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The Women’s National Soccer Team Threatens to Skip the Olympics

“We’re sick of being treated like second class citizens.”

Despite being the favorite to repeat as Olympic champions at the games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, the U.S. women’s national soccer team is considering a boycott of the event. And it’s not because of a tyrannical ruling regime in Brazil that inflicts human rights abuses on its citizens. It’s not because playing conditions will be inhumane. It’s because the domestic governing body responsible for handling the team treats the women like a junior varsity squad by supplying poor fields and laughable compensation.

Two weeks ago, five key members of Team USA soccer filed a federal complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission accusing the United States Soccer Federation (the regulatory entity commonly referred to as U.S. Soccer) of wage discrimination. Then yesterday afternoon, team co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said in an interview with ESPNW that her team is reserving the right to skip the upcoming Olympic games in protest if the Federation does not meet their new collective bargaining agreement stipulations.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Simply put, we’re sick of being treated like second-class citizens. It wears on you after a while. And we are done with it.[/quote]

And the general thrust of those demands, as laid out Sauerbrunn, is quite simple, “The outcome, I hope, is equal pay for equal play. Compensation-wise, respect-wise, that’s what I’m really hoping comes out of this complaint.”

In an op-ed published Sunday by The New York Times, team co-captain Carli Lloyd spoke forcefully on behalf of her teammates, saying, “Simply put, we’re sick of being treated like second-class citizens. It wears on you after a while. And we are done with it.” To illustrate exactly what she meant by “second-class”, Lloyd included some sample figures to highlight how much the women don’t make compared to the men’s national team:

- “If I were a male soccer player who won a World Cup for the United States, my bonus would be $390,000. Because I am a female soccer player, the bonus I got for our World Cup victory last summer was $75,000.”

- “The men get almost $69,000 for making a World Cup roster. As women, we get $15,000 for making the World Cup team.”

- “When I am traveling internationally, I get $60 a day for expenses. Michael Bradley gets $75. Maybe they figure that women are smaller and thus eat less.”

- “The top five players on the men’s team make an average of $406,000 each year from these games. The top five women are guaranteed only $72,000 each year.”

And NPR sums up the pay problem by saying, “The EEOC complaint acknowledges that U.S. Soccer pays top-tier female players $72,000 a year to play in those 20 games. But it notes that if a male player is paid only the base amount of $5,000 for 20 games — and loses them all — he would still make $1,000 more than a woman who wins all 20 of her games.” So if you’re a male soccer player, even if you lose, YOU WIN!

Just in case you’re not a soccer fan, the men’s team is basically a non-event compared to the women. A separate article by the Times about the EOEC complaint gives a pretty succinct explanation for what separates the two squads: “The men’s team has historically been mediocre. The women’s team has been a quadrennial phenomenon, winning world and Olympic championships and bringing much of the country to a standstill in the process.”

Hope Solo, the team’s lights out goalkeeper and perhaps the most recognizable soccer player in the country regardless of gender, put the distinction plainly, telling the Times that her male counterparts “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

The U.S. women's national team immediately following their 2015 World Cup victory.

And Solo is not exaggerating. While the women’s national team has earned their paychecks by winning three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals since 1991, the best result the men’s team has achieved in the entire history of the program was a third place finish in the inaugural World Cup – in 1930.

This isn’t just about money, either, as Sauerbrunn explicitly referenced wanting more respect from the Federation, too. Tension between U.S. Soccer and the women’s team has been building up to a boil for some time now. In addition to being under-compensated despite remarkable on-the-field success and a proven ability to generate massive television ratings for big events (Their 2015 World Cup victory was the most watched broadcast in the history of American televised soccer) the champions have also complained in the past about poor accommodations while travelling for road games.

Star forward Alex Morgan even tweeted at the National Women’s Soccer League account, which is also run by U.S. Soccer, about bedbugs in one hotel in Kansas City, Missouri. That post has since been deleted, but the internet is written in pen so we know she said “.@NWSL there's no other way to address continuing problems. Hotels have been unacceptable. For ex. :Bed bugs/mold @ Adams Mark Hotel in KC.” Notice the use of the word “continuing.”

And then there are the turf wars. Women’s teams being forced to play on turf during the last World Cup was a subplot of the entire competition. While cheaper to maintain, many players renounce turf as dangerous, too hot and harder on the body. After the U.S. team won that tournament, eight of their 10 victory tour exhibition games were booked on turf fields. The conditions were so bad at a field in Honolulu that the team cancelled a match completely. And one writer for Sports Illustrated explained how those surface conditions were indicative of the greater problem women have being taken seriously in global sport.

“The debate over turf is important, however, as a symptom of something much larger: the ongoing inequalities in support for women’s and men’s soccer programs globally,” wrote Laurent Dubois. “The artificial turf is a metaphor, a very visible and inescapable reminder many ways in which institutional forces continue to hold back the development of the women’s game, quite literally impacting its most brilliant and inspiring players.”

Missing a chance to win a fifth Olympic gold would obviously be a huge hit for the players on the women’s national team, but likely an even bigger one for U.S. Soccer. If the women skip out on Rio, the U.S. will have no representation on the pitch since the men’s team failed to even qualify for the Games. For its part, U.S. Soccer maintains that the pay structure for female players is the result of a heavily bargained agreement that they have previously agreed to multiple times, and that the men make more, in part, because they generate more income.

But that raises the question of support given to female sports generally. Women have so few opportunities to compete at an elite level in pro athletics, and none of the options provide compensation even at a fraction of the level male athletes receive. Tennis is the only exception, but the WTA is plagued by sexism of its own. So the question remains: Would female sports leagues like the WNBA and NWSL thrive if they were given more funding? Would higher investment result in higher returns? We can’t really know until that happens, and right now it’s not happening anywhere in the United States.

The best outcome for the women’s soccer team’s EOEC complaint would obviously be the Federation caving and the player’s being more fairly compensated for their consistently stellar performance. But of course, this is about much more than just one Olympics or one roster of pissed off soccer players. It’s about setting a precedent for women to raise their voice and actually affect change as a result. It’s about women asserting they are no longer just happy to be invited; they want to be the main event.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The outcome, I hope, is equal pay for equal play. Compensation-wise, respect-wise, that’s what I’m really hoping comes out of this complaint.[/quote]

That last point was even made by former Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal in the wake of the company’s e-mail hacking scandal last August. Pascal resigned from her position following a particularly shameful showing in the leaked messages, but at a conference in San Francisco shortly after the digital attack, Pascal made an important point about how women conduct themselves at the negotiating table, saying “Here’s the problem: I run a business. People want to work for less money, I pay them less money…Women shouldn’t be so grateful. Know what you’re worth. Walk away.”

Whether or not the women of Team USA soccer heard Pascal’s remarks, they are certainly heeding her advice now and taking a leap that could keep them from the biggest prize in global sports, because they know their worth. And by airing their grievances they create a public space for more women to follow suit. As Lloyd said in her Times piece, “The fact that women are being mistreated financially is, sadly, not a breaking news story. It goes on in every field. We can’t right all the world’s wrongs, but we’re totally determined to right the unfairness in our field, not just for ourselves but for the young players coming up behind us and for our soccer sisters around the world.

Here’s hoping U.S. Soccer comes through and gives us a chance to root for Team USA at the Olympics this summer, because when it comes The Beautiful Game, they’re one of the best shows on Earth.

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