It’s Time to Level the Field

I don’t watch much (any) sports. But I’d have to be living under a rock to miss the angst and hand-wringing around the U.S. Women’s Soccer team. Apparently they are very, very good and they know it. I’ve heard criticism about how they celebrate too enthusiastically, score too many goals, get upset when they lose or miss a goal, or, in other words, behave like world class athletes. The message is clear: these women should be grateful they get to play the game at all and they certainly shouldn’t be flouting their talent like a bunch of men.

We put up with male athletes in many sports who rant and rave on and off the field. When a man brags about his talent, people cheer. But women? Women are expected to show some humility, even when they’ve earned the right to crow. And it makes sense, I guess, because if we start letting women act like men on the field, they might want to be treated like men off the field.

girl playing with soccer ball

The U.S. Women’s Soccer team is demanding equal treatment. They argue that they win more, play more, and bring more value to U.S. Soccer than the men do. It’s hard to dispute that given their record and their ardent fan base, but the (male) powers of U.S. Soccer do dispute it. They say women aren’t really playing the same game as the men. Men’s soccer is harder, rougher, more demanding. I don’t know about that, but it sounds a lot like the same arguments that have always been made to pay women less. We can’t pay women as much as men, because men have families to support. Men have responsibilities. Men’s lives are harder, rougher, more demanding.

Of course, women have always supported families with or without the help of men. To say otherwise is a convenient lie to make men seem more important than women. The message is not that men work harder; it’s that men are more vital than women.

That’s the message from U.S. Soccer. Men matter more than women. Even if the men lose a lot, they are more important than the women who win a lot. The minimum salary for a female soccer player is less than $17,000 a year. That’s not a living wage in any city in America. Are these women supposed to supplement their income by taking a second job? What sort of second job allows you to travel the world playing soccer? Starting salary for the men is more than $50,000. And, look, I know that the superstars of women’s soccer aren’t making the minimum, but the top players earn a small fraction of what male players earn. And the women’s team is paid based on their record for the season. The more they win, the more they earn. The men are paid regardless of their record. So it’s not just that the salaries are disparate; the women are actually held to a higher standard. Nothing new about that, either. Women are often expected to do more for less and to be grateful for the opportunity.

Regardless of what the stars are paid, starting salaries are always indicative of systemic disparities. It’s true in the corporate world too. A woman who takes a lower starting salary than a man in the same job will never catch up and will likely fall further behind in her lifetime earnings. Where you start matters.

What sort of message does it send to a young female athlete that a man, simply by virtue of being male, is at least three times more valuable than she is? No one will convince me that the women’s game and the men’s game are so different as to warrant that disparity.

The women of U.S. Soccer are right to demand equal treatment. They are right to celebrate wins and to mourn losses. And when they have their day in court, I hope the kick some serious butt. Then I hope they celebrate like rock stars. They’ve earned the right to do so.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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Tiffany Quay Tyson