The struggle for recognition of women’s equality with men has been waged in countless high profile industries. Few industries have a higher profile than professional sports. Katherine Switzer defied sexist rules against women competing in the Boston Marathon and became the first woman to complete it. Billie Jean King won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973, just months after founding the Women’s Tennis Association, paving the way for future stars like Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams.
It is within the context of that greater struggle that the women who play for the United States Women’s National Team have filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation on March 8, coinciding with International Working Women’s Day. This follows the conclusion of an investigation into USSF that was triggered by a charge of discrimination made by five USWNT players with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2016. Upon the conclusion of the investigation on February 5, the players were granted the right to sue within 90 days.
The unique position of the USWNT in relation to the U.S. Men’s National Team highlights the contradictions inherent in commercialized sport as a profession under capitalism. The USWNT is unquestionably the most successful national team in the history of women’s soccer, winning three World Cups, four Olympic Gold Medals and never finishing worse than third place at any World Cup tournament. By contrast, the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and its best finish in the modern era was 8th in 2002. When the USWNT won its third World Cup in 2015, the championship match became the most watched soccer match–men’s or women’s- in the history of U.S. soccer, with 23 million viewers.
The suit alleges “institutionalized gender discrimination” that is not limited to wages, but extends to playing conditions, training conditions, quality of coaching and medical care,and the quality of transportation used for travel to away games. The conditions listed represent an extension of the working conditions for women athletes in comparison with their male counterparts.
Women soccer players earn 38 percent of men’s salaries
The pay for professional women’s soccer in the United States is a fraction of that is for men, both on the national teams and in their respective top flight professional leagues. On average, USWNT players are paid about 38 percent of what USMNT players are paid. From 2001 until 2018, USWNT players were paid only if they defeated an opponent ranked in the top 10 in the world, while USMNT players were paid regardless of the result or the quality of the opponent.
For the professionals hoping to make their way into playing for the national team, women have to supplement their salary by taking part-time jobs or by playing in a foreign league during the offseason. For National Women’s Soccer League players, this typically means playing in Australia or Europe, leaving very little time for their bodies to recover or to spend time with their loved ones. The current minimum salary in the NWSL is $16,538, while players on the men’s side in Major League Soccer start out at $56,250. That difference in compensation is the difference between a player having their own home and living with a host family during the season.
The playing conditions the USWNT and NWSL players are subjected to consistently fail to meet the same standard enjoyed by USMNT and MLS players. USMNT players rarely have to play on artificial turf, which most players prefer to avoid due to its tendency to increase the risk of certain types of injuries. Although several MLS teams play on artificial surfaces, their quality is significantly higher than the artificial surfaces many NWSL teams play on. On the national team level, some of these differences are an extension of the reality that global standards for playing surfaces for men’s tournaments are stricter than those for women’s tournaments. At the 2015 Women’s World Cup, every host stadium for the tournament had an artificial turf playing surface. By contrast, although the 2018 Men’s World Cup was the first men’s world cup tournament to feature any surface other than natural grass, it was a hybrid grass-artificial turf surface, and even then, about half of the host stadiums still had natural grass. It’s worth noting that USWNT star Alex Morgan said in 2014 that the recovery time after playing on artificial turf is several days longer compared to natural grass.
When the national teams are between major tournaments they play in matches known as “friendlies.” Friendlies are matches between international teams outside of an official competitive tournament, which are used to determine international rankings. The importance of these rankings lead team owners to attach bonuses for players to their performance in these matches. The selection of facilities where their friendlies are played illustrates the differing standards for the USMNT and USWNT, and in these cases, the USSF is the party responsible for selecting these sites. After the USWNT became the first women’s national team to win a third World Cup title, the USSF scheduled a victory tour that included four matches in December 2015. The first of these was ultimately cancelled due to the poor quality of the artificial surface at Aloha Stadium (thecomeback.com), for which the USSF failed to send a representative to examine the playing surface. In contrast, the USMNT has only scheduled a match on artificial turf once in recent years.
Bed bugs and mold
The lawsuit also alleges that the USSF provides lesser travel accommodations for the USWNT than it does for the USMNT when they are traveling to play away games and tournaments outside of the U.S.. For example, in 2017 the USSF provided charter flights for the USMNT at least 17 times while failing to do the same for the USWNT even once. Beyond the national teams, travel accommodations in the NWSL have been a serious issue for several years. In 2015, USWNT forward Alex Morgan and Canada national team forward Christine Sinclair publicly criticized the league for housing players in a hotel in Kansas City that was riddled with bed bugs and mold while they were playing for the Portland Thorns. Although the hotel in question technically met the league requirements as a three star hotel, it had very poor reviews online, suggesting a greater risk of health and safety issues. A report at that time indicated a clear pattern of NWSL teams being hosted in lower quality hotels than MLS teams, even in cases where the NWSL team was owned and operated by the MLS team.
Just prior to the friendly in Hawaii that was cancelled due to the poor playing surface, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL while training with the team. Although the training field was grass, it was in poor condition, with sewer plates and plastic coverings on the field. At the time, manager Jill Ellis wasn’t sure if Rapinoe had landed on one of them when she injured herself.
Rapinoe later made headlines when she kneeled during the U.S. national anthem at a NWSL game in Chicago in September 2016. She explained that she did so out of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who has since been blackballed out of the NFL for his protest. Rapinoe was rebuked by the USSF for kneeling during the anthem later in the month while representing the USWNT. The USSF banned kneeling during the national anthem a year later.
Rapinoe’s case highlights the fact the players’ fight is a political one every bit as much as it is a financial one. Women across the country and around the globe are fighting to be treated as equals with men. That the USWNT has reached unparalleled success and still has to fight for equal pay demonstrates the institutional sexism inherent to capitalism. The women who play for the USWNT have to plan to have children in the 2.5 year gap between the Summer Olympics and the World Cup, not knowing if they’ll still have a spot on the team waiting for them when they’re ready to play again. Outside of sports, women who choose to have children often have to wonder whether their job will still be there for them when their all-too-short maternity leave ends, or whether they’ll face retribution for taking time off to start a family.
Socialism offers more just and fulfilling life for women
That women can play sports professionally in the United States at all is a testament to the to the determination of the women who have fought for it. It also speaks to the commitment to equal treatment for women under socialism. The Soviet Union devoted many resources to women’s athletics, thus winning more medals at the Olympics than the United States. The rising tide of second wave feminism combined with the pressure to improve women’s athletics to win more medals for the U.S. led to the creation of Title IX to devote more resources toward women’s sports in the United States. (Wilson Center) Without Title IX, there would be no WNBA, no WTA, and no NWSL.
In the Soviet Union, women were entitled to free child care, one year paid maternity leave, free health care, one month paid vacation annually and the right to retire at the age of 55 at 50 percent of their salary. Today in Cuba, women make up two-thirds of professionals. They also enjoy one year paid maternity leave with their partners and equal pay.
These achievements show us the way forward in the struggle for true equality for women, not only in sports but in our society overall. They also show us that capitalism is an integral part of the oppression that women endure, and that to truly overcome gender inequality we have no choice but to overcome capitalism.