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The USWNT Wage-Discrimination Fight is All-American

2016 US Olympics Soccer TeamThe most dramatic moment in recent international soccer happened on June 30th, 2015 in a FIFA Women’s World Cup Semifinal in Montreal, Canada. Powerful Germany had been granted a penalty kick against the U.S. Women’s National Team in the 59th minute of a scoreless dead-lock.

It is hard to describe a penalty kick to a non-soccer fan. Imagine a free-throw worth 30 points. Given a short, uncontested shot against a goalkeeper guarding a net eight yards wide and eight feet high, the average striker converts penalty kicks almost 75% of the time in FIFA competition.

Celia Sasic walked across the pitch to the front of the U.S. goal. Sasic is no average striker. The brilliant 27 year-old had scored two penalty-kick goals in the 2015 World Cup and six goals overall in the tournament.

In a storybook the American keeper would be a national Wheaties-for-Breakfast role model, adored by fans and teammates. But the person standing between Sasic and a commanding 1-0 lead for the favored Europeans was Hope Solo. The veteran goalkeeper had been embroiled in a domestic violence scandal, was accused of selfish conduct by mainstream journalists like Bob Costas and Mike Greenberg, and had tested the faith of teammates in public and private.

But on this day, Solo was nothing less than All-World. As Sasic placed the ball and prepared her approach, Solo began stalking around the pitch, barking at officials and gesturing harshly at Germans who might have posed a distraction. At one point she left the goal-mouth entirely (“I wanted her to see how big the net looked without me in it,” Solo would write later.) Though the odds of stopping Celia Sasic on a penalty kick were almost hopeless, the embattled keeper’s body English conveyed a pithy message to the 51,000-plus in attendance, scores of millions watching on television, and most importantly the waiting German striker – ain’t no thang.

Rattled, Sasic sprinted to the ball and jerked it wide-left, clutching her head in disbelief. Soon, American standout Carli Lloyd converted a penalty of her own, and the USWNT upset the Germans 2-0 before claiming another World Cup title in a 5-2 romp over Japan.

Fan reaction glowed brighter than the freshly-minted gold medals now hanging around the athletes’ necks. FIFA reported that the 2015 WWC had drawn over 750 million viewers worldwide. The US-Japan final drew a fantastic 15.2 rating in the United States, making it the highest-rated soccer match in American history.

The real shocker? More Americans viewed the 2015 Women’s World Cup than the 2015 NBA Finals. With gold-medal finishes in consecutive World Cups, the U.S women became international celebrities and beloved sports icons at home.

Oh, and by the way, most of the women are paid less than $5000 per game in base salary, with few bonuses or amenities.

The U.S. Men’s National Team, who have never won a World Cup medal and recently lost 4-0 to humble Costa Rica in a WC Qualification match (“embarrassed, outworked, outclassed and blown off the field” – wrote soccer analyst Brian Sciaretta) earn a bonus of $55,000 each for being named to a World Cup roster. Each of the two highest-paid players on the men’s national team receive more in individual yearly salary from U.S. Soccer than Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd combined.

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The USWNT has been fighting in court for equal pay. On Wednesday, March 30th 2016, five players filed a Federal complaint accusing U.S. Soccer of blatant wage discrimination in favor of the flaccid men’s team. The athletes argued that they were earning as little as 20% of what the men earn, despite being a superior product on the field. The quintet also charged that they had been short-changed on appearance fees, bonuses and stipends.

Solo signed the complaint. So did Lloyd. Celebrated teammate Alex Morgan signed, and Becky Sauerbrunn, and a midfielder named Megan Rapinoe. The short-haired, feisty Rapinoe wasn’t exactly a household name. Yet.

Silver tongues dancing, U.S. Soccer and its lawyers countered that the men’s national team – wait for it – produces double the attendance and more than double the television ratings that the women’s team can attract. The former point was debatable, since the World Cup attracts tourists from all over the world, and determining with precision exactly how many fans come to see a particular team is tricky business.

The latter statement was an outright lie. If a USMNT broadcast really brought in three or four times the rating of a Women’s World Cup match involving the Stars & Stripes, a men’s diddy-bump 2-0 loss to Columbia might dwarf a Super Bowl in views. Still, official word from the United States Soccer Federation was that the athletes’ claims were “inaccurate” and “misleading.”

The players’ complaint was denied in Federal court.

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An indelible character from Mike Reed’s meme-factory “Flame Warriors” is Capitalista, a cigar-chomping, overweight online provocateur in love with laissez-faire capitalism. Capitalista uses carefully selected facts in his arguments, and lectures airily about Hayek to annoyed forum lurkers. He is, in Reed’s words, an extraordinarily self-satisfied internet warrior.

It is not Capitalista’s monetary views which upset our sensibility. Those of us who are not socialists are all in favor of some type of market-based economy. Our annoyance is with the arrogance of treating economic theory and Constitutional principle as dogma. Capitalista allows no room for common sense, no room to consider someone’s circumstances before passing judgement.

Opponents of equal-pay-for-women often speak glowingly of the free market and consumer choice. They argue that a person’s worth in the workforce is whatever someone is willing to pay. Period.

That might be true in the cell phone industry, or in fashion design. But wage-inequity and employee abuse tend to occur when the public is cornered, compelled to partake in one particular product or service. Like the government, for instance. The fact that there is only one government, not a choice of them, is a great boon to the public-sector exploiter.

Sports are an overflowing source of cornered markets. There was only one American boxing establishment when Jack Johnson fought to retain the World Heavyweight Championship. There is only one Major League Baseball, which is how Curt Flood became a national lightning-rod for simply trying to quit one job and take another.

And there is only one FIFA. Fans worldwide are aware of the enormous corruption and greed of the planet’s only major football federation. Next to the scandals surrounding former President Sepp Blatter, we have learned that the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held in the State of Qatar – and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

Let’s go over that again – the world’s international soccer championship (which rivals the Olympic Games in popularity) will be held in the equatorial desert in the middle of summer. Many human beings will die in the scorching sun. Over a thousand migrant workers have died since 2010, when preparations in the host country began. The culprit? Purchased FIFA votes, and repaid favors from mega-billionaires.

U.S. Soccer works hard to wear a different mask, distinguishing itself from FIFA through pursuit of health education and child welfare. The Federation website is dotted with logos of programs like Recognize to Recover, a wellness-advocating non-profit, and an Integrity Hotline for reporting misbehavior from administrators, teams or parents.

But there is a lack of real reform or empathy for the female players’ plight. For instance, women’s club soccer is obviously not a money-maker on par with men’s professional soccer. In reality, that makes it harder for the USWNT to organize and perform at a high level. Yet, U.S. Soccer uses global statistics of men’s vs. women’s soccer profitability to combat the claims of discrimination, even though it is in their ultimate best interest that the women play well.

Here are some recent attendance figures for the men and women’s teams:

USMNT ATTENDANCE YEAR-BY-YEAR

Table Legend = Home Games / Away Games / Total Games

USMNT Annual Attendance Records

USWNT ATTENDANCE YEAR-BY-YEAR

Table Legend = Home Games / Away Games / Total Games

USWNT Annual Attendance Records

U.S. Soccer argues that superior men’s crowd numbers justify the gender-unequal salary structure. But the stats are deceiving – an overwhelming majority of the 361,000-plus spectators in the stands at USWNT home games in 2015 were wearing red, white, and blue. An international men’s friendly or World Cup match with Brazil, by contrast, draws a sizable sea of bang-a-drum yellow masses anywhere in the United States.

Women’s home attendance is also not as stagnant, with one spike of almost 200% in average crowd size from 2014 to 2015. But the salaries remain unchanged.

Would Capitalista call this pure capitalism? Consumer vote? Value for value?

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Alex Morgan is the most popular women’s footballer in North America. Her endorsement-rich image is that of a professional girl scout, at once sympathetic and fierce on the pitch. Morgan is a great striker with a knack for the grand entrance – in her first rotation with the national team, she scored a key goal against Italy. In her debut Women’s World Cup (Germany in 2011) she scored a clinching goal over France in the semifinals. Her tactics are often intuitive and unorthodox. “A goal is a goal,” she reminds. “Not all goals are pretty.”

Morgan’s husband Servando Carrasco is a terrific player from Tijuana with a distinguished MLS career. The Spanish striker is devoutly Catholic and a true all-for-one believer – you can imagine the matrimonious couple roasting (diet) marshmallows together. Without question, the pair are a bona-fide American success story.

But when she signed the wage complaint in March, the distaff star’s street cred took off like a ball flying from her in-step. Seemingly in contrast with Morgan’s niche in the Prayers-Vitamins-Training wheelhouse of pop culture, the move placed the 27 year-old in company of such controversial athletes as teammate Megan Rapinoe.

Rapinoe is also a great club and international player, striking four World Cup goals in a co-debut with Morgan in 2011. But to many, she is the face of a USWNT that has become culturally unfamiliar, “activists” instead of well-behaved sports celebrities. In many ways, Rapinoe’s plight is similar to what outspoken black athletes endured in the ’70s and ’80s.

The 31 year-old midfielder is openly gay. Her short hair and defiant attitude help remind old, white, conservative onlookers that they are not in the land of Mary Lou Retton anymore. Rapinoe does not suffer old-fashioned views gladly, and is not abiding of LGBTQ folk who choose not to reveal their sexuality. “If you want to stand up and fight for equal rights but won’t even stand up for yourself and say, I’m gay…” she says, leaving sharp words unspoken but understood.

When the USWNT’s case was denied in summer 2016, the women doubled-down with a public opinion war waged at their own events. T-Shirts with the slogan “Equal Play, Equal Pay” are distributed, with Morgan, Rapinoe, Solo, Lloyd and Sauerbrunn serving as models on social media. Some players have worn temporary tattoos bearing the slogan during international games. Rapinoe complained incisively to the New York Times that U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati has avoided speaking to the team in person, skipping out on several promised meetings about their salaries.

Searing stuff. But the timing could be wrong.

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If politics are the devil, it’s because our politics are often based on arbitrary lifestyle choices that reflect one biased worldview or another. Most Americans do not think clearly about socio-political topics but make associations instead. If you drink beer and hate marijuana, you must be a Republican. If you’re gay or bi-sexual and women’s soccer is your favorite sport, you must be a Democrat.

And if you’re pro-women’s equality, you must be pro-PC. The anti-PC backlash has been felt in the Brexit-Trump revolution of blue-collar voters while being adopted by conservative media as a whole. Advocates for social change are labeled whiners, victims, and special snowflakes.

A common misunderstanding of propaganda is that it consists of lies and falsehoods. In actuality, propaganda is usually truth – carefully selected truth, like the boorish forum posts of Capitalista. As difficult it may be for liberals to swallow, conservatives do make valid points about the culture of PC. Those points are merely hidden in the muck of exaggerated claims and assumptions.

A 2016 article in The Atlantic focused on a young man from Silicon Valley who became a Donald Trump supporter after mentioning at work that he liked Hulk Hogan. A co-worker was horrified, and the office soon became a hostile place. The reason? Hulk Hogan (or Terry Bollea) had been caught using the N-word several years prior. Since Bollea was a bigot, any Hulk Hogan fan was therefore judged as a bigot.

The Megyn Kellys of the world are correct that such condemnation is over the line, odious and hypocritical. But in their urge to discard anything associated with PC culture, American conservatives have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Before an NFL preseason game in August 2016, San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt in protest during “The Star Spangled Banner.” He declared that the human rights violations of the United States were intolerable, and that the nation was in grave racial peril. The question of whether Kaepernick is a hero or a fraud is beyond the scope of this writing, but there he stood at the post-game press conference with an aura somewhere between Mahatma Ghandi and Bruno, wide-eyed and pontificating about the media’s non-coverage of minority injustice.

Backlash from the NFL community was vicious, but the swift backup QB stood his ground and kept kneeling before 49’ers games. Megan Rapinoe joined the protest in September, taking a knee for the national anthem at a women’s club match in Chicago. Then she repeated the gesture on an international pitch as the USWNT prepared to clobber Thailand, 9-0. “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” Rapinoe said.

Suddenly, the Capitalistas seized on a “gotcha” moment – of course Rapinoe would be leading the charge for equal pay! It’s all part of the agenda, right? Feminism. LGBTQ rights. Socialists. Victims. Malcontents.

But somewhere in the cigars, mounds of pizza and copies of National Review, the greater point was lost.

The men’s salary advantage is fraudulent, not based on performance or profit. Pushing U.S. Soccer to reward its more accomplished and marketable group of athletes with a commensurate wage is nothing short of All-American.

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The women failed to four-peat as Olympic champions at Rio 2016. A dreary elimination-round slog with Sweden culminated in a tie-breaker on penalty kicks, which the Americans lost. The team reacted in characteristic fashion – Solo bitching up a storm about ultra-conservative Swedish tactics, the pious Morgan defending Tri-Kroner as worthy winners, and Rapinoe vowing to work even harder and help the national team return to dominance on the world stage.

If Trump supporters are correct that chaos can be a good thing, then perhaps there is still hope to boost USWNT wages. An NYT follow-up published in late December revealed that the team fired its union leader just days before their collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer ended. The athletes may be upping the ante, using their power as the Federation’s most popular on-field product. (If nothing else, President Gulati may be forced to finally attend a meeting.)

Will the women ultimately refuse to play if action isn’t taken? It’s plausible. But whether a determined stand would affect the public’s image of family-friendly U.S. Soccer is another issue. The culture war continues as a grand distraction, compelling Americans to tune out or focus on whatever personal offense they can take. “Life isn’t fair” isn’t a bad slogan, but incomplete – a better worldview might be “Life isn’t fair, but let’s make it so whenever we can.”

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In 2014, former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy signed up for the National Women’s Soccer League family-hosting program, designed to help female footballers allay their housing costs. A pair of recent USWNT additions, Meghan Klingenberg and Morgan Brian, moved in with Van Gundy and his family in Houston.

The result was a match made in heaven. “(The Van Gundys) were absolutely so inviting,” said the lanky Klingenberg. “They made me feel like I was part of a family. Their house was my house.” The two World Cup hopefuls soon became cooks, maids, babysitters and personal assistants, working double-time to earn room and board.

When Brian and Klingenberg weren’t practicing or performing household chores, evenings were spent watching House of Cards with the family or supervising children in the swimming pool. Van Gundy was effusive in praise of the humblest athletes he had ever met. “They’ve never had it easy…the utter lack of entitlement was actually startling…the most difficult diva of women’s soccer would be the easiest NBA player ever.”

Oh, by the way, Klingenberg made what has been called “the play of the 2015 Women’s World Cup,” stopping a perfect shot by Sweden’s Caroline Seger with a brilliant leap and header.

Summer goals:

1. Make a World Cup highlight reel.
2. Get own apartment.

As the team triumphed in Canada, Mike Greenberg read aloud on air from a USA Today story on the two athletes, the basketball coach and the shared living quarters. The elegant ESPN host stammered trying to express his admiration and respect. “These women,” he said again and again. “These women.”

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It’s reasonable to assume that not all feminists are utopians, hoping to right every wrong and undo every injustice. But while it is true that USWNT members are not victims, not snowflakes, and get along just fine without the riches afforded to the inferior men’s team, the ethics of self-determination compel us to protest the wage inequality of U.S. Soccer. Value for value. Consumer vote.

Some on the Left are concerned that President Trump will empower the Capitalistas of the world. But whether the Orange One turns out to be a worldly moderate or a far-right reactionary, a President need not set the tone for an entire culture. Elected officials are but a signpost in a world of legal, governmental and economic “levers and gears,” as Bert Cooper described the world in Mad Men. Donald Trump’s job description does not include telling the public how to feel about wage discrimination. Positive change is still up to everyone.

As the United States Women’s National Team adds to its current winning streak in international friendlies and prepares for the next World Cup cycle, should Solo, Rapinoe and Morgan feel guilty for making compensation the conversation?

Only if tradition trumps All-American fair play.

Kurt BoyerThis article was written by Kurt Boyer

A freelance sportswriter from Missouri, Kurt has covered court, gridiron, rink and ring for 10+ years. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.


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