Equality is not earned, it is inherent

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On May 1, a U.S. judge ruled against the U.S. women’s national team, or USWNT, on multiple claims within the team’s lawsuit alleging unequal pay and gender discrimination by the U.S. Soccer Federation, citing the fact that the USWNT was actually paid more than the U.S. men’s national team, or USMNT, from 2015 to 2019 as his reason for the edict.

The conclusion that the USWNT was paid more on average per game is one that will be debated, as participants and spectators of the legal proceedings attempt to decipher what, exactly, should be counted as pay and what shouldn’t be. The USWNT and USMNT have different pay structures, making it difficult to precisely compare the two. The time period in question (2015-2019) is one that gave the USWNT a greater opportunity to earn bonuses for its many wins, which makes it even more difficult to compare the teams’ pay — the USWNT won consecutive World Cups in 2015 and 2019, while the USMNT failed to qualify for the only men’s World Cup, hosted by Russia in 2018, in those four years.

The USWNT has appealed the ruling, but the apparent legal victory of U.S. Soccer, which has faced increased public and political criticism over the issue, only masks larger issues at stake. Regardless of the decisions made in court, it is undeniable that male professional soccer players are paid substantially more than their female counterparts.

The winner of the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup, France, took home $38 million in prize money. The total amount of prize money for all 24 teams participating in the 2019 women’s edition? $30 million. The 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup handed out a total of $400 million in prize money to 32 teams, a massive disparity in compensation.

The maximum salary for a player in the MLS, the United States’ top men’s soccer division, was $530,000 in 2019. The minimum salary in that league was $70,250, despite its infamy for paling in comparison to top European leagues such as the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga in terms of talent. Those figures don’t even consider the MLS’ designated player rule, which allows specific players to take home higher salaries. Former Los Angeles Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, took home a base salary of $7.2 million during his time at the club. Meanwhile, the National Women’s Soccer League — one of the best women’s soccer leagues in not only the United States, but the world — raised its minimum yearly salary to $20,000 and its maximum to $50,000 last season

The reasons for such blatant discrimination in pay are present in U.S. Soccer’s arguments in the ongoing trial. While much of the organization’s recent legal success has come through specific examination of the differences between the USMNT’s and the USWNT’s collective bargaining agreements, U.S. Soccer has taken various other stances, including, among other equally discriminatory claims, that the men and women do not perform equal work and that the men gain more spectators and revenue.

These points are not confined to soccer — they’re raised against professional female athletes lobbying for equity in sports around the world. But these arguments lie on a blatantly unethical assumption. The idea that women should not be paid or treated equally in sports stems from an idea that women are somehow unequal to men on a playing field. This implies that women must work for that equal payment or treatment — that until the USMNT and USWNT are “performing equal work” or bringing in similar spectator numbers or revenue streams, they do not deserve equitable treatment. 

And that is deeply, disgustingly unethical. It implies that equality must, of all things, be earned. It implies that because a player is a woman, she must prove that she deserves equality, rather than be granted that courtesy from the beginning. That is what is displayed when a pay disparity is present. It is a truly reprehensible notion — that, for a reason beyond an individual’s control, an individual is not treated with the same dignity, opportunity and equality that should be afforded to everyone regardless of their identity.

The idea that inequalities are caused by economic factors is equally demeaning. It implies the same thing, that women must work harder to earn equality, but cowers behind the cardboard cutouts of “supply” and “demand.” Perhaps if women’s sports saw pay and investment at professional and developmental levels that equaled those that their male counterparts receive, they would yield similar financial results. Women should not have to earn those equal investments. Players should receive equal opportunities regardless of gender.

No human should have to prove their equality. Regardless of race, gender, age or any other potential identifier, all individuals deserve the same opportunities and treatment. No player should have to earn equality, not in soccer nor anywhere else. The USWNT and women everywhere deserve equal pay for no other reason than the simple fact that they are human — humans that are darn good at soccer.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article’s headline did not accurately represent the author’s views.