Sports equity: Women’s soccer and the fight for equal pay

Megan Rapinoe, after the USA Women’s Soccer team won the World Cup. (Maja Hitij / Getty Images)


After winning the 2019 World Cup, the USA Women’s Soccer Team immediately returned to what could eventually become their biggest win of all. What they were really after was no secret to anyone. Echoing throughout Stade de Lyon, the stadium where they had become world champions, was the explosive chant: “Equal Pay, Equal Pay!”

Everyone from the sports reporters to the thousands of fans watching the game knew exactly what that meant. It was a reference to the huge pay disparity between male and female soccer players. The top of the agenda for this women’s team now became the fight off the field for respect and equal pay.

Months before the team co-captains, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, led their U.S. team to their 4th World Cup championship, they and 26 teammates filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for all the disparities. When returning from France in celebration, they were treated to a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York City. While celebrating the game they clearly love, they were also preparing for mediation with the USSF.

Union organizers could learn a lot from the street organizing that became a live broadcast of the massive support for their demands of the USSF. The parade was being streamed live and everyone heard thousands of young girls all along the route shouting “Equal Pay, Equal Pay.”

In return, the ceremony that followed showcased the diversity of girls’ soccer today as each player came forward with a young soccer player on each arm. As they announced the player’s name they also announced where each young player lived, and it was clear they were from every borough in New York City.

The players did not shy away from using the media and their platform even as the head of the USSF sat just two feet away.

“We are standing up for what we believe in. We are all standing up for women in sports who are not getting opportunities or respect around the world.” When the co-captain of the team, Megan Rapinoe­, spoke she explained further, “To have a complete and informed conversation around equal pay you have to talk about racial and gender inequity—not just money, but equal rights.”

Fifty years ago, the passage of Title IX prohibited educational institutions that receive any federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. It guaranteed students the right to an environment free from sexual harassment and protected the rights of pregnant students. In addition, it required equal athletic opportunities for girls and boys. That meant girls’ soccer teams.

Soccer has taken off as one of the most popular sports for young girls. In the U.S. the number of girls playing high school soccer has increased from 700 to 390,000. As a result of playing soccer from a young age, their skills and abilities have also greatly improved, which means that the crowds who show up to watch them have also increased.

Sixty thousand people packed into the stadium to watch the Women’s World Cup this year. Fox Sports also reported viewership of 20 million, including on-line streaming. Telemundo reported 1.6 million viewers on the Spanish-language station. This is 22% higher than viewership of the Men’s World Cup.

After inspecting the audited financial statements of the USSF, The Wall Street Journal noted: “The  ability of the women’s team to generate gate revenues that equals or exceeds the men’s team is an important battleground and central to an ongoing lawsuit filed against the USSF by 28 members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team in March.”

Rapinoe and Kaepernick 

Megan Rapinoe is one of the most popular players on the World Cup team. That is not only because she kicked the winning goal in the World Cup final, but because of her outspoken activism. When Rapinoe is not playing for the USA Women’s Soccer Team, she plays professionally for the Seattle Reign FC. It was before that team’s game in 2016 that Rapinoe became the first female athlete to kneel in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

In response to questions from the press, she explained, “Yes, it was very intentional, being a gay American I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small I could do as a nod to Colin Kaepernick and I intend to keep doing it in the future. It is important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something really powerful.”

Rapinoe often pays tribute to Audre Lorde and wears her name on her jersey. She explains why she chose her: “She was a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, a person of color, a civil rights activist. She understood so clearly that change does not come from playing by the existing set of rules.”

The week following the parade through New York City became a media tour for the co-captains of the team. Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan were in demand to appear on all the late-night talk shows as well as network news interviews. The questions were all about pay equity and the status of their lawsuit. Throughout the week, Rapinoe always found a way to talk generally about equality and mention that the team had five gay players and a gay coach. This was significant because for years lesbian athletes and their coaches were forced to stay in the closet, although it was always an open secret.

In August mediation broke down. The spokeswoman for the players explained, “It is clear that USSF and its Board of Directors fully intend to continue to compensate women players less than men. They will not succeed. Should the case go to Federal Court, the team is confident in its ability to win.”

Rapinoe told the press, “We won’t accept anything less than equal pay. This is about women being treated equally in the workplace.”

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