It’s 2021 and the US women’s soccer team is fighting for equal pay – the sport has a serious problem

A new film follows the years-long legal fight over equal pay these elite female athletes have endured with their employer

Jade Bremner
Wednesday 08 September 2021 09:10
Soccer player Megan Rapinoe testifies on equal pay at the White House

Any woman who has fought for a pay rise, or enjoyed Battle of the Sexes, or the brilliant Made in Dagenham, will sympathise with the plight of the US women’s national soccer team.

LFG, a new film named after the team’s rallying cry, “Let’s F**king Go”, follows the years-long legal fight over equal pay these elite female athletes have endured with their employer. And – spoiler alert – there’s no happy Hollywood ending. America’s national women’s team is still tirelessly battling for equal pay, despite consistently outperforming their male counterparts.

The US women’s national soccer team (USWNT) has won four World Cups, four Olympic gold medals and an intimidatingly long list of other accolades. They are unquestionably more successful on the world stage than the US men’s national soccer team and, as they claim in their lawsuit, they generate more money for the US Soccer Federation (USSF). But, bonus for bonus, the men’s team gets paid more.

“This story is the same everywhere – women get paid less to do the same job,” says Megan Rapinoe, the team’s political purple-haired poster girl, who famously refused to visit the White House while Donald Trump was president.

The documentary follows the players’ legal case as they attempt to sue the USSF, which is responsible for divvying up the bonus money Fifa gives out for winning a major tournament. Scenes document the women’s other struggles and disparities along the way, from being required to play domestic games on artificial turf, tougher on a player’s body than natural grass (while male players get natural grass), as well as getting lower quality flights and staying in lower quality hotels than the men.

“A large majority of my teammates in the Women’s Super League [the highest league in women’s football] do not make a liveable wage,” says US centre back Becky Sauerbrunn. US forward Jessica McDonald explains that for part of her football career she was making around $15,000 a year, and packing boxes at Amazon on the side for $12 an hour. “Even though I’m on the USA women’s team, I have to coach to make end’s meet,” McDonald says, explaining she would frequently bring her toddler to training, because she couldn’t afford childcare.

The most shocking part of the film is the blatantly chauvinistic defence the federation comes up with for not paying their female players equally. “The job of a men’s national team player (competing against senior men’s national teams) requires a higher level of skill, based on speed and strength, than does the job of WNT player (competing against senior women’s national teams),” read the court filing, submitted when Carlos Cordeiro was president of the USSF.

“This ridiculous ‘argument’ belongs in the Paleolithic era. It sounds as if it has been made by a caveman,” Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the USWNT said in response.

The same irrelevant arguments are continually put forward against equal pay in sport – women aren’t as strong, don’t run as fast. Why would it matter if they are not physically as strong as men? They are not competing against them. If women had been given the only access to sports for hundreds of years, they too could find physiological excuses to exclude men – they’re not as flexible or agile, for example. It’s redundant. Men have defined what is admirable in sport because they control it. Don’t women, who make up 50 per cent of the population, deserve opportunities and idols?

In the UK, the FA even banned women from playing football after the First World War. Women’s football had become phenomenally popular – games were drawing huge crowds, with more than 50,000 spectators. Women kept the country running and the sport alive. But women were shoved back into the kitchen, and the FA deemed the sport “unsuitable for females” over fears women’s football would become more popular than men’s. The women’s game was stifled until 1969, when the FA finally lifted the ban.

Another common argument for not paying women equally: women’s sport doesn’t bring in as much money. The USWNT has ardently rejected this in their case, insisting they make more money for the federation than the men’s team.

More generally, one could also ask: has as much money been invested in women’s sport? Women are rarely given the same platform, facilities, training programmes, grants. Hell, in many countries women are forbidden from even kicking a football. The more money invested, the more growth.

The difference a large platform made to the popularity of the Women’s World Cup in France 2019 was undeniable. I was in China for the 2007 Germany v Brazil Women’s World Cup final – the stadium was soul-crushingly empty, thanks to minimal promotion and coverage. Fast forward to 2019: the World Cup in France was shown on primetime TV and watched by more than one billion viewers worldwide.

“We’ve represented what women can be, when given a certain platform,” says Sauerbrunn on LFG. With the momentum of a successful tournament behind it, women’s football reached new heights. A pre-pandemic international friendly between England and Germany at Wembley saw a record attendance for a women’s game in England, with more than 77,700 people in the stands. The atmosphere was palpable – mums, dads and families all utterly engaged. There was solidarity; sons and daughters cheering on the Lionesses, redefining the sport together.

But cesspits of misogyny still remain in football. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that the beautiful game lags behind so many other sports when it comes to equal pay. A 2021 BBC study analysed the prize money of 48 different sports. Commendably, the majority of elite-level sports now offer equal prize money for men and women, but football has the most obscene gender pay gap of all. The US women’s team won $4m at the 2019 Fifa World Cup, compared to France’s men taking home $38m in 2018.

Unfortunately for the USWNT players, in 2020 a federal judge was in favour of the US Soccer Federation. He ruled that the women did not have a case for equal pay, because in their contracts they had agreed to a different pay structure.

“I’m so f**king sick of debating my own worth,” explains a deflated Rapinoe in the movie – something women the world over can relate to, regardless of their career. “Obviously, the point that I feel like the judge missed was that we never had the opportunity to agree to the same deal.”

Ahead of the television premiere of LFG on Monday, the new president of the US Soccer Federation Cindy Parlow Cone admitted on CNN that the federation had made “mistakes in the past” and claimed she wants to “look forward”. Could this be a turning point?

The truth is, this is so much bigger than the US women’s soccer case. Systemic and cultural change is needed in sport. A message to male football fans, male players, male managers, and the men who run clubs: it’s time to invest in female talent and be allies in the fight for equal pay. Be on the right side of history. Persuade your peers to change their archaic views, because equal pay for women does not mean lower pay for you; it doesn’t take away your enjoyment of the game – it means more sport and opportunities for the next generation. “If they win,” says Rapinoe of misogynists, “no one wins.”

LFG premieres on CNN at 9pm ET and will air in the UK later this year