When I was asked to coach our son’s Saint Lawrence O’Toole basketball team in the late 1970s, the star guard was a little girl named Jennifer. There was no Catholic school girls’ basketball league back then, and Jennifer’s hustle, playmaking, and toughness earned the respect of her all boy teammates and our opponents.
Twenty years later, the Saint Mary’s College Athletic Director invited me to serve as faculty moderator for the Gaels Women’s Basketball team, a role I treasured during my final 10 years as dean. I didn’t call any plays, but my role was to counsel and support those dedicated student-athletes in their academic, personal, and athletic endeavors.
I attended practices, traveled with the team to campuses and tournaments across the nation, and occasionally mediated conflicts among players and coaches. I ate more TGI Fridays, Chili’s, and Chevy’s food than I care to remember and came close to drawing a technical foul or two for enthusiastic “cheering” from my seat on the bench.
I regularly wrote letters to Bay Area television and newspapers when they failed to report on Stanford, Cal, Santa Clara, and Saint Mary’s women’s basketball teams that were far more successful than their male counterparts at the time.
When the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) required member institutions to conduct certification self-studies in the mid-1990s, Saint Mary’s was among the first group of participants. The president appointed me to chair the Equity Subcommittee, which sought to examine and eliminate inequities between men’s and women’s programs. These inequities included scholarships, recruiting budgets, team facilities, and coaches’ salaries that persisted despite Title 9.
As the NBA regular season ended in April, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) got underway in May. The average WNBA player currently earns $75,000 annually, while the minimum NBA rookie’s salary is more than 10 times greater at $838,000 and into the millions for male superstars.
On Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team won its second consecutive and fourth overall World Cup title, defeating Thailand, Chile, Sweden, Spain, France, England, and the reigning European champion Netherlands. The furthest America’s men have ever advanced was the final eight in 2002.
The New York Times describes the American women’s team as “a social as well as an athletic force,” because in March, 28 team members filed suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for “institutionalized gender discrimination.” Women players are paid less and claim to receive fewer resources for training, medical treatment, coaching, and travel than players who are male.
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The usual response to demands for equal funding for men’s and women’s sports is that men generate more money than women. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that from 2016 to 2018, American women’s soccer games made $50.8 million compared with $49.9 million for the men.
CNBC’s Abigail Hess writes that U.S. women’s team players earn a maximum of $99,000 ($4,950 per game) if they win their required 20 non-tournament games. U.S. men’s team players earn $263,320 ($13,166 per game). Hess adds that from 2013 to 2016 women soccer players earned $15,000 for serving on the national team while American men earned $55,000 in 2014 and $68,750 in 2018.
Public and media criticism inevitably follow when “troublemaking” athletes take a stand for equality and justice. Such was again the case for the women’s soccer stars during the World Cup. However, the U.S. men’s national soccer association has stated it, “fully supports the efforts of the U.S. Women’s National Team Players to achieve equal pay.” Norway’s national women’s team achieved that goal last October.
During my service as moderator, I once watched in dismay as two uniformed Gael cheerleaders sat in the stands rather than cheer on the sidelines during a crucial game for their women classmates. In taking the cheerleader coach to task for the behavior of her charges, I said little girls and little boys coming to watch women’s or men’s basketball games deserve to have similar experiences —including all the hoopla.
In values based higher education environments, failure to provide comparable support and resources sends an overt message about the comparable worth of what women and men do. In campus settings, especially, such messages are unacceptable no matter the value of dollars generated.
In past weeks, the nation cheered the victories of the U.S. women’s soccer team on the pitch. As Sunday’s match ended in Lyon, France, the crowd chanted, “Equal Pay!”
As the U.S. women head home to parades and adoring crowds, we are challenged to support them in an even more important fight in their pursuit of America’s proclaimed values.