Chivalry is not dead: US Soccer’s unfair labor agreement

In a landmark agreement, members of the U.S. men’s national soccer team have agreed to pool their World Cup prize money with the women’s team. Call it solidarity, call it charity, but please don’t call it equality. 

Men should keep earning more than women from their World Cup participation because the men’s tournament generates much more profit. The situation is not unique to the World Cup, but applies to national soccer leagues, basketball and most other professional sports.  

Men’s sports generate more money because people are typically more interested in watching men compete. There are some sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, where women athletes tend to attract more interest. That is the reason why many of the highest-earning professional figure skaters are women. But the NBA is about 50 times more popular than the WNBA, and there are no women’s pro leagues in the other major spectator sports in America — football, baseball and ice hockey.    

Why are people more interested in watching men compete? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that male athletes are generally superior to women in most athletic pursuits.

Years ago, when tennis super stars Serena and Venus Williams played a low-ranking male tennis player on a practice court at the Australian Open, the man beat them both handily. When the U.S. women’s soccer team played against a team of teenage boys in 2017, the women’s team lost. Why were they even scrimmaging against 14-year-old boys in preparation for the World Cup? Presumably, the boys’ team from Dallas was considered a decent approximation of their international competition.

Biological differences in strength, speed and stamina are the reason most sports are segregated by sex. If women were competitive against men, women would not be demanding more money, they would be demanding the end of segregation. Professional baseball used to be segregated by race; Black players were excluded from Major League Baseball (MLB) until about 75 years ago, preventing them from earning their fair share of the revenue generated by “America’s pastime.” This was a clear and grotesque example of inequality. In response, Black athletes did not ask the MLB players to share their profits with the Negro leagues; they demanded equal access to the MLB. That was a fair solution to systemic discrimination.       

I hail from Finland, a country that is frequently considered one of the most gender-equal in the world. In 2019, the Finnish ombudsman for equality concluded that the Finnish national soccer association did not discriminate against women by compensating men at a much higher rate. The decision was informed by the observation that only the men’s national team generated profit. Some of this profit was used to sponsor the women’s team, which was found to be losing money for the organization. Apparently, Finnish society remains open to the theory that merit justifies unequal outcomes.     

Although the path-breaking labor agreement within U.S. Soccer has been greeted as a sign of progress, it sends exactly the wrong message to the women and girls of America: If you can’t compete with men – if you are unable to perform at the same level – you can always count on the chivalry of men.  

Whatever the men end up earning from playing for the national team is only a fraction of what they make as professional athletes in Major League Soccer and the European leagues. At least for now, that source of their income is based on market forces rather than the court of public opinion. I suspect that is the main reason the men agreed, however begrudgingly, to sign this contract. They just want this thing to go away already. 

Jukka Savolainen is a Heterodox Academy writing fellow and a sociology professor at Wayne State University, where he teaches sociology of sport.  

Tags Sports and Politics women's sports women's soccer Women's World Cup

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