Gender Discrimination in Soccer: U.S. WNT Stands Up for Itself, Again

As you may remember, on October 1, 2014, an application was filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario on behalf of 80 international players on national teams participating in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The application argued gender discrimination, and suggested that artificial turf is substandard and would be unacceptable for men’s tournaments. The respondents were the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). The application was worked on by attorneys in Canada and the U.S., and withdrawn in January 2015, six months ahead of the start of the tournament.

In between the application and withdrawal “FIFA and CSA variously threatened protesting players with suspension, delayed a court decision despite the players’ need to know what surface the tournament would be held on so they could train accordingly, and suggested they would either defy an adverse legal ruling or cancel the tournament altogether. They also repeatedly rejected the players’ settlement offers—for example, to play just the semi-final and championship games on temporary grass surfaces with all installation costs covered by private companies” (source: The Atlantic, Hampton Dellinger, July 5, 2015).

In response to the withdrawal of the lawsuit, Abby Wambach (who retired from professional play after the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup) said: “our legal action has ended,  but I am hopeful that the players’ willingness to contest the unequal playing fields – and the tremendous public support we received during the effort – marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports” (source: The Globe and Mail, David Shoalts, January 21, 2015).

And indeed this activism has continued as the U.S. Women’s National Team (WNT) filed a claim on March 30, 2016 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. The five national team players involved are Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn – they are acting on behalf of the entire U.S. WNT.

As reported in espnW by Kate Fagan, “the U.S. women received a team total of $2 million when it won the World Cup last year in Canada. Yet when the U.S. men played in the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, the team earned a total of $9 million despite going just 1-2-1 and being knocked out in the round of 16” (source: espnW, Kate Fagan, April 1, 2016). This is just one example of the gross wage disparities between the women’s and men’s national teams.

Surprisingly, compensation between U.S. Soccer and the WNT are collectively bargained, and the labour union representing them (and all women soccer players) is the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association. Disputes between the union and U.S. Soccer has been on-going as the latter has argued that the current agreement is in effect until the end of the 2016 Olympics, while the former argues it can be terminated at any time (source: New York Times, Gregory Bull, February 8, 2016).

Here in Canada, the kind of activism that is being displayed by the U.S. WNT is unheard of for so many political, insidious and blatant reasons. It’d be unfair to point fingers at any one player, and the system itself can be incredibly dis-empowering to women, but Canada WNT players do have agency, and should have a vested interest in a successful result for the U.S. WNT. Cathal Kelly touched on this in the Globe and Mail and asked the CSA about their thoughts. Their response was “Canada Soccer is aware of the lawsuit launched today by members of the U.S. Women’s National Team. This action is specific to those individuals and U.S. Soccer and as such, Canada Soccer will not provide further comment”. Hmmmmmmmmmm …

As the story unfolds, the hope would be that not only does it make visible these angering and repeated acts of discrimination, but engage women’s soccer in Canada in a more complex, honest and accountable public conversation about the impact of sexism, and other discrimination in sport.

To read more about the U.S. WNT application against U.S. Soccer filed last week, go to Andrew Das’ article in the New York Times or visit espnW for full and on-going coverage.

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