Thank You, Megan Rapinoe! Advancing Pay Equity in Sports 

Megan Rapinoe walks off the field after beating Angel City FC 1-0 at Lumen Field on October 20, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

When Megan Rapinoe played her final match for the U.S. women’s national team this past September, I thought back to that landmark 2016 lawsuit she led—along with teammates Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo and Becky Sauerbrunn—for pay equity in women’s soccer. 

They persisted against million-dollar lobbying campaigns, expensive counter-lawsuits, and vicious attacks on social media, and they scored a big result. But what they achieved affects far more than the salaries of elite athletes. It is helping to change the conversation about economic justice in every profession. Nine out of ten occupations, from retail to business to professional sports, continue to pay women less than men on average.   

The players’ lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) led to a historic agreement in 2022 on a new 50-50 split that pays women and men on the national soccer teams the same salary and prize money, including participating at FIFA World Cups, as well as returning $22 million in back pay to the women’s team players. 

United States fans hold up an equal pay sign in game action during an international friendly match between the United States woman’s national team and the New Zealand women’s national team on May 16, 2019 at Busch Stadium, in St. Louis, MO. (Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The soccer players’ long years of battle with their employer and the sport’s national governing body made this team an inspiration and a resource for other women’s sports organizations in the U.S. and around the globe. Ice hockey gold medalists, Canadian soccer professionals, and WNBA players turned to the United States National Women’s Team (USNWT) and its union during their fights for better contracts. The national teams from Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands won commitments for pay equity. 

In tennis, the US Open, the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, has offered equal prize money since 1973. And now, the Women’s Tennis Association, pushed by Billie Jean King for nearly 50 years, is committed to equal pay and the same tournament purses for major men’s and women’s tennis events by 2033. 

But this is just the beginning. Pay equity in sports must be widened to address the efforts for economic justice across the board because gender issues are woven into every aspect of inequality.   

Sports can inspire, motivate, and shape standards of behavior. To ensure that these influences go beyond the playing field, all of us must not only commit but endeavor to gender equality at every level. 

Still today, women make only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, and this pay gap is even wider for women of color, who earn only 68 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. 

Today’s conversations about pay equity in sports and other professions are important because they highlight how gender shapes power—who has it, who is kept from it, and how it is wielded to protect a privileged few.   

Closing the pay equity gap in sports will not change the stereotypes that still discriminate against girls for pursuing certain sports, like football, or double standards about sports uniforms, like the Norwegian women’s beach handball team that was fined for refusing to wear bikini bottoms, or the Welsh Paralympian who was told her briefs were “too short and inappropriate.” It will not change the racism and abuse Black athletes like Serena Williams face when competing in a predominantly white sport for how they conduct themselves on and off the field. 

That is why I am so committed to intersectional feminism and economic justice. And that commitment is urgently needed in the workplace, the boardroom, and in the halls of Congress. 

This commitment begins with Congress finally passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which will help ensure that workers are paid the same amount for the same work.  

Among other provisions, this Act would prohibit employers from using salary history, which can set women on a path of being underpaid through the rest of their career; require employers to prove any pay disparities are a “business necessity” or “job-related;” and update class action lawsuit provisions to make it easier to combat systemic sex-based wage discrimination. 

This legislation will get the ball rolling for equal pay. And while attention is finally being paid to women’s sports, women are still not paid what they deserve. Megan Rapinoe knows it, and she proved it in court. We know it and must use our collective power, from the soccer stadiums to the C-suites to the tennis courts to the restaurant kitchens, to demand equal pay for equal work. 

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Christian F. Nunes became NOW president in August 2020. She was previously appointed vice president by the board in May 2019. She is the second African American president in the organization’s history, the youngest person of color, and the youngest president in more than 40 years.