March 31, 2019

Leveling the field

Earlier this week, I attended an international “friendly” soccer match between the United States men’s national team (USMNT) and the Chilean men’s team.  (“Friendlies” are what soccer calls practice matches.  They give the teams some international experience, but they don’t ultimately mean anything for any competition.)  For me, attendance at any high-level soccer match is a joy–it’s one of those sports I just love seeing live and in person–and this one was no exception.

But I couldn’t help noticing a disparity between the teams.  The Chilean team played a strong, possession-oriented game, and they had sneaky wing players who frequently lost the defensive coverage that should have been provided by their American counterparts.  In contrast, the U.S. side had a few stand-out players (young Christian Pulisic may turn into a star on the world stage, and there were a couple of others who distinguished themselves), but the side was less skillful, less able, just . . . less . . . than their Chilean counterparts.  But the point of this post isn’t to complain about the USMNT not being as good as a South American team or any other team.  It’s to complain about the USMNT being prepared more thoroughly, treated more carefully, and rewarded more richly than another North American team—in fact, one from the United States.

The United States women’s national team (USWNT) is, quite possibly, the most dominant force in international soccer today.  The team began in 1985.  Since then, it has had a run that dwarfs any other international program over the same time frame.  The USWNT first won the World Cup in 1991.  It did it again in 1999 and 2015.  In 2011, it lost in the final and got the second-place medal.  In 1995, 2003, and 2007, the USWNT finished third.  Add it up, and that means that the U.S. women have never finished worse than third in a World Cup.  The only men’s teams that can boast remotely similar records in the men’s competition are Brazil (5 championships, 2 second-place and 1 third-place medals) and Germany (4 championships—3 as West Germany; 4 second-place; and 4 third-place—one as West Germany and one as East Germany), and they’ve had far more time to do it in.  No one else even comes close.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise when two of the most high-profile faces of the USWNT—striker Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoebecame the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In particular, the case states that U.S. Soccer “has stubbornly refused to treat its female employees who are members of the women’s national team equally to its male employees.”  NB:  Those “male employees” are the very same underachievers who looked so mediocre against a clearly superior Chilean team, last Tuesday.  Some in the media have characterized the lawsuit as “bold.”  Personally, my thought was “it’s about damned time.”

It’s hard to think that a lawsuit against a sports entity for disparate treatment would have much chance of success, but U.S. Soccer is a different sort of entity from the NFL or MLB or the NBA (which actually has a women’s league in the WNBA).  There’s no disputing that WNBA players don’t make as much as their male counterparts, but the NBA is a private entity and actually has its women’s teams playing in the same arenas and using the same facilities as their male counterparts.  If that doesn’t bring in the same money, reduced compensation is reasonable.

By contrast, U.S. Soccer is a non-profit entity, and it doesn’t pay taxes. It’s charged with the goal, by its own admission, of governing and promoting soccer to make it “the pre-eminent sport” in the United States.  (Good luck with that, but I do wish you well.)  U.S. Soccer doesn’t have the cover that a private entity has to differentiate.  But differentiate, it does.  Or, at least, it doesn’t fight all that hard.  For example, the last women’s World Cup, played in Canada, was played on artificial turf surfaces that wouldn’t pass muster for the men’s competition.  Where compensation is concerned, U.S. Soccer argues that the men’s and women’s teams have different pay structures negotiated in their respective collective bargaining agreements. While the women are paid annual salaries plus benefits, the men are paid per game by U.S. Soccer, which requires them to be called into camp by the head coach.  Of course, the common factor in those collective bargaining agreements is U.S. Soccer.  (On another note:  Why the difference?  Perhaps that the women would be far more expensive, relatively speaking, on a “per game” basis than their male counterparts?)

And this is why I think that Morgan’s and Rapinoe’s lawsuit–in which many other USWNT members are named as plaintiffs–has some real, solid grievances.  It’s easy to say that the women’s game doesn’t bring in as much money as does the men’s, and it’s an absolutely true statement.  But what if the women’s game gets the same level of promotion?  What if the women’s game gets the same devotion to training, the top grounds to train and play on, and the kind of developmental resources that build a sport from the ground up?  (I can tell from personal observation that the USWNT plays a technically superior game than their male counterparts.)  What if they are treated, in terms of development and training, the same as the men? There are a lot of young girls out there playing soccer, and funding is everything.  U.S. Soccer is charged with developing the game—not just the men’s game—and it’s not doing it, if it leaves half of its audience underfunded.  You can’t judge results without first judging effort, and it’s U.S. Soccer’s effort that is wanting, at this point.