Why must US women’s soccer still fight for equality?

LOOKING FOR A LEVEL FIELD: In this file photo, the Team USA starting lineup gathers for a group photo before the start of the FIFA Women's World Cup Round of 16 match against Spain at Stade Auguste Delaune in Reims, France, June 24. Despite the 47-year-old Title IX, U.S. women athletes are still fighting for equal pay.

The United States national soccer team was fortunate to survive a closer-than-expected 2-1 Women’s World Cup victory over Spain in the round of 16 Monday, needing two penalty kick goals from Megan Rapinoe, but the more sobering battle lies ahead outside the pitch.

Sadly, this fight, against “institutionalized gender discrimination” and for equal treatment under the law, has already taken place in numerous courtrooms and taken far too long to adequately resolve.

Here we are, 47 years after the creation of the Title IX law that prohibits unequal treatment in federally funded education programs on the basis of gender, and the world’s No. 1-ranked female soccer team is embroiled in a lawsuit against its own governing body (U.S. Soccer) to ensure it is compensated equally with men.

Obviously, this problem of pay inequity isn’t confined to just soccer. It’s also a problem in varying degrees across many athletic platforms, be it Olympic hockey, pro basketball and other sports.

But the legal tug-of-war in this instance is particularly troubling because U.S. Soccer, the defendant in a discrimination lawsuit filed in March by members of the women’s national team, oversees the sport for both genders. It’s supposed to treat male and female players equally.

Unlike the wide compensation gap between NBA vs. WNBA or PGA Tour vs. LPGA Tour, which are influenced heavily by television rights fees and fan interest differences, soccer is one sport where the impact of the U.S. women rivals its male counterparts by almost any measurable criteria.

Putting aside the fact the U.S. men didn’t even qualify for last year’s World Cup, the women’s team has generated every bit the interest level, and probably more, because it has four Olympic gold medals and three World Cup titles on its resume.

Yet as the Women’s World Cup plays out in France, the American team felt so marginalized by U.S. Soccer that it willingly created the ultimate pre-Cup distraction: suing the very organization designed to support them on the sport’s biggest stage.

“The amount of extra work our American women have to do to fight for equality, in addition to being athletes working to win in competition, is astounding,” said Jacksonville, Florida, attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a longtime Title IX advocate and a four-time Olympic swimming medalist in the 1984 Summer Games. “It’s absurd.”

Hogshead-Makar, the CEO of Champion Women, has fought the frontline battles for equal pay, Title IX compliance among college athletic programs and various women issues for over two decades. Just last week, she was in Denver lobbying Congress for the creation of an independent USOC oversight commission.

But the current battle between the women’s national team and U.S. Soccer, with both sides agreeing to mediate the gender discrimination lawsuit after the WWC is over, could well have huge implications for American girls who have yet to appear on the sport’s biggest stage.

“The ‘99ers, that’s what they were fighting for,” Hogshead-Makar said of the 1999 U.S. World Cup champions, headlined by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, the first team to bring women’s soccer to the forefront. “They can’t believe things aren’t better than they are 20 years later. They were supposed to be the sacrificial team, not this one.”

The disturbing part for the U.S. soccer women, and that’s not to minimize the ongoing equality battles involving the “Matildas” of Australia soccer or the American women’s ice hockey team, is this team has set the gold standard in terms of success and fan interest.

If any one team deserves to be at the front of the line for equal compensation with men, it’s U.S. women’s soccer. For two decades, it didn’t just inspire girls to believe they can achieve at the highest level, but the women now carrying the torch like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Kelly O’Hara and Rapinoe are on track to win another WWC title.

Never mind the disparity in accomplishments between the U.S. men, who have never advanced past the World Cup quarterfinals since 1930, and their female compatriots. It’s the compensation that is alarmingly unequal.

From bonuses to salaries, the men’s pay grade is significantly above the women on multiple levels. According to a recent Washington Post story, men were paid $55,000 for making the 2014 U.S. World Cup team, compared to $15,000 for the women the following year. U.S. Soccer gave the men a total of $5.375 million in performance bonus for reaching the round of 16, while the women earned $1.725 million for winning the World Cup.

The only reason the 23 members of the U.S. women’s team are receiving equal roster bonuses with men this year is because the manufacturer of Luna nutrition bars is covering the $31,250 difference, the Post reported.

In announcing the windfall for the U.S. women, Luna said: “Equality can’t wait for someday.”

Clearly, the American women have shown the soccer world that they belong on equal footing with U.S. men. Their 5-2 win over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final drew 25.4 million viewers, a record for any soccer match by either gender. A year earlier, the U.S. men’s round of 16 loss to Portugal attracted the second-best viewership, 16.8 million on ESPN.

Now one might argue if the U.S. men reached a World Cup semifinal or final, the viewing audience would also set a record. But it doesn’t change the narrative that women are currently the pacesetters for interest in American soccer on a world stage.

The larger point is this: U.S. Soccer is being shamed by its own athletes to correct a wrong that should have been addressed two decades ago.

Hogshead-Makar remains livid that the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada was played on turf, a surface she says FIFA, the world soccer governing body, would have never tolerated for the men. She also thinks the partnership U.S. Soccer has with Nike, which brings in $100 million, would be far less without the women’s world dominance.

“If the women were playing as poorly as the (U.S.) men are, would Nike be interested in funding it at the $100 million level?” Hogshead-Makar said. “No way.”

Now the challenge for the U.S. women, starting with Friday’s quarterfinal matchup against host France, is trying to put aside these off-the-pitch distractions to win another World Cup.

“That’s a burden that men never have to face,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Just because you pass a (Title IX) law, you may be able to get women more sports opportunities. But can you get rid of sexism in sports? The answer is no. We, as a people, have to do that.”

Which begs the question: How much longer do the women of U.S. soccer have to go on being pioneers? That fight for equality should have already been won.

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