Thoughts on equal pay

Over the holidays, I was given a copy (signed no less!) of Megan Rapinoe’s autobiography, One Life. I read it in one night. It’s that good.

While I am often skeptical of these “early life” biographies for a number of reasons—including the fact that they generally come on the heels of a major event in the author’s life (e.g., a huge hit record, a world championship) and therefore are never able to put anything in a larger life/historical context, I really wanted to read this book. As we know, Rapinoe is not only an amazing player, but she is also a powerful voice politically. Her skirmishes with the Trump White House, her support of Black Lives Matter, her work (with her colleagues) for Equal Pay for the USWNT constitute her as far more than simply a sports star. She’s fascinating. She’s dynamic. You sorta want to get to know what makes her tick.

And, in terms of a fast-paced life, including the slow unfolding of her understanding of her sexuality and her coming into her own as a political activist, the narrative is fascinating.  I love the book.

That said, I remain troubled, as I have in the past, with her public justification for Equal Pay for the USWNT and USMNT.  It’s not that I’m opposed to the Equal Pay argument. It’s not only an outrage that something both illegal and unjust has gone on this long, but it’s stunning to me that somehow, the US Soccer Federation continues to skirt the issue in a variety of ways. 

No, I’m clearly in favor of equal pay. It’s just that I’m a bit troubled by the public logic that is often used to justify the argument.

The history of the relationship between the USSF (US Soccer Federation) and the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) has always been somewhat fraught.  While the USSF has been fairly supportive of the USWNT (e.g., they put themselves at financial risk in staging the 1999 Women’s World Cup), especially when compared to how other national women’s teams have been supported historically, they have also consistently negotiated different Collective Bargaining Agreements for the men’s and women’s teams that have provided the men with better compensation as well as better work and travel conditions.

While the current crisis can be said to have roots since the very beginning of the relationship, it is more illuminating to begin to look at the arguments since the 2015 Women’s World Cup because it is at that moment, with the team more popular than ever, that they (via five of the players) requested a right-to-sue decision from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a renegotiated CBA. (A great summary of the arguments can be found here). While moving forward with the pursuit of a legal case, the USWNT signed a new contract that would run through 2021. The new CBA gave the women raises in their base pay, bonuses, and better provisions for travel and accommodations.

Of this contract, forward Alex Morgan noted, “It felt very empowering. Because there is a whole issue going on in the country as far as equal pay and the fight for the gender pay gap. And I felt really happy with the agreement that we reached and the fact that we can now do what we came for and play soccer.”

Regardless of Morgan’s satisfaction with the contract at the time, the women’s CBA still offered very different compensation than the one held by the men. In short, the USWNT guarantees the players an annual salary with bonuses for winning games, while the men’s CBA provides them with no salary but larger bonuses for simply playing the game, win or lose. Because most (read; “all”) of the men have higher paying salaries with club teams than the women, the preference for a guaranteed salary by the women seems reasonable. While far, far more complex than the comparison charts flashed up on social media to highlight (and enhance) the disparity, the specifics did not work out in the women’s interests.

Simply put, in the first year of the contract (the pay rose nominally each year) each USWNT player received $72,000 from the USSF to play at least 20 friendlies. In addition, the players would receive a bonus of $1,350 for each win but no additional compensation for a loss or draw. Ultimately, if the team lost or drew all 20 games, each woman would receive $72,000 and if they won, $99,000. For the men, there was no base pay, and the men were only paid for those games for which they were chosen to play. However, the compensation ran about $7,000 per game, regardless of the outcome. If a player was chosen to appear in 20 different games and lost them all, he would earn $100,000. If he won them all, he would receive $263,320 that year. In addition, there were some marginal differences in the per diems the men and women received ($75 vs. $60), as well as different working conditions (the women were not guaranteed to play on grass and did not travel on chartered flights as did the men). 

On the one hand, “the numbers speak for themselves” in the sense that the women clearly are not being paid at the same rate as the men. On the other, the USWNT players had a guaranteed base. There was no individual U.S. male player who was guaranteed to ever be chosen to play for the team.  More, this is all bound up in the fact that the USWNT and the USMNT both had expressed satisfaction with their CBAs at the time they were signed.  And that’s not even considering that the women typically play more matches in a calendar year (over the last five seasons, they’ve averaged 17 matches a year to the men’s 13).

When the five USWNT players (Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo) received the right-to-sue letter from the EEOC in early 2019, they moved forward with the suit, despite having signed the CBA only a few years earlier. As it turned out, with many victories in hand and a growing status as “American heroes,” they had a full stage to continue to build their case for equal pay in the public eye. 

Indeed, the case seemed like such a no-brainer, that it was something of a shock when, on May 1, 2020, Federal Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled in favor of the USSF’s motion for summary judgment with regard to the Equal Pay Act, stating that the players “have not demonstrated a triable issue that WNT players are paid less than MNT players.” 

Klausner noted that the women had actually received higher compensation annually than the men (this, however, because the women played far more games and went further in tournaments than the men) and, significantly, that the differences in payment structure were the result of choices made by the women’s players in their CBA and by the men in their separate agreement. As a result, the differences for Klausner were differences in negotiation, not differences based on discrimination.

In December 2020, the USSF and the USWNT announced that they had reached an agreement that made all work and travel conditions equal between the USMNT and USWNT, but it did not address equal pay or back pay. While the women are continuing to appeal the decision legally, much of the public discourse around the meaning of equal pay and of the justifications for it, have settled. 

And these justifications are what worry me, both in terms of public argument and in terms of the arguments in Rapinoe’s book.

Here’s the deal:  because both the USMNT and the USWNT work for the same “employer” (USSF), which has a mission of growing soccer in the US, both the men and women have the exact same job, same responsibilities.  Legally and morally, the pay should be the same regardless of factors like success or revenue.  That is, by law and by principle, the men and women should be paid the same for representing the US in national games.  Hands down, no arguments, no other principles implied. 

However, because the USMNT and USWNT established different CBAs (and had slightly different needs in terms of needing national support for the professional soccer league), USSF is able to legally argue that “it’s complicated” and that they are offering “equal compensation.” 

They clearly are not, and, sooner or later, they will be forced to.

Here’s the problem as I see it. In her book, and elsewhere, Rapinoe makes the very popular argument that the USWNT’s success on the pitch has outpaced the men’s and that they have, during recent World Cup years, outpaced the men’s revenue stream.  Indeed, toward the end of the book she notes that when they rehearse the argument, it is “all we could ever do–go through the numbers again. Number one in the world. Winner of four Women’s World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals.  Generator of $50.89 million in revenue between 2016 and 2018, and, a year later, winners of a World Cup final watched by 1.12 billion people” (217).  This is all true. It’s also not relevant to the fact that they deserve equal pay.

The same arguments that have often been used against women’s pay (no one watches them; they should only be paid what the market bears) in soccer and in a variety of other sports, is now the argument they are attempting to use in their favor. While I understand the impulse in that market logics seem to be the only argument some people understand, those arguments are irrelevant legally, and I hate to see arguments justified that can then be deployed against others (perhaps against other women’s teams. Does the women’s Olympic hockey team bring in the same revenue as the men? What of their level of success?). If we base the justification for equal pay on the level of success reached by the USWNT, there is going to be a lot of trouble if the same logic is applied elsewhere. And it misses the point.  

Repeatedly in her book, Rapnioe points out how successful the USWNT has been (and rightly so; it’s hard to think of a more dominant team in any sport).  It’s just that this shouldn’t be used as a justification for equal pay.  The justification is very simply that they are doing the same job as the men and should receive the same pay.  We walk a dangerous line for everyone when we move the argument off of principle and onto market principles.

But outside of that major nitpicking, her new book is an awesome read. And Rapinoe is simply fantastic.

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