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Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy consultant. She wrote this column for Bloomberg Opinion.
The U.S. national women’s soccer team is worth watching, not only as the favorites to win this year’s Women’s World Cup. They’re also at the forefront of a struggle for better treatment of workers — one that extends far beyond sports, and that is far from over.
Team USA has earned the rare distinction of getting paid as much as their country’s male team, an achievement that inspired legislation ensuring that all athletes representing the country internationally receive equal pay and benefits. Yet this is more than a heartwarming story about women’s progress. It should draw global attention to a stark reality: how soccer federations, and employers more broadly, continue to actively and deliberately wield power to keep workers paid less and treated worse, for their own benefit.
At least a third of the teams playing in the World Cup are in active dispute with the governing institutions for soccer in their countries. For example:
England’s Lionesses are fighting for bonuses based on how far they advance, which FIFA announced that all World Cup players would receive. Their country’s federation has denied them such performance-related pay, despite standing to gain commercially from their success.
Australia’s Matildas are protesting FIFA’s two tiers of pay and working conditions, which force women to fight for basic benefits, like not having to do their own laundry or playing on turf.
Last year, 15 senior players quit Spain’s La Roja over their coach’s approach to management and team culture. Their federation yielded nothing, and now three of them are playing in the cup alongside teammates who either didn’t support or eagerly replaced the protesters.
Canada, the reigning Olympic champions, are fighting mismanagement and its myriad effects on pay and morale. When they tried to refuse matches earlier this year, they were forced to play under threat of legal action. Their federation lacks basic transparency and is cutting budgets and investment, even as the team performs better than ever.
The athletes’ woes should sound familiar to workers throughout the economy, regardless of gender. Screenwriters and actors are striking over residuals for streaming rights, which accrue almost entirely to management and owners. Starbucks has a long track record of punishing, firing and replacing workers who attempt to unionize. Nurses across the U.S. have been reduced to striking over mismanagement and dangerous caseloads, despite their heroic efforts to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All these struggles are fundamentally about power — something the members of the U.S. women’s soccer team understand too well. Almost every one of them has played under a coach who was later fired for abusive, exploitative or sexually coercive behavior. An investigation by former acting Attorney General Sally Yates found that the National Women’s Soccer League and U.S. Soccer knowingly ignored sexual and emotional abuse, that coaches fired for such misconduct were rehired by other teams, and that players were dropped from rosters when they came forward for help and protection. The Yates report has spurred investigations into youth leagues, where many of the guilty coaches got their start.
No doubt, the U.S. national team has changed the world for women. They’ve waged a successful fight for pay and recognition while inspiring girls everywhere to dream big and play hard. But casting this as a women’s victory is selling them short. They and others remain engaged in a much bigger battle, taking on monopolistic entities with almost total control over worker outcomes and shocking disregard for their financial, physical and mental well-being. It’s a battle that won’t end even if equal pay is achieved.