The gender pay gap in professional sports persists

Illustration of a girl skateboarding
Cynthia Shi/Staff

Related Posts

Women from marginalized communities bore the brunt of the economic fallout from COVID-19, compounding an already stark pay gap. Although recent agreements and policies have narrowed the gender pay gap, specifically in sports, women are still being paid less than men. As a lifelong sports fan, no pay gap hits me nearly as hard as the one that exists in skateboarding. Public interest in women’s sports has climbed during the pandemic and appears to be part of a greater trend demanding gender equality in sports. Now more than ever, it is time to invest in and to promote women’s sports.

I purchased my first “real” skateboard from a local skate shop in Olympia at 26 years old, and its spell seemed to wash over me almost immediately. Skateboarding is a culture, an art form, a mode of transportation and a sport all at once. Because of my background of growing up playing more “traditional” sports, I immensely enjoy skate contests; they translate skating into something more understandable to people outside of the community.

Skate contests, however, also demonstrate the cheapening of women’s labor in professional sports. Opponents to equal pay for women cite a variety of reasons why male athletes are paid more than women, including viewership, play style, strength, revenue and more. But those arguments fail when it comes to skateboarding. Everything in skateboarding is the same between men and women: the equipment, the course, the tricks and the size of the obstacles.  In fact, everything is created so that competitors in a skate contest are on equal footing.

Yet women’s work is cheapened even when women are equally willing to throw their bodies off of a set of stairs while on a skateboard for an audience’s entertainment. Up until a strike staged at the 2005 X Games, the purse in skate competitions was wildly unequal. Women competitors organized an athlete strike to negotiate for better pay. All of the women stood together in solidarity and refused to compete.

This collective action eventually secured women competitors equal prize money in two of the largest contests in skateboarding: ESPN’s X Games and the Vans Park Series. Despite this history and the strides made, however, most skate competitions (including Street League Skateboarding, a wildly popular Olympic-qualifying competition series) and sponsorship opportunities still favor male skateboarders.

Creating equitable conditions in sports will take a combination of new legislation, strategic litigation and the increase of social pressures demanding equity in media coverage and in pay. My background in sports and activism led me to pursue my profession at organizations such as Legal Aid at Work and Skate Like a Girl. Both organizations devote time and programming to the issue of gender equity in sports. People interested in pushing gender equity in sports can do their part by advocating for policy changes, supporting local women’s sports and donating their time and resources to the organizations leading the charge.

Additionally, legislation has played a key role in expanding women’s opportunities in sports. Title IX is a federal law passed in 1972 that gave female athletes the right to participate equally in sports in public schools up through the university level. Building off of that foundation, California passed AB-2404 in 2004, a bill that required equity in local youth athletics. California also passed the Equal Pay for Equal Play bill, requiring any competition held on California state land to award equal prize money for all athletes at all participant levels regardless of gender in order to receive a lease or a permit.

These policies are a step toward securing equal access in sports across genders. Equality of access translates into more opportunities available for athletes later on in life as education and labor outlooks improve with increasing youth sports participation.

However, the Equal Pay for Equal Play bill cannot reach entities holding competitions on private land. Some sporting associations, such as the WNBA, have taken real steps to close the gender pay gap. The WNBA negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that renegotiated revenue sharing between the WNBA and the NBA. This CBA drastically increased the salary minimum in the WNBA and the salary cap at the top for the best players. 

In addition, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team recently filed an appeal for their equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation after a judge dismissed their claim last year, demonstrating the work left to be done. Importantly however, the Women’s Soccer Team’s efforts have secured better pay for their players through a newly negotiated contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation. 

People have been watching women’s sports more than ever, but its investments and media coverage still lags severely behind those given to men’s sports. With increased social pressure and worker’s rights movements demanding equitable working conditions, governments and employers will need to be held accountable in resolving the conditions they have created. All workers deserve fair compensation for their labor regardless of gender, and gender equality will benefit everyone. We must collectively demand better pay, more media airtime and more opportunities for women in sports.

Lauren Romero is a legal extern with Legal Aid at Work and serves on the Board of Directors for Skate Like a Girl. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.