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Equal pay arguments rest on unequal playing field

suspect I will get in trouble for saying this, even though it would clearly seem a logically and morally grounded statement: Men and women should get equal pay for equal competence at the same job. 

As compellingly simple as this proposition might seem, merit today has become devalued, undermined by identity politics and political correctness. One can see this not only in discussions of race but also gender, where the solution many liberals have for undeniable historic racism and sexism is to compensate for those evils through reverse racism and sexism. 

As a case in point, let’s consider the current controversy over alleged gender discrimination toward the United States women’s national soccer team.

First, let me say that, like several million other viewers, I watched the U.S. women’s 2-0 World Cup victory over the Netherlands on July 7 and was thrilled with their success, impressed with their play and captivated by the personalities on the team. Later that night, I watched a rather boring loss by the United States men’s national soccer team in a Gold Cup match against Mexico for the North, Central American and Caribbean championship.

No doubt, the women’s game was far more interesting. But were the American women “better” than their male counterparts? 

The 28 members of the U.S. women’s soccer team argued they were at least equal, as they filed in March in a federal class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for paying the women less than members of the men’s national team “for substantially equal work and by denying them equal playing, training and travel conditions … and other terms and conditions of employment equal to the” men’s national team.

The lawsuit continues: “Despite the fact that these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the USSF, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts. This is true even though their performance has been superior … with the female players, in contrast to the male players, becoming world champions.”

Although calculating relative pay is somewhat complicated, undoubtedly there has been a substantial gender gap. The men’s player association was able to negotiate a better deal with the USSF than the women’s union. Under the collective bargaining agreement that took effect in April 2017, during the course of a typical year a player on the women’s team “would earn $28,333 less, or about 89 percent of the compensation of a similarly situated men’s team player.” (“Are U.S. Women’s Soccer Players Really Earning Less Than Men?” Washington Post, July 8). 

The pay gap is especially problematical when it comes to the World Cup, which is contested every four years. However, it is not the USSF but FIFA, the governing body of soccer internationally, that determines the pay structure. FIFA cites statistics showing that the men’s game enjoys more worldwide popularity and generates more revenue than the women’s game. The Women’s World Cup has had trouble attracting a billion viewers worldwide, whereas almost half the planet – 3.5 billion people – watched the 2018 Men’s World Cup.

The total prize money for the 2019 Women’s World Cup was $30 million, while the 2018 Men’s World Cup remuneration totaled roughly $400 million. Players on the U.S. women’s team earned $250,000 each, while each player on the U.S. men’s team, which did not qualify for the tournament in 2018, would have earned $1.1 million.  

Efforts are underway at both the national and international level to rectify the gender pay disparity, but few expect we will see complete equality.

The question remains: Do the women deserve to be paid as much as the men, on the merits?

It is true that the U.S. women’s team has won the World Cup four times, including most recently, while the U.S. men’s team has never won the World Cup and did not even qualify last year. Moreover, the 2015 Women’s World Cup game between the United States and Japan, won by the U.S., was the most watched soccer game in American TV history until this year’s ratings exceeded that record. 

It should be noted that one reason the U.S. women’s team has outperformed the men’s team in winning championships is that women’s soccer, at least until recently, has not had much of a presence outside North America. FIFA’s 2014 Women’s Football Survey showed the number of registered female players in all of Europe was less than the combined number in the U.S. and Canada, while “the rest of the world accounts for just 9 percent of registered players.” (Fox News, July 5).

Getting back to the matter of “competence,” does anyone seriously think that the U.S. women’s soccer team could defeat the U.S. men’s soccer team, any more than the best women’s football team, any more than the best women’s football team could defeat a cellar-dwelling men’s NFL team or the WNBA women’s basketball champion could defeat the worst NBA team?  As wonderful are athletes such as U.S. women’s soccer team stars Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan – and make no mistake, they are exceptional – it is highly unlikely they could compete with Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore or any of their teammates on the U.S. men’s team. 

Is the argument that women in any sport should get equal pay with male counterparts, so that the female baseball players in “a league of their own” should have received the same pay as the Bronx Bombers and other Major League Baseball teams? Really? Even if the argument is that the women are as marketable as the men, does anybody think the U.S. women’s soccer team would continue attracting large viewership if they started losing in the World Cup competition? If both the men and the women’s soccer teams were equally successful, who do you think would be more marketable? 

The reality is that most sports, including soccer, have at their core an element of physicality that tends to give men an edge in performance. Unfair as that might be, it would seem a fact. At a time when we complain about our president and others ignoring facts, can we at least admit the obvious? (I know, I know, I am forgetting Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King, never mind it pitted a 55-year-old against a 29-year-old in a noncontact sport.) 

Sexism remains a serious problem in the United States, and every effort should be made to assure equal pay for equal work. Neither men nor women are served well by questionable assessments of the demands made by various jobs.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.