Soccer players huddle

Shane Lardinois

game theory

How the U.S. Government Is Failing Women’s Soccer

It’s time for U.S. lawmakers to reconsider a framework that consistently undervalues female athletes.

Hampton Dellinger (@hampdellinger), a lawyer and writer, represented an international coalition of women’s soccer players protesting gender inequality at the 2015 World Cup.

The Women's World Cup has kicked off in Paris with the American women—losers of just two of their last 43 matches and the title holder—as the favorite. But win or lose in France, when Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and their USA teammates return home they will confront again their toughest and most longstanding opponent: the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body designated under federal law as the overseer of America’s national soccer teams.

The federation has persistently failed to adequately recognize, properly respect and justly reward its most valuable asset: the U.S. women’s national team.

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At the heart of the decadeslong dispute between U.S. Soccer and the U.S. women’s team is pay equity. Despite consistently achieving results far superior to their male counterparts—who failed to even qualify for the most recent men’s World Cup—female players have watched U.S. Soccer penny pinch the women’s game while spending lavishly on the men’s team and its overseers. Current team members are now party to an Equal Pay Act lawsuit—the latest in a long line of legal or workplace protests players as beloved and respected as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Becky Sauerbrunn have felt forced to initiate over the years in response to the federation’s persistent hard-line stance toward female athletes' compensation. And it’s not just about salaries. U.S. Soccer has long tolerated a two-tiered, gender-based workplace, with its male soccer players enjoying better travel, superior playing conditions and even more food. The history and details of the mistreatment and discrimination are set out expertly in a new book by Caitlin Murray, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer.

So how has the U.S. Soccer Federation been allowed to be anything other than a staunch supporter of U.S. women’s soccer? You can blame, in part, the lassitude of federal lawmakers. By granting U.S. Soccer nearly unfettered authority to direct—or misdirect in this case—the sport, the federal government has left the U.S. women’s team to suffer. If Congress wants to fix its mistake, it can. It’s time for U.S. lawmakers to reconsider a framework which has consistently undervalued female athletes.

U.S. Soccer’s current dominion over women’s soccer arose after Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act in 1978. The law allows the United States Olympic Committee to designate a “national governing body” with exclusive oversight rights for every sport that participates in the Olympics. This makes sense for some sports: It’s one thing for the federal government to turn over sole governance rights for sports with limited participants, followers and financial prospects. But such a regime is inapt for soccer, the world’s most popular and lucrative sport. Soccer is “amateur” in name only, and it is too important a sport, particularly for women given the U.S. national team’s extended success, for Congress to hand off to an organization immune from both competition and meaningful government oversight—not to mention, one dominated by men. U.S. Soccer has always been run by men at its highest administrative echelons; it has never had a female president or CEO.

This government-created and generally unsupervised monopoly is even less defensible given U.S. Soccer’s subservience not to Congress, or even the USOC, but instead to the game’s global overseer, FIFA. If there were a Sexism World Cup, FIFA—after decades of nearly all-male and often-chauvinistic leadership—would own the trophy. Nor could FIFA leaders be outclassed when it comes to corruption. Soon after the last Women’s World Cup ended, many within FIFA’s leadership structure were indicted for federal crimes or ousted for organizational wrongdoing. U.S. Soccer chieftains were not charged. But their cozy relationships with sexists and wrongdoers offered little grounds for confidence that American soccer officials sufficiently valued gender equality and ethics.

Corruption’s cousin—greed—appeared to team up with sexism in 2015 at the most recent Women’s World Cup. The difference between an acceptable pitch, consisting of natural grass, and a deplorable one, artificial turf, is widely acknowledged by soccer experts and lay fans alike. The flying pellets, hot surfaces, injury risks and odd bounces associated with turf make a plastic pitch unthinkable at a men’s World Cup. But FIFA, along with host Canada, insisted 2015 Women’s World Cup games be played on artificial turf, which offered the prospect of more field certification and “preferred producer” revenues, plus sponsorship fees, from the artificial-turf industry.

At the same time, the world governing body sought to curb costs for the women’s game by offering prize money that was a mere fraction of that available to men and a refusing to commit to goal-line technology—used in the 2014 men’s World Cup—until publicly pressured. When players from the United States and other countries prepared a legal protest over the playing conditions, which I assisted with, FIFA threatened to cancel the tournament if the women prevailed in court.

Throughout the “turf war,” U.S. Soccer refused to offer its women’s team—which led the fight for natural grass—any meaningful measure of public support. Indeed, the organization’s top official at the time, Sunil Gulati, at one low point suggested the female players could be targeted for suspension for their collective action. Then, upon the U.S. women’s team’s triumphant return, U.S. Soccer inexcusably scheduled victory tour practices and games on artificial turf and second-rate grass surfaces. The predictable result: a torn ACL. The victim was Rapinoe, one of America’s most indispensable players but, thankfully, also one of its most resilient.

The scope of U.S. Soccer’s failure is highlighted by the fact that this summer marks the 20th anniversary of the legendary 1999 World Cup final in which the U.S. women’s national team defeated China on penalty kicks before 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The '99ers remain American sports icons, but they also epitomize U.S. Soccer’s neglect. The team returned victorious from that World Cup as national heroes poised for huge commercial success. An outline of Brandi Chastain on her knees in exultation after her winning goal could have become a logo as ageless and commercially valuable as Michael Jordan’s Jumpman. Instead, as Murray rightly puts it, U.S. Soccer did little to promote the team. “To say the federation lacked foresight or ambition to help the national team keep up its momentum [after winning the 1999 World Cup] is to put it mildly,” Murray writes. “There was no strategy to grow interest in the sport from the federation responsible for it.” Or, as former national team player Kate Markgraf says it simply: “They had nothing for us. They had no plan.”

U.S. Soccer’s shortcomings stretch beyond its disservice to the women’s team off the field (and the on-field debacles of its men). On its watch, youth soccer participation has dramatically decreased. And those who are still playing are less diverse along ethnic and economic lines, as the “pay to play” system U.S. Soccer allowed to take root in youth clubs has created financial burdens for even middle-class families forced to fork over thousands of dollars per year in club dues and travel fees. An additional reason for the participation decline could be fears over the use of player heads to advance or re-direct airborne balls. As parents and pediatricians expressed increasing concerns about heading, U.S. Soccer took little action until a class-action lawsuit initiated a series of protective measures.

While U.S. Soccer's ineptitude from 1999-2019 represents a lost generation for soccer-fueled female empowerment, the group’s legal defense in the ongoing pay equity case points to a possible solution for the next 20 years. According to the federation’s recently filed legal papers: “USWNT players have no male ‘counterparts’ who play for the USMNT.” The two teams “play at different times, in different locations, against different opponents, and are comprised of athletes who have different obligations, are compensated in fundamentally different ways, and enjoy different benefits.”

U.S. Soccer’s belief that its men’s and women’s teams are separate and unequal is stunning. And it makes clear that the federation as currently conceived is no longer fit to oversee the women’s program. But true or not, U.S. Soccer’s defense leads to the question: Why not have different governing bodies, one for U.S. women’s soccer and another for the men?

Given its role in creating today’s system of soccer oversight, Congress should consider amending the Amateur Sports Act to require—or at least permit—two soccer federations, one for U.S. women’s soccer and another for the men. The new women-aligned federation can focus on perpetuating and capitalizing on the female players’ dominance and profitability while U.S. Soccer’s “old boys' club” can keep the men’s program. Among other things, a United States Women’s Soccer Federation could more vigorously pursue standalone broadcast and sponsorship deals for the women’s team, which has higher TV ratings and more recognizable stars than the men's team. It could better support the women’s professional league. And it should be much more willing to protest and contest FIFA’s ongoing refusal to fairly value women’s soccer.

But whether or not Congress splits the federation in two, exempts soccer from the Amateur Sports Ac or takes other statutory measures in the face of U.S. Soccer’s flawed track record on gender equity, lawmakers must—at a minimum—exercise more vigorous oversight so that discrimination in sports is understood to be unacceptable.

Beyond soccer, Congress can do more to ensure that there is a marked increase in the number of women who can make a living within the multibillion-dollar American sports industry. While Title IX has been hailed as a revolutionary advance for women and girls as players, it has done little to give women meaningful coaching opportunities. And the law has done nothing in the realm of professional sports, where federal government largesse and oversight—whether it be tax subsidies for stadiums, the military’s NFL sponsorships or sports programming on local TV stations to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission's “public interest” licensing requirement—almost exclusively have benefited men's teams and their owners, who are almost always men.

Members of Congress can consider ways to promote greater gender equality in sports while they watch the Women's World Cup over the next month. And tune in they should, for the games will be compelling. The trophy may be the USA’s to lose, but it’s not guaranteed to stay in America. The stiffest competition on the field could come from the hosts. France is the only side that has outclassed the United States consistently in recent years, and should the teams meet, the crowd will be decidedly anti-American.

An American victory this year will require all the players to think of themselves as defenders first, working hard to reobtain possession when the other team gets it. Pressuring the ball and denying passes the instant your team loses it are hard and unglamorous work, but they're the easiest way to avoid giving up a goal. In addition to defending as a team, the U.S. will need to score as one. The goals we’ll never forget—Carli Lloyd’s 2015 stunning golazo from midfield, Abby Wambach’s defeat defying header against Brazil in 2011—were moments of indelible individual greatness. But as teams mass defenders to deny the U.S. meaningful attacking opportunities, it will be up to each American to constantly look for a more wide open teammate. In recent games, particularly a 5-0 shelling of New Zealand, the U.S. passing has been plentiful and precise. If that continues in France, a World Cup trophy will remain in American hands. Then it will be time for Congress to consider putting American women’s soccer in the hands of someone else besides the United States Soccer Federation.

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