Fighting for Equal Pay
Rapinoe provides a fascinating overview of other political struggles she and her colleagues have faced. Sexism in professional sport is one, and the book is riddled with examples. There’s the pay issue. Early in her career male soccer players in the US were being paid $5k just for losing a friendly match, while women received $1,350 for wins and nothing for ties or losses. From travel per diems to annual pay, women players were short-changed at every opportunity. In 2011, top-tier players for the women’s national team (ranked first in the world) earned almost 40 percent less than male national team players (ranked 35th in the world). Soccer players in the US earn consistently less than their millionaire colleagues in sports like baseball, basketball, or football, but even so, male players average annual salaries over a quarter of a million dollars while women players didn’t even break $100k. Even corporate sponsorship deals for female athletes involve a fraction of the money they do for male athletes.
Rapinoe relentlessly hammers home the need for pay equity. In the case of FIFA, the 2018 men’s World Cup had a prize pool of $400 million compared to $15 million for the 2015 women’s World Cup. Such figures are completely disproportionate to audience or media interest in women’s sports, Rapinoe observes: the men’s World Cup final had an audience of 1.1 billion including 14 million Americans compared to the women’s final’s 850 million viewers including 25 million Americans. The Women’s 2019 World Cup final was watched by 1.12 billion.
In the lead-up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup, FIFA sought to forestall criticism by announcing it was doubling the women’s prize pool to $30 million. This was not something to celebrate, Rapinoe explains.
“By using the magic phrase ‘doubling the money’ they seemed to think they’d so dazzle and overwhelm us that we wouldn’t notice there was still a $370 million shortfall with the men,” she writes. “‘I think they’re probably looking for pats on the back for the increase,’ I told journalists. ‘They’re not getting any from here. Fifteen million is nothing to them.'”
Fans agree. When the US team was awarded the World Cup after winning the championship match in the UK, the crowd responded by chanting “Equal Pay” at the FIFA president when he presented the trophy.
Sexism emerges in countless other ways as well. Women players are expected to bunk together and share rooms in tournaments (and even the Olympics), unlike their male counterparts. Curfews are stricter. Even playing conditions are more dangerous–women’s games are played on cheaper turf surfaces, making them more prone to debilitating injuries. Artificial turf has not been used in men’s games for over 80 years.
In the labour movement, a great deal of ink has been devoted to the struggle by grassroots activists to take back their unions from bureaucrats and restructure their movements in more democratic, grassroots fashion. Rapinoe offers a fascinating account of how women’s soccer players engage in a similar process. For years, collective agreements were negotiated primarily by lawyers for the respective sides, with few gains for the players despite growing dissatisfaction with their working conditions. Rapinoe explains that they didn’t allow their dissatisfaction to affect their play. They knew that the stronger they played and the more victories they won, the greater their bargaining power would be when it came time to use it.
The growing popularity of the game–a direct result of the underpaid women players’ labour–helped position them to make a stronger stand at the bargaining table. After their 2015 World Cup win–conveniently right before negotiations–the US women players reorganized their bargaining structure. Instead of just lawyers, they sent actual members directly into bargaining meetings. They realized it didn’t make sense to simply grant senior players all the senior positions in their union, as had been traditionally been the case. Instead, they reallocated positions based on organizing skills, allowing younger junior players to take key roles in areas they excelled at, whether it was media engagement or negotiating strategy.
It was very much a play-to-win approach to bargaining, putting the membership directly in charge of the process. They also engaged the public and media in an unprecedented way, thus reminding the owners who it was that made the sport both possible and profitable. By working to intensify public excitement around women’s soccer, they not only boosted profits for the owners but, more importantly, made themselves a visible and essential part of the process, making it more difficult for the management side to push back on their demands for equity.
But push back their management did, to the point of sparking public outrage in 2019 with poorly articulated and antiquated arguments around women’s sports being less important and requiring less effort than men’s. Rapinoe emphasizes throughout her narrative the sexist lens which often frames not just women’s bargaining demands, but broader efforts by women to demand fair treatment and compensation. Being polite is not an effective response strategy, she says. It’s imperative to speak out and call out regressive behaviour–whether it’s sexism, racism, or homophobia–and to push back against narratives that criticize loud and outspoken voices.
“You have to be patient, people said; you have to wait for everyone to get on the same page as you. To which I say: Do we? Really? I don’t think basic human rights need to take time.”
Her philosophy extends to other causes as well. When she was named Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsperson of the Year in 2019, she used her acceptance speech to excoriate the magazine and sports journalism more generally for its poor performance on gender equity, and the low numbers of women writers employed in the field. She brushes off criticism with a confident tone.
“I’ve heard the phrase ‘bite the hand that feeds you,’ which makes me laugh; I don’t think of any hand as feeding me. And I don’t need permission from an awards panel to speak my mind…When I say something ‘rude,’ I think about who I am saying it for, not who I am saying it to.
“I am sure enough of my position to not sweat the reception. I don’t need them to like me to know I am right.”