Protesting the FIFA pay gap

Look! Up in the sky! It’s … a banner protesting unequal pay between the men’s and women’s World Cups!

Yes, such a banner flew at the U.S. women’s ticker-tape parade on Friday.

That plane flew for three hours, over this route:

Flight map

So here are some questions:

  • Is this the most effective means of protesting?
  • What’s the goal?
  • What’s the likely outcome?

Maybe I haven’t spent enough time in Manhattan, but I’m a little skeptical of an airplane banner as a means of protest with such a distracting skyline. When I think of airplane banners on the beach, advertising the latest seafood specials nearby. Planes sometimes fly over stadiums in an effort to get the coach fired. (I know, I know — the pro/rel guy wasted some money on it as well.)

But UltraViolet also brought its message to ground level, which looks a little more effective from a distance:

Another issue: Is this really taking the message to FIFA? To my knowledge, no FIFA officials went to New York to honor the U.S. team. I’d hope the money went toward the parade, not putting up some Executive Committee member in a five-star hotel. And it’s a safe bet Sepp Blatter wasn’t there.

Perhaps, though, the banners will inspire some people to join UltraViolet’s more conventional (by 21st century standards) protests, petitioning and reaching out through social media. Molly Haigh, whose tweet you see above, explained by email:

FIFA officials have been hearing from our members since we launched this campaign–in the form of petition signatures, comments, phone calls and social media outreach–and that will continue as we go forward.

The next question: Is pay equality an attainable goal? In some sports, yes. If you’re the overall winner in your discipline in track and field’s Diamond League, you get $40,000 and a nice trophy, whether you’ve won the men’s 100 meters or the women’s triple jump or anything else. Grand Slam tennis champions get equal pay, even though women play only three sets max.

Most individual sports in this BBC study were even — the exceptions were golf, ski jumping (if you don’t remember that fight, refresh your memory), certain cycling events, and the one we’re talking about here, football.

So give the International Olympic Committee and international organizations some credit. In most of our lifetimes, female Olympic athletes have had as much access to fame and fortune as the men. Think Lindsey Vonn, Michelle Kwan, Marion Jones, Misty May/Kerri Walsh, and so on. Even a Romanian like Nadia Comenici can garner global attention.

Team sports are trickier.

Part of the issue: Men’s team sports are huge. Gargantuan. Immense vortices of money and media. The Women’s World Cup does well in the USA. The men’s World Cup does well in every country with functioning televisions.

So asking for equality on the World Cup front is tough. We might be better off asking why FIFA gives prize money at all rather than sinking the revenue back into developing the game. Men’s players may strike if their home federations aren’t paying them (sadly, not all that rare), but I don’t think anyone is going to pass up the World Cup because the bonus money isn’t high enough.

In women’s soccer, the national team players in the USA and several European countries aren’t the ones who need the money. It’s everyone else.

Women’s soccer needs to catch up in so many ways. One is the talent pool for the national team. The U.S. men have entire camps in January — the now-legendary “Camp Cupcake” — that bring fringe players into the mix. Aside from Stanford player Jordan Morris, all of the men have solid salaries in MLS or Europe.

In other words: Women’s soccer needs the NWSL. We need an expanded player pool. We also need players to compete. The rust on Abby Wambach’s game during this World Cup should reinforce the importance of playing club competition, as other players were doing while Wambach trained on her own.

No one wants to be the one to advise well-intentioned protesters to scale back their demands. “A dream deferred is a dream denied” and so forth. In this case, though, it’s not necessarily a question of letting FIFA off the hook. FIFA does women’s soccer wrong in general. By all means, keep yelling at Zurich.

But the more immediate need is right here. The bonus money for U.S. national team players is as much about symbolism as anything else. The pressing problem is the salaries for NWSL players, many of whom play for less than $10,000 a season.

That needs to change. And you don’t get that done by yelling at people who’ve given a lot of money already to give a lot more. You get that done by getting the tens of millions of people who followed the Women’s World Cup in the USA to pay at least a little bit of attention to the league.

UltraViolet does have plans on that front, Haigh says: “Our members will be making their voices heard to any and every entity that has a stake in women’s soccer. We are huge fans.”

Great. Because if we don’t have a professional league in this country, U.S. players and fans are far less likely to see whatever checks they’re handing out to the winners, anyway. The countries that have figured out how to play pro soccer will gladly pocket that money.

 

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