As most sport is halted as a safeguard during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the last football matches to be played was the SheBelieves Cup final where word champions USA triumphed yet again.
But this match is important for more reasons than sport. Before the final, the US team wore their training jersey inside out in protest. The message was simple – they do not represent the United States Soccer Federation. How could they, after knowing what the federation actually thought of them?
Days before, the USSF had claimed the women’s national team was inferior to the men’s and therefore didn’t deserve equal pay. In a legal filing during the women’s team’s gender discrimination lawsuit, the federation said the women’s team is less skilled and has less responsibility compared to the men.
They further added that this was based on “indisputable science” which suggested that playing for the men’s team “requires a higher level of skill and speed” and that it wasn’t “a sexist stereotype.”
This statement clearly crossed a line and was rightly criticised. The players, led by Ballon d’Or winner Megan Rapinoe, slammed US Soccer for using “blatant misogyny and sexism” as a legal point while people on social media compared it to how a typical internet troll would react. A number of sponsor brands such as Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Budweiser, Visa, and Deloitte, also stood with the women’s team. The US men’s team has publicly supported the cause for a while now.
In response, US Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro resigned for the choice of words. But the damage was done.
The argument that women are less skilled and have fewer responsibilities than their male colleagues is, sadly, just a reflection of what an arguably vast chunk of people in power all over the world believe. How many times has this argument been used even in daily conversations? Can Serena Williams beat a man? Can women’s cricketers hit big sixes?
This is the majoritarian view, made more prominent in a patriarchal setup, which most sport systems still are.
Skill and success are not always correlated, but success seems a more surefire measure of performance levels. In keeping with that, the US women’s team is far more successful than the men’s, which has not won a single big international title. The women are four-time world champions and have won five Olympic gold medals. According to WSJ, the women’s team even generated more money from ticket sales than the men’s side between 2016 and 2018.
So what exactly does US Soccer consider indisputable here?
At the heart of it, this issue of gender discrimination, in pay or treatment, is not about skill or responsibility or even money, it is actually a question of mentality; it is a question of subconscious bias that has been around as long as modern society itself.
Even in 2020, this subliminal gender bias is rooted in the same mindset that once upon a time didn’t let women get formal education, cast their votes, or play professional sport.
But in US Soccer’s statement is an irony far cruel and appalling. This was a statement made about the best team in the world who have lifted the Fifa World Cup a few months ago. This was made by a sports federation in a first-world country like the United States and about a Ballon d’Or and Golden Boot winner Rapinoe.
Closer home, what’s to say that the majority of the Board of Control for Cricket in India members don’t hold the same view?
The humongous disparity in the central contracts is already proof that the men’s and women’s teams are not on par. In fact, Smriti Mandhana has gone on to say that it will be unfair to ask for equal pay because the men’s team brings in the money.
While revenue seems to be the keyword in justifying this wage gap, it doesn’t change the fact that teams of both genders are doing the same job – playing matches for India. The training involved, time on tour and actual matches vary based on the very same board’s decisions. But the job is the same – play the 50/20 overs during matches and try to win. (Test cricket for women is left to individual boards and except Australia and England, no boards have organised matches in the longest format lately.)
The recent form guide would also then suggest that the women’s team has been far more successful than the men’s when it comes to world events, reaching two out of three finals at the ICC events.
While the “skill” and “responsibility” argument has not been used by the BCCI as yet, but the majority opinion revolves around it and this incident in the US just exposes the mindset.
But what US Soccer and the countless other people who follow sport as administrators, media, pundits or fans don’t realise is that the comparison itself is flawed. It’s a question of logic. How can the skill of men and women football players be compared when on a playing field, men are playing against men and women against women?
In women’s cricket, the speed of the fast bowlers, the distance of sixes hit and even the pulled-in rope are used as examples to state how their game is not on par with the men’s game. But the conditions are the same for everyone because that is how the sport is played.
Yes, Poonam Yadav loves to flight the ball and perhaps a male player could easily play her. But she isn’t playing the men, she plays women’s cricket and is very successful with her brand of bowling.
In the same way, as John McEnroe had infamously said, Serena Williams may or may not be able to beat the world No 700 in men’s tennis, but she isn’t playing on the ATP Tour and is the best, most decorated player among the women.
Just like McEnroe and the US Soccer chief who resigned, so many viewers and opinion leaders make the mistake of pitting the two genders against each other to compare skill, strength and speed without realising that they compete on different playing fields. This is not a bias restricted to cultures or common in developing countries, but a global perception that highlights the discrimination women still have to face.
It’s time we start seeing the athletes for who they are. Rapinoe is not Lionel Messi but both are reigning Ballon d’Or winners, Serena may not beat Roger Federer but both have won 20 or more Grand Slams, Ellyse Perry will never have the same numbers as Sachin Tendulkar but both are arguably the greatest to have played their sport.
This gender pre-conditioning, while watching and analysing sport, has to end and let’s hope US Soccer’s gaffe results in a positive step in this direction.