By Ryan Tibbens
Disclaimer -- This article took over a month to right, not for lack of ideas or research, but for lack of a conclusion. This ClassCast segment -- in which Jessica Berg and Ryan Tibbens discuss the US Soccer pay gap, women's sports, and more -- helps to explain the delay and some of the nuances (hopefully) addressed in this article: https://youtu.be/rf0xd68U0RI. Consider this ClassCast clip a companion to the essay below.
Let's get this out of the way: I support the US Women's National Soccer team and their fight for better compensation. If I had to guess, you probably do too. There are already TENS OF THOUSANDS of articles on that subject (really, just Google "US Women's Soccer Pay"), many of which, particularly in light of the women's 4th World Cup Championship, are overwhelmingly in favor of the women's pay demands. However, this is not one of those essays. Everyone on the planet has beaten me to it, including Uncle Snoop.
Besides, the concern about pay (Why is there a pay difference between male and female athletes who play the same sports?) isn't even the most interesting question. Most writers and pundits ask about pay, then dive into the nuances of wage scales, advertising revenues, attendance figures, winning percentages, civil rights, common decency, and the rest. They're right. Researched, reasoned argument is the only way to understand the basic question and make a fair decision. Unfortunately, their results are often misleading or incomplete because those people did not address the full dilemma. The most interesting question in this US Soccer situation is about structure: Why do we maintain separate men's and women's teams in the first place?
Your answer to this question becomes the foundation for your argument about equitable pay.
1) This essay focuses upon asking questions more than answering them. The ultimate goal is to arrive at an ethical, just answer that can be applied across similar disciplines. I'm certain other people will offer better answers than I can.
2) I am an upper-middle class, white, male teacher who played multiple sports and coached co-ed and girls' sports.
3) I have a daughter and a son, both of whom I hope compete in athletics some day. They deserve access to the same opportunities and experiences.
This is my problem: Questions beget questions. I can't begin to ask, and certainly can't answer, the question about sexual division of sports if I don't first understand the purpose of sport.
Remember that sport is, by definition, competition intended for recreation and/or entertainment. In an evolutionary sense, participation in athletics provides people opportunities to prove their physical and genetic fitness, but they are luxuries -- few people waste time on games when their next meal or shelter are uncertain. Plus, sports are fun. Most are fun to play recreationally AND fun to play more seriously, when practice and process become essential. In fact, most people play sports, or at least started playing, because they love the games; they are fun. This is no trivial matter. US Courts have repeatedly ruled on issues of equal access for people of various demographics and abilities in the arena of sport.
In Justice, philosophy professor Michael Sandel breaks down a sports controversy (the PGA and Casey Martin's request for a cart due to disability) by starting with the purpose of sport. Even though the Court sided with Martin, Justice Antonin Scalia dissented with words that ring on in every sports equity argument because he actually considered the purpose of sport.
Sandel writes, "Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed. In a spirited dissent, he rejected the notion that the Court could determine the essential nature of golf. His point was not simply that judges lack the authority or competence to decide the question. He challenged the Aristotelian premise underlying the Court’s opinion—that it is possible to reason about the telos, or essential nature of a game:
Sandel continues, "Since the rules of golf 'are (as in all games) entirely arbitrary,' Scalia wrote, there is no basis for critically assessing the rules laid down by the PGA. If the fans don’t like them, 'they can withdraw their patronage.' But no one can say that this or that rule is irrelevant to the skills that golf is meant to test."
If we understand that sport is, fundamentally, about recreation and entertainment, our thinking becomes more clear. Recreation implies that the participants are having fun, perhaps even playing in their spare time. Entertainment implies that the spectators are having fun. When it comes to large venues and televised games, entertainment can't be argued. And while some athletes play purely for money, most acknowledge that love for the game lives on. Through this lens, it seems that we have the problem backward -- the men are overpaid rather than the women underpaid. If this is simply for recreation, for "sport," then we can reasonably assume that most of the athletes would still participate, even if paid less. Considering the US Women's National Soccer team's roster, participation, success, AND pay complaints, we already have proof that skilled people will play the game for less. So maybe the men should make less?
For some, that solves the problem: we end the pay gap by reducing the men's pay. Most people don't love that, though. They want equality up, not down. They might point out that US Soccer, Nike, FIFA, and a few dozen other companies profit off these athletes' labor and images. They say that the athletes deserve a cut. This isn't just about fun. And that seems reasonable too. Big man Dr. Shaquille O'Neal (great basketball player, big personality, and savvy businessman who now holds a doctorate in education) understood the conflict between money and purity of the game early in his career when he joked: "I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok." After several successful seasons in the NBA, Shaq went back and finished his bachelors degree (and later his doctorate); at graduation, he told the crowd, "Now I can go and get a real job."
Unfortunately, we've reverted to the pay argument without resolving the root question. And that is dangerous because, based on viewership and financials, the women might be arguing from a position of weakness. Based purely on global viewership and profitability, women's soccer (even among great teams) is undeniably losing to men's. Even when raw numbers are meant to show women's soccer to be more lucrative, they don't take into account how many extra games women played to generate the advertising and attendance revenue. Regardless of data interpretation, none of these questions, about pay and sponsorship and the rest, can reasonably be solved if we don't first answer why the sexes are separated in sport.
I was blindsided by this question a couple of months ago. At that time, I wrote a short article about Castor Semenya and her fight with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. I ended that article by saying, "More [...] coming soon." But I never followed up because shortly after writing the article, two issues changed by thinking and my questions. I haven't forgotten the follow-up; I just haven't figured it out yet.
Here's why. First, Castor Semenya is intersex. To my knowledge, none of the major news or sports outlets covering the CAS/IAAF included details about Semenya's biology in their initial reporting. Based on those incomplete reports, masses of people (and I) were outraged that a woman with natural gifts would be handicapped or excluded, but that wasn't exactly the situation. While she demonstrates external characteristics of a female human, Semenya is 46XY, meaning that chromosomally, she is male. Her testosterone levels are in the typical male range and well above the normal female range. Also, many 46XY women have testes, often internal in place of ovaries, which boosts testosterone levels. The CAS's ruling about testosterone levels and participation do not apply to chromosomally normal women because no 'normal' woman has ever achieved a testosterone level high enough to break their threshold without significant performance-enhancing drugs. So Semenya has a choice: take a birth control pill (or comparable medicine) to lower her testosterone and compete as a woman, enter men's races, or race at events not regulated by CAS/IAAF. Suddenly the issue of "handicapping" a natural talent doesn't seem to fit the situation. And if the organization's ruling seems unfair, then perhaps it is because male and female athletes shouldn't be separated anyway.
That's the second reason I never revisited or concluded my Semenya piece: I ran into the question about sexual division of sports. It's not that the concept had never crossed my mind before. I've coached coed varsity golf teams as well as girl's JV softball and recreation events. But when responding to a friend's post about the Semenya decision, a well-meaning SJW challenged my position by questioning the sexual divisions. It soon became obvious that this man had never played nor coached competitive athletics and knew little about sport. I was ready to write off his concerns. But with only a little reflection, I realized that he had a point -- if we believe in the equality of the sexes, then why separate them at all?
Something I now try to teach in my rhetoric and argument classes is about premises and why to reject them. Too often we get tangled up in arguments that don't feel right, that don't allow us to fully answer or to explain the nuances of our answers. That is often because we've accepted someone else's premise. The argument about equal pay is built upon many, many assumptions, including that men and women should be paid equal wages for equal work and that sports should be segregated by sex. But I'm not sure either of those are fair here, and probably for the same reason.
Men and women are different. On average, men are taller, stronger, and faster; they have more lean skeletal muscle, denser bones, and more aggressive behaviors. If we accept those differences, then the sexual division of athletics makes sense. And perhaps we should. At the youth, high school, and even collegiate levels, participants often learn a variety of personal and life skills while building fitness, confidence, and friendships. If men and women competed together, it is likely that few young women would make varsity teams. Consider that "Just in the single year 2017, Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Tori Bowie's 100 meters lifetime best of 10.78 was beaten 15,000 times by men and boys. (Yes, that’s the right number of zeros.) The same is true of Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Allyson Felix’s 400 meters lifetime best of 49.26. Just in the single year 2017, men and boys around the world outperformed her more than 15,000 times." But what about in professional sports? As professionals, participants should be elite, the best of the best. If the men are that much better, faster, stronger, why do we maintain women's leagues and tournaments?
US Women's Soccer star Megan Rapinoe said, “I think we’re done with: Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? Is the market the same? Yada yada," adding, “We — all players, every player at this World Cup — put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We can’t do anything more, to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better, to do anything. It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.” But if we reject the premise that women should play separate from men, we have to ask -- is that true? Was it the most incredible show? Could someone play better? Again, I don't mean to be an ass -- I support the women's cause and believe they deserve a raise. But is equal pay really fair?
Another premise worthy of examination is that of collective bargaining. The men bargained hard for individual bonuses; they took greater risks in exchange for more aggressive pay scales. If a man makes the general roster but isn't dressed and on the field for a game, he receives no money. Women get paid for each game simply for being on the roster. Some of the pay differences are the result of different priorities and bargaining strategies. Which brings us back to a concerning premise -- whether men and women play together or not, why should they negotiate separately? They do the same job for the same company with the generally the same requirements. They are all elite athletes in their categories and they all equally represent the organization and United States. If we reject the premise of separate contract negotiations, then the pay disparity dissolves.
So it seems we've arrived at a conclusion, which is not really a conclusion at all. It is a series of questions that US Soccer, FIFA, the athletes, and the fans must all consider. What is the purpose of the sport? Why do men and women play separately? Why do men and women negotiate their contracts separately? I'm inclined to respond "for entertainment," "because it allows women to compete and enjoy too," and "because no one is thinking clearly."
So here's the solution. From now on, have all men's and women's players negotiate together. Players should be signing essentially the same contracts; they should be entitled to the same percentages of profits from jersey and merchandise sales, ticket sales, and TV advertising sales. If we base all this purely on physical might, then the men deserve most of the money. If we base it on previous labor agreements, then the men deserve most of the money. But if we acknowledge that the players on both teams support greater equality, then simply group them together as common employees for negotiation purposes. I'm still undecided on the sexual separation of professional sports. I'm still undecided on the entertainment-to-dollar value of professional sports. But I'm fully decided on this -- if the men and women work together in their contract negotiations, the pay gap will disappear, the equity and justice will increase, the conflict will dissolve, and the incentive for young men and women to compete will increase.
UPDATE: In this OPEN LETTER, US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro explains the collective bargaining differences between the men's and women's teams as well as the varied (and sometimes better) compensation the women receive. The conclusions above, regarding the premises of segregated sports and, more importantly, segregated bargaining, remain intact. But this statement is worth reading.
~~Don't forget to check out this segment from the ClassCast podcast, Episode 003~~
because no one else should do it for you.