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The Miseducation of Gender Equality in American Sports: US Women’s Soccer and Title IX

When an entity decides to take opportunities away from men to maintain Title IX compliance, they are deliberately undermining the spirit of the law, which is about making sure opportunities are not being denied based on gender.

On May 18, 2022, the landmark Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) by the United State Soccer Federation (USSF) with the United States National Soccer Team Players Association (USNSTPA) and the United States Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA) was finally put into action. Within the new CBAs, the parameters for equal pay and treatment of the USA’s best soccer talent would be set for the foreseeable future. Major components of the deal focused on 1. On-field base and performance pay, 2. Equalization of World Cup prize money, and 3. Commercial revenue would finally allow for the women’s national soccer team to benefit from on-field success at the same rate as the men’s team.

Under the provision of a Best-in-Class Playing and Training Environment, some major inclusions were access for both men’s and women’s national soccer teams to equal accommodations, travel, insurance benefits, and parental leave. Additionally, noteworthy updates to the respective CBAs detail new features, such as financial support for childcare and retirement services.

While this is a monumental deal for women’s soccer, I am saddened by the process that it took to get here. Why did it take a lawsuit from 28 members of the United States National Women’s team to get to this point? In March 2019, these athletes sued the USSF for institutionalized gender discrimination with Title IX as a major part of the case. With the global success of the United States National Women’s team in winning four Olympic Gold medals and four Women’s World Cups since 1999, these overtures for adequate and equal compensation should have already been met, just based on merit.

It took this lawsuit by United States National Women’s team members to publicly shame and negatively impact the financial sponsorship structure for the USSF to finally make amends. Additionally, the USSF settled the lawsuit for $24 million, with a lump sum of $22 million for the players and $2 million for grants to players to apply for post-career and charitable efforts ($50,000 each).

The Dream of Title IX

Title IX was enacted on June 23rd, 1972, and states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Although the dream of Title IX is for gender equality to be fully realized in sports and beyond, it has taken major court cases and advocacy work by groups such as the Women’s Sports Foundation for any major changes to occur. While fair treatment of all men’s and women’s sports participants seems like an easy decision to make in theory, the truth is this is rarely realized in practice.

The lack of urgency by the USSF to provide equal treatment until they were in the midst of a public court case demonstrates how Title IX is treated generally more like a nuisance than a standard practice. Why did it take three years from the initial court case filing in 2019 for the USSF to finally settle? Why did the USSF not act proactively to mediate these grievances by the United States National Women’s team sooner?

Most likely we will never hear the true answers to these questions, since the court case the United States National Women’s team brought against the USSF was settled. However, the underlying concern behind this case remains: Title IX needs to be respected.

Title IX Is Not An Option; It Is The Law.

Due to the relationship between government-funded educational institutions and sports, Title IX has found its relevance. My first experiences with the miseducation of Title IX occurred during my undergraduate days at Miami University (Ohio) when the Department of Athletics canceled the men’s tennis, soccer, and wrestling programs. I can remember the confusion, outrage, and calamity experienced by my classmates, who had their dreams shattered by the university’s rationale of following compliance with Title IX mandates for proportionality. (Essentially, because there were not the same proportion of women’s student-athletes to women students at the university, the university chose to eradicate the aforementioned men’s programs in order to hit the quota.)

Canceling the three men’s programs brought the total number of male and female student athletes on sports teams at the university into equal proportion to the number male and female students at the university. The leadership from the Miami University Department of Athletics believed that eliminating multiple men’s sports to reach gender quotas was the correct option, although this was not a requirement of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). 

The Title IX provisions for compliance are 1. Proportionality, 2. History, and 3. Interest. Entities receiving government funding have multiple ways to remain in good standing with Title IX. I believe the Miami University Department of Athletics erred in its decision-making by cutting the men’s wrestling, tennis, and soccer programs. Exploration of alternative measures under Title IX could have resulted in both saving the men’s teams while increasing the number of women’s teams and opportunities for female student-athletes. Instead of creating a more just and balanced athletics department, where female students were invited to participate and thrive, the school chose to gut their men’s teams and blame it on Title IX, creating ill will against those who would advocate for equality. In my opinion, this is a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. 

Feminism is Not the Problem

A major issue at the heart of the debate on Title IX is the understanding of feminism. Feminism does not mean providing opportunities to women over men or taking from males to provide for females. Feminism is the truest sense of providing equality to all human beings; women are emphasized in its ethos because they have occupied a marginalized, less privilege role in society, but at its core, feminism is “pro equality,” and is certainly not “anti male.” 

In practice, feminism should be defined as “bringing women to an equal standing with men” in terms of opportunities, resources, and overall decency. When an entity decides to take opportunities away from men to maintain Title IX compliance, they are taking the easy way out. There is no valid reason to avoid providing equality to men’s and women’s sports. This type of action is deliberately undermining the spirit of Title IX which is about making sure opportunities are not being denied based on gender—canceling teams or taking away amenities from men’s teams, rather than raising women’s teams up to their same level, denies all genders equal access. And that helps no one.

In short, the USSF dropped the ball when they could have advocated for fair and equitable opportunities for women. Title IX is in place to protect the fair treatment of all athletes, whether they are male or female. My charge is not just for sports organizations but for the greater society to follow the lessons learned by the USSF to avoid a Title IX court case by proactively addressing the equal treatment of both men and women. As shown by the United States National Women’s team, it is a demand, not a request.