It’s a remarkable—and remarkably unexpected—thing to write, but female athletes are now leading both the labor movement and the women’s movement for pay equity. It’s happening before our eyes, and it’s worth noting even if you’ve never kicked a soccer ball or hit a puck. First, just last week, we had the staggering victory of the US women’s national hockey team, who went on strike before the World Championships and won a series of demands, including salary raises so that they are now paid like the full-time athletes they are. Now comes news that the US women’s national soccer team has, at long last, following public campaigns, lawsuits, and the outspoken expression of their most prominent players, secured a five-year labor deal with USA Soccer.
The deal has much to praise, making long strides toward securing equal pay with the men’s squad—fitting for a women’s team that garners ratings during global competition which could make other sports leagues green with envy. It remedies the insult of meager pay and the injury of less rights than their male counterparts. While the deal does not ensure pay equity, the rallying cry of this long campaign, it does ensure raises that will leave players earning as much as $200,000 to $300,000 a year, plus victory bonuses. The deal also guarantees funding and support for parental leave, increased per diems, and more input from players on their working conditions, travel and accommodations. In addition—and this could become the most important part of the deal—the union won a portion of licensing rights, which will mean more revenue streams for the players.
This is a grand victory, coming slightly over a year since a high-profile complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued by the highest profile members of the team: Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo. (It is unclear what happens to that complaint now that there is a new contract.)
On Wednesday, after the new deal was signed, Rapinoe told ESPNW: “I am incredibly proud of this team and the commitment we have shown through this entire process. While I think there is still much progress to be made for us and for women more broadly, I think the [Women’s National Team Players Association] should be very proud of this deal and feel empowered moving forward.”
The fight for equal pay continues. As the Women’s National Team Players Association executive director Becca Roux said to the New York Times, “We tried to completely change the methodology for how to define our value, and we made progress in that regard, and it changes the equation for the future,”
In other words, it is a step forward and a significant one at that.
It is also worth taking a step back and looking at these two victories in the context of what happening in this country. These are extraordinary times, with an admitted sexual predator in the White House, rooms full of men making health-care decisions for women, and a vice president who believes in LGBT reparative therapy, casting the deciding vote in the Senate to allow states to withhold federal funds for Planned Parenthood. We have women in the Texas State Senatewearing robes to work that are inspired by the Margaret Atwood novel of patriarchal dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.
This is the context for the US women’s hockey and soccer teams sticking together and showing the world both what solidarity looks like and what can still be won. Yes, both battles predate the ascension of Donald Trump. But they don’t predate the poisonous sexism, the attacks on women’s reproductive rights, or the endless, violent and organized harassment of women on social media that fueled his rise. The idea that these women not only didn’t give up after the election but kept pushing should serve as inspiration to all of us. Women are currently the backbone of the resistance to Donald Trump. Labor needs to be on the front lines against an administration seeking to roll back even the meager rights that working people have. Perhaps these women in sports can be the connective tissue between the women’s movement and the labor movement.
I certainly never would have guessed the bridge between these struggles could be forged by soccer and hockey players. But athletes really do hate to lose, and we could all stand to walk with a little bit of that swagger. As former NFL player and union leader Dave Meggyesy once said to me: “We’re jocks. On the field or the picket line, we really hate to lose.”
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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