Players on the U.S. Women’s National Team have earned their stardom. Drawing 20 million viewers and inspiring Nike’s highest-selling soccer jersey are just two signs of the team’s devoted fan base and star power.
Yet even with a massive platform and outpouring of public support—including from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress, who recently invited the team to Washington, D.C.—these athletes are still battling for pay equality. Why?
Before we get there, let’s back up and review how U.S. women came to rule the world of soccer—better still, let’s consider the history of U.S. female athletes in general. Because much like the fight for equal pay, this is a story rooted in gender discrimination, public policies and the time-honored tradition of legal advocacy.
When Megan Rapinoe and her teammates visit the Capitol later this summer, they’ll be returning to the place where this chapter in the history of women’s sports began. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act. Championed by late Congress member Patsy Mink, the law bans discrimination based on sex in educational institutions receiving federal funds, and it is best known for ensuring equal athletic opportunities for girls and boys.
By requiring that schools invest in girls’ sports, the U.S. jump-started a huge pool of athletic talent. Nearly 50 years later, while much of the world plays catch-up, Title IX can claim World Cups and Olympic gold medals as part of its legacy.
The year before Title IX was enacted, there were around 293,000 girls playing sports in high schools across the country. This might sound like a lot—until you compare that number to the over 3.6 million boys playing at the same time. It wasn’t because girls didn’t want to play; they simply did not have the opportunity. Fewer than 15,000 schools offered teams female athletes could join.
Now, thanks to Title IX, there are more than 312,600 schools with girls’ teams. While male athletic participation has increased 25 percent since 1971, female participation has exploded—by 1,063 percent. Over 3.4 million high school girls are now donning everything from shin guards to wrestling headgear to fencing jackets, and even football helmets.
The result is practically inevitable: More women are also playing professional sports and competing on world stages. More women’s events have steadily been added to the Olympic games and, in 2016, women outnumbered men on Team U.S.A. And they took home more gold medals. For the second Olympics in a row. Proof that female athletes play hard, they win and they are marketable.
Some of today’s most headline-grabbing names in sports are women: Serena Williams, Danika Patrick, Ronda Rousey. Now Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan join their ranks. Encouraged by a growing fanbase, sponsorships for female athletes are steadily on the rise—though still far below what men make.
Which brings us back to the U.S. Women’s National Team team—and money.
For not the first time, players on the USWNT are in a dispute over compensation. Twenty-eight members are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging they are paid less than their male counterparts despite doing the same work. And with good reason: the maximum prize each female player can take home is $200,000, while the men can earn as much as $1,114,429. This is especially infuriating when considering the women have won four World Cup titles. The men have won zero.
It’s a familiar story that resonates with working women everywhere. On average, women in America get paid 80 cents to every dollar a man makes. For women of color, the gap is much wider: African-American women earn 61 cents and Latinas just 53 cents for each dollar paid to a white man. And the actual gender pay gap is in reality much larger—after taking into account bonuses, pensions, benefit packages and other cash and non-cash earnings men enjoy at higher rates than women.
And while it may seem obvious why fair compensation matters, it’s an especially glaring injustice when considering what pay inequality does to a woman over the course of her lifetime. On average, women miss out on $590,000 that their male counterparts make. It’s no surprise that nearly two-thirds of elderly people living in poverty are women.
Legal and policy advocacy and sports have gone hand-in-hand for a long time. Early on in Title IX’s history, the NCAA and others sued—unsuccessfully—for exemption from the athletic provision. Then the federal bodies in charge of oversight dragged their feet on implementation, and effectively ceased enforcement. At one point the Supreme Court even invalidated a portion of the law, a part that has since been restored but only after a years-long fight by women’s rights groups to pass the Civil Rights Restoration Act. At every turn, individuals and advocacy groups have fought back. And progress has been made.
Pay equality is no different. The federal Equal Pay Act of 1962 prohibits wage discrimination based on sex, but in practice it has not been a final solution. At the California Women’s Law Center, we frequently represent women experiencing wage discrimination. And we litigate multiple lawsuits annually defending the rights of girls to play sports on campus.
Our commitment to Title IX is about more than winning trophies. Girls who play sports are more likely to graduate high school and earn a college degree. The correlation between athletic participation and career success is hard to deny: 94 percent of women in C-suite positions played sports.
In more ways than one, the players on the U.S. Women’s National Team are carrying a torch passed by generations of trailblazing athletes and activists. When they visit D.C. and stand in the halls of Congress, they will serve testament both to the success of Title IX—and to the unfinished road to gender equality.
Much like winning World Cup titles, advancing justice takes hard work and persistence. Title IX was a big step towards advancing gender equality in our country. The thunderous chants of “Equal Pay!” after the U.S. World Cup victory signal that our next one is overdue.