The U.S. Women’s Soccer Gender Equity Battle Mirrors the Struggle of Our Nation’s Girls

U.S. Women's National Soccer Team

The players get to games through second-class travel, are denied equal training and medical support, use more dangerous, inferior facilities, and are under-promoted compared to their male peers, among a range of inequities. Sounds like the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team? Indeed, but this is also the daily plight of millions of girls across the United States who face second class status on their community and school sports teams. These girls, alongside soccer stars Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and their teammates, experience blatant and inexcusable gender discrimination—all of which must be acknowledged and remedied if we are serious about once-and-for-all gender equality in our society.

Last week’s May 2, 2020 ruling, blocking certain team claims, from the district court judge in the Morgan et al. v. US Soccer Federation class action shocked many, and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team unfortunately faces even more hurdles to prevail in their brave fight against inequality. But even more shocking is the similar, blatant gender inequity rife throughout our school and community youth sports across the country, evident in our own backyards.

Title IX is the nearly-50 year old federal statute that prohibits gender inequity in education, including athletics. Many states have similar laws prohibiting such inequity, including barring discrimination in community leagues funded through tax dollars and enabled with public facilities. Youth sports programs may not discriminate against girls in the provision of sports opportunities, treatment, and benefits, nor should anyone experience retaliation for calling out gender unfairness. Yet, nearly a half century after Title IX was passed with bipartisan support, girls make up half of the nation’s K-12 students but have more than a million fewer sports opportunities than boys at the high school level—despite girls wanting to play just as much as the boys.

As nonprofit Title IX attorneys focused on grades K though 12, we see the same troubling stories everywhere: girls’ softball is playing on an unsafe, inferior, and far-flung field whereas boys’ baseball has a pristine-condition, centrally-located field; boys’ teams have access to top-rate fundraising systems with school officials promoting their campaigns while girls are left with crumbs; coaches for boys’ teams boasting long resumes with girls’ teams coached by those who have never played the sport; and girls playing and practicing in worse scheduling slots than boys. The inequities are even more stark for girls in low-income areas and girls of color.

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team can still proceed with remaining claims and appeal those rejected. The Judge in the case thankfully dismissed Defendant U.S. Soccer Federation’s “so weak” and “implausible” argument that the men’s soccer team deserved charter flights whereas the women’s World Cup-winning soccer team did not, because the men’s team was struggling to even qualify for the World Cup and needed every “competitive advantage.” Girls everywhere, like the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, constantly come across the same weak and implausible inequity excuses posed by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Girls daily face school officials and community sports leaders that blatantly permit (or willfully ignore) gender inequality between girls’ and boys’ athletics.

The stakes are high. Kids playing sports in their schools and park and recreation departments not only learn life skills like discipline and teamwork and enjoy the mental and physical wellness benefits. Athletically-involved girls and boys get a wage bump in their later adult employment, even controlling for all other major factors. Yet boys are enjoying the lion’s share of athletic opportunities, getting almost two-thirds of high school sports teams slots and even more than that in the community context, plus the best amenities.

In this global pandemic, when schools and a range of local public institutions are grappling with COVID-19 shutdowns and pausing athletics, we have a special opportunity for school and park and recreation staff running youth leagues to re-assess the quantity and quality of sports offerings for girls and boys—to start anew, upon re-opening, with gender-balanced programs. We salute schools and park and recreation departments for their efforts to offer high-quality distance learning and community resources during these difficult times. And, as things settle, we can use this moment to step back, examine gender inequities, and spur balance.

The Fair Play for Girls in Sports project of Legal Aid at Work and our nonprofit partners have a number of simple fact sheets and toolkits to helps schools and communities audit and improve their programs. Basic surveys of girls about what they want to play, creatively re-orienting resources, and tracking items such as equipment and supplies for gender equality is doable, costs little to nothing, and is the right way to show girls and boys alike in our communities that they are equally important, regardless of gender.

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team heads to trial in June—just days before the 48th anniversary of Title IX on June 23. But girls and young women everywhere confront similar trials each day. We must stand up to ensure a level playing field once and for all—for all.

Kim Turner is a senior staff attorney and the director of the Fair Play for Girls in Sports project of Legal Aid at Work

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