Last week, the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT), represented by five of its top players, filed a complaint of wage discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that U.S. Soccer players on the men’s national team are paid as much as four times that of their female counterparts on the women’s national team.
The allegations extend to nearly all areas of player compensation, including pay for required non-competitive match play (called “friendlies”), per diems, win bonuses, and sponsorship appearance fees. According to news reporting (the charge has not been made public), male players who lose all of their “friendlies” earn more than female players who win every game, notwithstanding the bonuses available to the women’s (and men’s) team for wins. More stark, the team bonus paid to the USWNT in 2015 after winning the World Cup still was $7 million shy of what their male counterparts earned in 2014 after being eliminated from the tournament early on. The USWNT’s charge represents an other important challenge to the engrained stereotypes that plague women’s professional sports.
Wage Equality Laws
It is no secret that women historically have been underpaid compared to men. In 1960, women earned an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. Today, more than fifty years later, women still earn less than men, averaging 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, despite the existence of laws in place since the sixties to remove this gap. The 1963 Equal Pay Act (EPA) requires men and women to be paid the same for performing substantially similar work. Pay differentials on the basis of sex also are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other antidiscrimination laws.
While the EPA does not require proof of discriminatory intent (as does Title VII), it does rely on a stricter standard for the comparison of work, and a complete defense to employers if they can establish that a basis other than sex – i.e., a seniority system, merit system, or system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production – justified the pay differential. New York, which has its own equal pay law, recently has narrowed the availability of this defense under state law claims by requiring employers to supply proof of a “bona fide factor” other than sex which is both “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity” in order to defeat an equal pay claim.
The USWNT’s Claims
The USWNT present a compelling case. According to information from the charge provided to the press, work requirements for the men’s and women’s teams appear identical. Both teams play the same number of “friendlies,” and have the same preparation requirements for the World Cup. Not surprisingly, however, U.S. Soccer disputes the USWNT’s claim.
The New York Times’s coverage of the USWNT’s charge suggests that U.S. Soccer may be able to defend itself by arguing that market forces justify the gap in pay: women’s soccer is not as popular as men’s soccer, and sponsorship, along with sponsorship revenue, accordingly is smaller. Indeed, the Women’s Sport and Fitness foundation (WSFF) reported that in 2013 women’s sports received 7% of coverage and 0.4% of the total value of commercial sponsorships. That team owners and organizations defend these statistics with arguments that the men’s team bears greater revenue generating responsibility, is under greater pressure to have a winning season, or is simply more popular with viewers and ticket holders, is deeply troubling. Among those concerns is why, in 2016, women’s professional athletics is still considered inferior to men’s.
The USWNT’s recent performance demonstrates the fallacy of such arguments, and that women’s sports teams can be as profitable as men’s. Historically, performance by the men’s national team has been relatively mediocre. The women’s team, on the other hand, in recent years has won three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. In 2015, the men’s team operated at a loss, while the women’s team exceeded revenue expectations by $16 million, set television viewership records, and packed stadiums on their 9-game victory tour. By all measures then, the USWNT’s team appears to be the better, more profitable team. So why are they still paid significantly less than their male counterparts?
According to a press statement, U.S. Soccer explains the disparity as a matter of contract bargaining. U.S. Soccer has claimed that the women’s team’s current compensation arrangement was negotiated, and in fact, was requested by the team to provide a higher level of guaranteed compensation. This blame-the-victim analysis, however, fails to explain differences in absolute measures, such as per diem and appearance pay, or how the men’s team can lose every friendly match and still earn more money than a women’s team that wins every game. Plainly, the deck was stacked against the USWNT long ago.
Pay inequity is a difficult and wide-spread reality for women in nearly every profession in this country, including professional athletics. Outten & Golden fights for pay equality for all women, and supports the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team in their fight to be treated fairly.