by Richard C. Crepeau

MARCH 11, 2019       archive

Some things are changed but somehow never change. Inertia is a powerful force especially when abetted by human resisters. One example of this phenomenon can be found in the many issues in and around woman's sport or, perhaps more accurately, sport and gender. One of the prominent recent showcases of this tendency is found in Women's Soccer.

This past week International Women's Day was celebrated worldwide. Also, this past week, twenty-eight members of the U.S. women's soccer team filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in District Court in Los Angeles. Team members charged the U.S. Soccer Federation with "institutionalized gender discrimination" that affects pay, coaching, where they play, when they play, training conditions, and travel.

It seems as if these issues have been on the table for decades, and looking back through my files, I have found numerous occasions when I have written on this subject. The first was in 1991 after the U.S. Women had won the first women's world championship in China. The star of the game was Michelle Akers who played her college soccer at the University of Central Florida. At the time, she was considered the greatest player in the world.

I invited Michelle to speak to my sport history class at UCF. After describing the championship game and the fans, Akers turned her attention to the U.S. Soccer officials. When the U.S. women returned from China, there was no one at the airport to welcome them. Many U.S. Soccer officials were angry that the women had won. They wanted the men's team to take the U.S. soccer spotlight, and they wanted no one to intrude. So, when the women won the World Championship, soccer officials refused to honor the victory. Instead the women were treated as if they were an uninvited guest at a posh dinner party.

Akers went on to discuss the various ways in which the Women's team had been slighted. The list remains a familiar one: inferior practice facilities; inferior travel arrangements; and almost no support to help them survive financially while they practiced and competed for their country. No attempt was made to find sponsors, and Akers suspected that sponsors were actively discouraged from supporting the women's team. U.S. Soccer's publicity was all directed toward the men's team.

It was typical of the wholesale discrimination against women's sport that still prevailed in the United States in 1991. And, looking at this week's filing in District Court in Los Angeles, it is remarkable how little the issues have changed.

Over several years, case after case of gender discrimination and the second class treatment of women has made headlines. In September of 2014, FIFA President Sepp Blatter refused to support women in their objection to playing the 2015 World Cup on artificial turf. Putting grass over the artificial turf was not a problem when English Premiership teams came to the U.S. for exhibition games or on several other occasions, but it couldn't be done for the Women's World Cup.

If last week's law suit sounds strangely familiar, it may be because in April of 2016 the U.S. Women sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over nearly the same issues. A year later, the U.S. Women's Soccer players were able to complete negotiations of a five year collective bargaining agreement with US Soccer. This resulted in substantial pay increases with bonus opportunities. Travel, accommodations and working conditions were agreed upon, and the women gained control of some licensing and marketing rights. Equal pay with the men was not achieved, but it was felt by some that major advances had been made. The current lawsuit indicates the advances had not been fully implemented.

So, here we are looking at this latest lawsuit enumerating the same problems and issues that have not changed much over the past few decades. The U.S. men's soccer team continues to get preferential treatment from U.S. Soccer despite the continuation of the pattern of success for U.S. women and failure for the U.S. men on the international soccer scene.

In other sports, the patterns are also familiar. There are major differences of pay in golf, in basketball and, despite improvements in pay for USA women team members, in hockey. Tennis is one area where there is some semblance of equal pay. At the four grand slam events and three other major tournaments, prize money is equal. However, at the lesser tournaments, inequality of prize money prevails. On the list of overall winnings for women in tennis, women earn about eighty percent of what men earn. Endorsement earnings in all sports echo this familiar pattern.

Sometimes, change can come in the most unexpected ways. Riley Morrison, a nine year-old girl from Napa, California, wrote to Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors in November pointing out that his basketball shoes from Under Armour were not available in girls sizes. Her father posted the letter on Instagram and in short order Curry had the letter in his hands. He responded to Riley and talked to Under Armour.

The result is a new shoe line and listings of all Under Armour basketball products for both girls and boys, Riley received an invitation to come to the Golden State game against Denver this past Friday as Curry's guest. Profits from the new line are being used to fund a two year college scholarship for a female high school graduate. The new shoe line, the scholarship winner, and Riley Morrison were all on hand for a presentation at the game, which was billed as a celebration of International Women's Day.

Even with the mercenary element to all this, it was still an actual change, and one that Steff Curry and Riley Morrison will not allow Under Armour to walk back. It is telling, however, that the marketing department at Under Armour had to be given instructions by a nine year old to notice their gender oversight.

In the end, there have been changes, but one can only wonder about the long term impact. Will the old adage, the more things change, "the more they will remain the same," prove more enduring than any changes that are made in the world of women's sport?

On Sport and Society this is Dick Crepeau reminding you that you don't have to be a good sport to be a bad loser.

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