I’m aggravated when people denigrate soccer because it’s my favorite sport — and because such sentiments are often rooted in a form of xenophobia in which generations have been expected to be culturally assimilated through our devotion to American sports like football, basketball and baseball.
I’m aggravated when people denigrate women’s sports because such sentiments are rooted in sexism. As with soccer, no one’s forcing you to play or watch, why put down anyone who makes a different choice?
I’m aggravated when people denigrate women’s soccer for any combination of the reasons above.
In case you don’t know my history covering women’s soccer, here are a few highlights:
- A book following the Washington Spirit through their debut season. I lost money on it. (To be fair, it wasn’t that good.)
- 2008 Olympic coverage for USA TODAY (revisited 10 years later for The Guardian)
- 2011 Women’s World Cup coverage for ESPN
- Coverage of Women’s Professional Soccer’s decline and fall, also for ESPN, where I picked up the skill of analyzing court documents and 990s.
- A column on the 1999 Women’s World Cup final
- Coverage of the 1997 NCAA Tournament (spoiler alert: North Carolina won)
- Stories on the Dark Ages between professional leagues
- My coverage actually started in college. Duke started a women’s soccer team my sophomore year. I wrote a good bit about the team my senior year.
So why did I write a piece for The Guardian talking about the U.S. women’s soccer team’s arrogance and their fans’ misguided hero worship?
Why have I written two pieces for Soccer America questioning the prevailing wisdom on equal pay in women’s soccer — not to question whether the women deserve to be paid more but to give people the information they need to make it happen?
Why have I spent a week creating a spreadsheet exploring how much the men’s and women’s national teams have made and would make, given different variables?
It could be a bit of OCD, which I think most traditional journalists have. People with OCD are agitated when other people aren’t following the rules. And yes, I’m agitated with the scapegoating of the U.S. men’s team, as if it’s somehow Christian Pulisic’s fault that FIFA’s World Cup bonuses are out of whack.
But mostly, it’s because I think facts matter, and I think people make bad decisions when they aren’t telling the truth or putting it in perspective. (Yes, the current period of American history is hell for me.)
So a few things are difficult to accept …
Distorted equal pay arguments
It’s one thing to say women’s soccer players should be paid better. You can certainly use my spreadsheet above and highlight inequities.
The distortion is the notion that “the women who win the Cup should be paid more than the men who didn’t qualify.” It’s a distortion because they are paid more.
That’s difficult for some people to accept because the narrative is so powerful. We hear “38 cents to the dollar,” and we don’t understand that such comparisons are only one of the myriad scenarios you could create on my spreadsheet.
If the men and women each won the World Cup (I have a book coming out in November saying one of those will never happen), the men would be paid many times more. You can certainly argue that it’s not fair. Then you can argue about whether U.S. Soccer can fix it while FIFA drags its feet on prize money. You can argue about whether the bulk of prize money, men or women, should be going to the next generation of athletes as well as the current one. (Olympic prize money — in fact, the revenue U.S. Soccer gets from the Olympics — is basically nothing, and yet the U.S. women get bonuses.) You can come up with many different ways to rectify the situation, which is why I built the calculator, but there’s no denying the situation exists.
But when the men don’t qualify, they don’t get paid. In my calculations, I see few, if any, men’s players making six figures in 2018. They might make it in 2019, helped by Gold Cup bonuses that are surprisingly low given the attendance for those games.
In other words — the women’s base salary of $100,000, before any bonuses or game fees are paid, is more than what men will make.
So griping that the women should be paid more than men in years such as this is a bit like saying summer in Virginia should be hot. It is.
A “double standard” on behavior
It’s not the first time this has happened in women’s soccer. A women’s soccer player (say, Hope Solo) is criticized for her behavior. We immediately hear men wouldn’t be criticized for such things. That’s simply not true.
These conversations are, of course, far too polarized. On one side, you have people who’ll defend nearly anything the women do.
I’m very suspicious of any such devotion to anyone. Megan Rapinoe. Kanye West. Donald Trump. The Instagram influencers who got people to go to the Fyre Festival.
The good part of all this is that it’s at least an effective counterweight to the other side — the sexist dirtbags who don’t want the women to be paid well. They don’t even want us journalists to be writing about them at all. I actually had a female editor once tell me to quit writing so much about women’s soccer.
Make no mistake — I’d rather see a bunch of people making a statement for women’s rights and gay rights than a team of dumbasses pledging fealty to Brazil’s president or the worst elements of ICE and the Border Patrol. And women have to put up with a lot of things men don’t, from glass ceilings to horrific abuse on Twitter.
But facts and proper context won’t undo any progress fighting against these forces. It’ll just put the movement on a firmer foundation.
So what I’m doing isn’t a “build up and tear down” thing. It’s a “build up” that recognizes complexity and nuance while trying to avoid dead ends.
Because we’ve been through this before. Everyone remembers 1999. Maybe 1996. Less likely, 2004. Few remember the doldrums of the mid-2000s, when we had no professional league and little interest in women’s soccer.
The people who pop up for the majors (World Cup, Olympics) will yell about equal pay without addressing the specifics. They’ll decry the “double standards” of those who raise even the slightest questions about celebrations — an interesting accusation to lob at Hope Solo, and one that fed the fire that made Kaylyn Kyle respond to death threats — before moving on the next story. Maybe Tom Brady will injure Eric Trump while playfully tossing a dinner roll at a White House dinner. Maybe Grayson Allen will pick up a technical foul. Maybe Bryce Harper will take a fastball in the ribs.
You won’t see these people at NWSL games, writing about whether the Portland Thorns/Timbers relationship is a new model for dual-gender professional sports organizations. You won’t see them analyzing the games to see that Julie Ertz had a much bigger impact on the USA’s wins than Megan Rapinoe. (Golden Ball voters really dropped the ball on that one.)
Maybe at some point, we’ll actually cover women’s soccer for what it is. It’s a sport. It has some athletes who’ve made a fortune and some who have second jobs, and in the NWSL, you may see the latter outperforming the former.
Alex Morgan and Marta are on the same team. They’re in eighth place. Out of nine. They missed the playoffs last year, too.
Women’s soccer is interesting. It’s not just a platform for skewed cries of sexism.
Check it out.