It’s no secret that men earn far more than women in football. Nor has it ever been seriously challenged. After all, men’s sporting codes fill up stadiums, forge global icons and create role models who are watched by millions.
Except that’s no longer true — at least in some parts of the world, the United States being one of them.
Last weekend, on International Women’s Day, the US Women’s team filed a lawsuit against US Soccer alleging gender discrimination. The complainants are 28 national players who include recognisable stars such as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. Among other things, they contend that they are paid significantly lower salaries than members of the men’s side.
Although it’s been a long time coming, and follows previous legal action, the suit seems to have come as a surprise to the American sports structures and they’ve probably been scrambling in the past few days to mount a defence that will see it swiftly dismissed. With the World Cup three months away, this is a potential embarrassment they would prefer to avoid.
The irony is US Soccer needs the women’s team to do well in June. The team’s court filing highlights that they have brought the federation more revenue, trophies and viewership than their male counterparts.
If the lawsuit is successful, it will be because of one factor — achievement.
The US Women’s team is the most successful in the international women’s game. They’ve won three World Cups (1991, 1999 and 2015), four Olympic gold medals and eight continental titles. Their victory in 2015 was reported as the most-watched soccer game in American history.
The same can’t be said for the men. The furthest the team has gone at a World Cup is the semifinals … in 1930. They didn’t even qualify for Russia last year.
The (fair) price of success
Before the US lawsuit was filed, another case had threatened to set new precedents.
Macarena Sánchez has given her adult life to football. She’s played for Argentinian top division side UAI Urquiza since 2012. In that time she’s earned no salary, taking home only a travel allowance of 400 pesos (about R140) a month. Like many of her peers, she has had to balance a job with the full-time commitments of playing at the top level.
Yet at the beginning of the year she was unceremoniously cut from Urquiza. It happened outside of the allocated registration period, which meant she couldn’t join another club for a few months.
Sánchez is suing the club and the country’s federation for seven years’ worth of compensation.
To her, it has nothing to do with money. The 27-year-old, who sports a tattoo of Frida Kahlo on her left forearm, is demanding the powers-that-be stop dismissing her and her contemporaries as girls meddling in a man’s game.
“We are in an environment that excludes us daily and despises us,” she told The Guardian. “A large part of society believes that women are not capable of playing football and that we should not exercise our right to practise it.
“I think clubs do not want us to be recognised as professionals because it bothers them that a woman can occupy places that have been historically occupied by men. The macho thinking of the people who have power is the only thing that prevents [our] professionalisation.”
Urquiza’s women’s side has for the past 30 years been one of the best in their league.
The men play in the third tier.
Similar to the US lawsuit, Sánchez is arguing that the traditional excuses for gender pay disparities are just not going to fly any more. Any stubborn insistence that her sport doesn’t garner attention or ratings is a lie told to perpetuate the current male hierarchy.
Ticking time bomb
The will to fight this discrimination is growing globally. There have been incidents of women players walking away from national team duty or speaking out against unfair treatment.
We have seen it in South Africa. As the Mail & Guardian reported earlier this year, Banyana Banyana were open to the possibility of going on strike after they were not paid their promised bonuses.
Unequal pay structures around the world can’t be fixed overnight. But the legal action that has greeted the start of the year seems to be a good start, especially when it involves the best team in the world.
Already in the aftermath of the US Women’s team filing a lawsuit, Adidas announced that its sponsored women athletes at the 2019 World Cup would receive the same performance bonuses as male players. That’s a departure for a company that only last year replaced Argentina’s female players with models for their kit photoshoots.
With attention now focused on Sánchez and the US Women’s team, the status quo cannot hold firm. Zizojik’izinto for women’s football. Things are going to change.