For the second time this week, the U.S. legislative body best known for its obstructionist leanings managed to squeak out a unanimous vote for the public good. Following Monday’s passage of a progressive rights bill for sexual assault survivors, the Senate passed a resolution on Thursday asking U.S. Soccer to grant equal pay to its female players.
Introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and 21 other Democrats in mid-May, the resolution urges the federation to “eliminate gender pay inequity and treat all athletes with the same respect and dignity,” then it throws some much-needed shade at U.S. Soccer, listing the women’s team’s historic accomplishments in clinical deadpan. “The United States women’s national team is ranked first in the world as of the date of adoption of this resolution,” it reads. “The 2015 final Women’s World Cup match generated an audience of approximately 750,000,000 viewers worldwide and more than 25,000,000 viewers in the United States, the largest audience of any soccer game shown in the United States on English language television.”
The resolution comes two months after five big-name members of the U.S. women’s national team filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against U.S. Soccer, alleging that the members of the comparatively mediocre U.S. men’s team get paid more just to show up at a game and kick the ball around than the World Cup and Olympic champions of the women’s team do when they win.
By all visible measures, those allegations are true. Women’s team members make a $72,000 annual salary, plus occasional bonuses; men’s team members get paid in a series of guaranteed bonuses that get bumped up based on each type of game the men play and whether they win. The men’s pay structure is such that they always get get a much higher take than the women, even if they have a losing record while the women take the World Cup and Olympic gold. Some of the most egregious examples, as I wrote in Slate last month:
For a friendly match against a team ranked in the top 10, a women’s team member gets $1,350 for a win and nothing for a loss. For the same match, a men’s team member gets a whopping $17,625 for a win and $5,000 for a loss. The women make $75,000 each for a World Cup win; the men make around $335,000 each.
Or they would, if they ever made it that far. U.S. Soccer has maintained inequitable bonus structures, which are negotiated separately in collective bargaining agreements, for decades. In 1998, each U.S. women’s team player got a $2,500 bonus for making the World Cup team. They ended up taking home the championship. The men each got a $20,000 bonus for making their team, and finished dead last. U.S. Soccer reported a $20 million jump in national team revenue last year, which the women’s team credits to their World Cup win and the victory tour that followed. “The men’s most notable achievement in the past half-century was a quarterfinal appearance at the 2002 World Cup,” the New York Times deadpanned.
In a parallel suit, the player’s union that covers the women’s team brought U.S. Soccer to court on Thursday to establish the legality of a strike, a measure the team is considering as it looks to the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The federation maintains that the union is hamstrung by a no-strike clause in the contract; the union says that clause expired in the players’ last contract.
The most impressive part of Thursday’s unanimous Senate resolution—impressive in that all 54 Republican senators co-signed the message—is the way it contextualizes the struggles of the U.S. women’s team within the broader scope of gender pay inequity and addresses the far wider pay disparities women of color face relative to those of white women. U.S. Soccer’s biased pay structure is “reflective of the reality of many women in the United States who, more than 50 years after the enactment of the Equal Pay Act, still make on average only 79 cents for each dollar made by a male counterpart,” the resolution reads. “Those pay disparities exist in both the private and the public sectors and, in many instances, the pay disparities can only be due to continued intentional discrimination or the lingering effects of past discrimination.” It’s a document better suited for a feminist rally than a non-binding resolution few will ever see.
And that’s the sad part: Thursday’s resolution isn’t a law. It will get sent to U.S. Soccer, and it will spur articles like this, which may enliven some dormant activists for pay equality, but it has no binding effect on the money women make in soccer or elsewhere. Still, the resolution is a powerful symbolic message to the soccer federation, particularly because it’s unanimous. It would have been easy for some conservative senators to make thin excuses for the pay gap in athletics, in the way that scores of major sports figures have uttered incoherent grumbles about gendered differences in viewership and money brought to the federation or league, but they didn’t. (In addition to being beside the point, in the case of the U.S. women’s national team, this argument is out-and-out hooey, as the resolution makes clear.) Now that we’ve got them on record saying they “[support] an end to pay discrimination based on gender and the strengthening of equal pay protections,” let’s see how fast they actually do something about it.