As a female soccer player myself, I am a strong supporter of professional female athletes, especially soccer players and I would like to see the day where female and male athletes are treated equally within the industry. Although we are making headway, there are still several battles to face when it comes to the treatment of women in the professional soccer industry. Western culture emphasizes a feminine ideal body and demeanor that contrasts with an athletic body and demeanor, meaning there is this clash between a woman’s sports culture and the larger social culture (Krane et al., 2004). Unfortunately, because of the masculine origin of the sport, women are treated and displayed differently, in the media, in the wage distribution, and in the playing conditions. Even though they started playing professionally at a later date than the men did, it does not mean that women should have to jump through hoops just to compete in the sport that they love.
Social categories such as gender, class, and sexuality intersect and together, they shape the meanings that are given to organizations, social institutions, identities, and images. In the case of women’s soccer, the culture has been given certain meanings over time that is formed by multidimensional and contextual regimes of social relations (Knoppers and Anthonissen 2003). These meanings provide a basis for the ways in which inequalities persist and how the consumers, the mass media, and the various stakeholders like coaches, players, and sponsors, view the industry itself. Seeing as women’s soccer makes for such a rich field for gendered inquiries, the three major inequalities that we’re going to tackle throughout this post are media coverage, the gender pay gap, and the unfair playing conditions. Finally, we will touch on the concept of athlete activism and goals for the future.
A Little History Lesson…
Sport originated as a space for men to express their masculinity, for them to show off their muscles, their speed, and anything else that makes their competitors feel inferior; hence, soccer has displayed a struggle for women to succeed because of the ongoing stereotyping and structural and organizational barriers (Kristiansen et al., 2014). The introduction of women in sport began in the 1996 Olympic games, and since then, they have been analyzed as transgressing the boundaries of heterosexual femininity and masculinity. This was an event where female athletes, who were almost never featured on the same par with men, were shot in photographs displaying their athleticism, rather than just the feminine body. Photographers used the same kinds of shots and lighting techniques when photographing male and female athletes, in addition, rather than the women being sexualized and the men being in action shots, there was a combined medium of both athleticism and beauty portrayals of men and women (Heywood & Dworkin, 2003).
On the men’s side, Major League Soccer (MLS) is approaching the second decade of existence and it continues to grow, on the other hand, several professional women’s leagues have started and stopped after facing various challenges in their attempts to stay commercially viable. Soccer was seen as a man’s sport, ran by men and played by men, so when women wanted in, it wasn’t going to be an easy transition. Women’s professional soccer in the US is promising but from a business perspective continues to struggle to find a foothold and sustainable growth in the domestic sports market (Kristiansen et al., 2014).
Women’s Coverage in the Media
Trolan (2013) stated that the mass media plays a significant role in the transmission of gender differences and inequality through daily visuals. Media coverage is such a huge factor in determining the number of spectators that actually attend a professional soccer game; this results in lower wages for the female athletes. Researchers found that female athletes are actually covered less in media than they were back in 1989; in 2014, only 3.2% of network television coverage was given to women’s sports and SportsCenter only gave women 2% of coverage (Bianco, 2015). The lack of coverage or acknowledgment leads the sports consumer to believe that women’s sports and athletes are not important and not worthy of being covered (Trolan, 2013). How are female soccer players supposed to attract more fans to their stadiums, if the media won’t represent them in effective and positive ways, if at all? Even among all of the accomplishments, female role models are not abundant and the visibility of female athletes in the media is shamefully scarce (Hall & Oglesby, 2016). Furthermore, when strong female athletes do get depicted in the media, the power of their narratives as strong women is too often trivialized into that of the mother and beauty queen (Kristiansen et al., 2014).
Even England’s own Twitter account posted a terribly sexist tweet that shows just how much work these women have to put in. Why is it that someone felt compelled to put a focus on more than just the fact that England showed an outstanding performance winning the bronze medal in the 2015 World Cup? As Robb (2015) points out, ‘you would never see the @england account issue the parallel message for its men’s team.
Sport and the mass media are inextricably linked in a symbolic relationship where gender becomes a significant component; this results in female soccer players battling two structural factors when struggling for media attention as both gender and the sport itself are often marginalized (Kristiansen, 2014). A variety of social factors, such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc., have an impact on the ways in which an athlete is seen through the public eye and portrayed in the media. Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan are both professional soccer players that have played for the U.S national team; they are both outstanding players and athletes but have been depicted quite differently in the media. Wambach has a slightly more masculine appearance, the photos of her are all on the field and mostly display her sport and her pride for her country; on the other hand, Morgan is quite feminine and among some action shots of her on the field, are photographs from several different photo shoots, most of which are quite sexualized and do not solely focus on her professional athleticism. As Krane et al, (2004) would explain, Morgan adheres to the idea of hegemonic femininity which is constructed within a white, heterosexual, and class-based structure; it has a strong emphasis on appearance with the dominant notion of an ideal feminine body as thin and toned. Are the ways in which an individual is portrayed in the media only based off of that specific person? Or is the scope wider? Do the consumers view athletes in a certain way and then the media displays them as such?
Equal Pay for Equal Play? Guess Again.
It’s no secret that the US women’s national team has outperformed their male counterparts in recent years, having won four Olympic gold medals and three World Cup championships, they definitely deserve to be paid for all of their hard work (White, 2016); and you would think their pay would be equal to the men’s wage…
In 2016, five players from the US women’s team took a stand and filed a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation of wage discrimination. The federation’s response was that the league compensates men and women differently; that being, the women receive higher base salaries in addition to a bonus if they win, but the men receive a bonus just for playing, and a larger one if they win. To add fuel to the fire, the men’s players receive more than $50,000 for making the World Cup Roster, while women receive only $15, 000 (White, 2016). It would seem that because the men’s teams produce double the amount of revenue from ticket sales, it justifies their being able to reap the benefits through revenue sharing agreements (White, 2016). The question is if FIFA were to put the same amount of promotional efforts into the women’s teams as they do the men’s, do the women have the potential to bring in a similar profit? It is an extremely popular sport and it has the power to bring in millions of viewers, they just need some support (Baxter, 2015).
Picture this: the U.S women’s national team prepares for a friendly match against Trinidad and Tobago and during an assessment of the field decide that the artificial turf is too dangerous to play on so the game is postponed. Fast forward to one of the most important tournaments for women’s soccer and once again they are on an artificial field, except the game cannot be moved and FIFA forces the teams to play on the turf, despite the multitude of safety concerns (Baxter, 2015).
US team’s goalie Hope Solo speaks out about the gender inequality persisting in the industry and tweeted a photo of the unsafe conditions in which the women are being forced to play on, while the men get the privilege of playing on real grass (Dockterman, 2015).
The faux grass causes bad rug burns when pellets lodge in players’ legs, it deters players from diving and sliding for fear of burns, or tripping on uneven surfaces and has the potential to cause serious injuries. Women keep having to play on the unsafe turf fields, while on the rare occasion that the men get asked to play on them, the maintenance crew lays down sod before the game, regardless of the cost. This unequal treatment of the men and women’s soccer teams is what contributes to the ongoing battle that female athletes must take part in just to survive and thrive in the industry.
Advertising the Sport, Not the Woman
When we expose ourselves to the various images presented to us through the media, we must remember who put them there and why. We as consumers, need to examine the process of production and the role of key cultural intermediaries: media personnel, advertising and public relations experts, all of whom have influence over which identities are circulated to the public. Not only is the soccer industry dominated by males in the form of players and coaches, but also through the various intermediaries, which clearly influences the ideas that influence target markets and public consumption of advertising campaigns (Jackson, 2014). Although being a woman in sports is something that should be celebrated, it is also important to take gender out of the equation and simply focus on the athlete, just like Nike did when they released an ad in 2015, showcasing the American women’s team working/playing together to become “unstoppable”. This is the type of ad that needs to be circulated and viewed by the consumers of professional soccer; not necessarily one where the gender of the athlete is emphasized.
Heywood and Dworkin (2003) bring up the interesting point that while an ad could show that participation in sports provides positive experiences that will build character and opportunity, thus resulting in a strong body and place in the culture; it is a false solution to political problems like structural inequality. What do you think about the argument that working out is the only form of activism we need? Is it safe to say that by women participating in sports, or bodybuilding, they are engaging in political activism? Sure, this is a small individual form of development, but in order to make changes within a male-dominated culture/industry, women need to take action. Take Hope Solo, for example, she has been an active voice for women’s rights and gender equality, which all began with the gender wage gap as I talked about above. She has spoken out about a number of issues within the sports industry and is not afraid to voice her opinion and stick up for herself and others. Coombs and Cassilo (2017) state that for athletes, the decision to engage publicly on potentially controversial topics and advocate for social and/or political issues can be quite risky and could be subject to criticism. Hope Solo is an athlete that doesn’t let this stop her from fighting in what she beleives in, even when the league has gone so far as to terminate her contract from the women’s national team, she continues to fight.
So What’s Next?
“After years of women being told that they are too muscular or too big, too aggressive and domineering, their bodies and the attitudes that go with them have become more accepted and even at times glorified; they are offered in the mass media as models of strength, possibility, and personal integrity” (Heywood & Dworkin, 2003). We want a world where systematic inequalities don’t exist; whatever race, gender, and sexual orientation, everyone should be able to play and reap the benefits (Heywood & Dworkin, 2003). So what can we do in the future to ensure equal opportunities for men and women within the professional soccer industry? Although fewer people may watch women’s soccer, it is still a growing sport and deserves the same media attention and sponsorship that the men have in order to expand the audience. We need to create more opportunity for women to take leadership roles and be a voice not just for female soccer players, but for all other athletes too. Another goal should be to address sexual orientation issues given that lesbian players and coaches are present in sport and they face a number of challenges. Creating equality within the professional soccer industry is advancing, whether that is closing the pay gap, covering women in the media as athletes, rather than just mothers or daughters, ensuring safety of fields and the elimination of artificial turf, and giving women the opportunity to stand up for what they believe in and crush the idea that soccer has to be a “male sport”, there should be no such thing as a “male sport”.
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