amen.

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