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Football And The Fight For Equality

Imagine a scenario where a female CEO was paid less than a male CEO for roles at similar companies. That’s crap, right? They deserve equal pay, right? Absolutely. But is it really the case that lifting one woman’s salary an extra million dollars will solve inequality?

The US winning the World Cup was delightful for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with football.

They are currently embroiled in a long standing dispute with their federation over equal pay. Winning the World Cup certainly helps their cause. Megan Rapinoe, their openly gay superstar, was publicly lambasted by none other than the President for saying that she wouldn’t go to the White House if invited. She responded with the Golden Boot and Golden Ball.

The team represents a progressive vision of America that their supporters take an enormous amount of pride in.

Their fight is a worthy cause. In the United States there is no doubt that they are the most recognisable and most loved national football team, not to mention most successful. At a national level it seems absurd that they are not paid the same as their less recognisable male counterparts.

However, to draw the fight for equality down to a simple matter of equal pay is one that does an enormous amount of disservice to women’s football around the world. Equal pay at a national level is part of the fight. There is so much more to inequality than that.

We have a duty as fans to look deeper and to think harder about how we can address inequality in our game in a meaningful, grassroots way.

The NYT interviewed a number of players from different nations before the World Cup kicked off. The inequality within it is stark. One example that stood out for me was 6 players – Jamaicans and Thais – earned less than a thousand dollars this year. Meanwhile Ashlyn Harris, the second choice US keeper, earned approximately $350,000. In terms of pay equality, the disparity between nations is something that needs urgent addressing.

FIFA could do this. It’s long been suspected that the money given to national federations to help their women’s programs ends up in the pockets of the men instead. It’s one of the things that hinders the progress of national teams such as Brazil. The players in their professional league make $500 a month if they’re lucky. Marta’s impassioned plea as Brazil got knocked out expresses an anger that many of us feel as fans – imagine living it.

Even within countries who are relatively well off, it is difficult to make a living as a footballer. Within the US, NWSL players struggle to make a living. If you’re playing in Europe outside the top 1 or 2 clubs for each league – forget about it. These players aren’t fighting for another few hundred thousand dollars, they’re fighting for the next meal.

All of this means that to get to the top, you need a support network. You need parents with money to pay for the expensive trips to far flung fields. You need to be able to live at home because you can’t afford to pay rent. You need financial assistance to get through university while committing 20+ hours a week to training.

It’s locking women out of the game.

These problems exist at home in Australia. If you play locally, registration fees are astronomical. I pay $390 a year and we are one of the cheaper clubs – I’ve heard of women paying up to $600. This is just to play for a local team that isn’t much good. For comparison, I paid around $200 for a full season of cricket – a sport where fields surely require more expensive maintenance.

These fees pale in comparison to what it is like if you are a young, talented player. Your parents will be handing over fees of more than $1000 to put you through underage representative programs. By the time you get to senior level, they could have paid over $10,000 for you to get the shot to maybe play WPL and maybe have your rego fees waived. Of course, these fee problems are faced by young boys in Australia too – but at least they have a viable career to look forward to.

Is the cost of junior fees the next crisis in Australian football?

Once you get to play in your junior program, you’re playing on inferior pitches. They might not have women’s changing facilities, or maybe they’re crowded with the team that played before you so you don’t get to use the change room anyway. You’re playing on Sunday, after the pitch has been torn up. Your uniforms don’t fit.

Again – this is locking young talent out of the game, right here, in a country where at least some of our top players get to be professional.

At a grassroots level this is not about bringing in income. It’s not about revenue, marketing, making money. It’s about respect, and giving the same opportunities for all to flourish.

Honestly? I believe pay equality at the top is irrelevant to all of these things. How are women meant to perform at their best when half of them are locked out before starting?

How can they simultaneously be ambassadors for the game, full time workers, and still perform at their best?

Equal pay at a national level is an important marker of the respect that a federation has for women. I can see no reason why national federations shouldn’t be aiming for equal pay across the board. You’re playing for your country – it’s not simply about revenue but about respect and pride. However, we need to shift the discussion. Fairness is not just fairness at the top.

I hope the US team win their equal pay suit. I hope it then extends to the NWSL. I hope it then extends to grassroots across the world. We need more professional players able to survive on their income. Having a few more rich players does not solve this.

In Australia, I hope that the W League season is extended. I want the minimum salary to be above minimum wage. I want kids to be able to develop no matter what their socio economic background. I want the game to be open to all, fairly, across the whole world.

Equal pay is only part of the picture. Equal opportunity, equal respect, and equal base level pay is far more important in the short term.

Spend the season going to every W League game you can. Pay for W League memberships if your club has them, send them a stern email if they don’t. But, also, amplify the voices of those that aren’t heard. Read the story of the likes of Bunny Shaw. Listen to that Marta video, soak it in. Spend a few hours every week watching a league you’ve never seen before. Buy a beer at your local club. Ask them if their women’s first team had to pay rego. Ask them if their men’s first team did.

The revolution cannot start from the top down. It must, everywhere, start from the bottom up. That is the only way that meaningful change can be achieved – when everyone can play, everyone can make it to the top, and everyone can be professional. Not just those who are born in the right country to the right parents in the right neighbourhood.

Otherwise, your equality is just a mirage.

By Taryn Heddo

Featured Image courtesy of The Womens Game by photographer, By The White Line

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