Wrong message being sent in USA Hockey's rigid stance on women's team pay dispute
Team USA's Amanda Kessel in action against Team Sweden in the Women's Ice Hockey Semifinals at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 17, 2014. (Al Charest/Postmedia Network/Files)
Australia this week offered to more than double the pay of its national women’s cricket team, which was news to this corner on a lot of levels, including the fact that women play international cricket.
My cricket knowledge is very limited: Players dress like they just popped over from a Ralph Lauren shoot, the matches go on for actual days, and there always seems to be some sort of scandal involving a cricket legend and a Bollywood star.
But I suspect that if you took someone from a cricket-mad nation and told them there is a pay dispute involving the American national women’s hockey team, they would be surprised to learn that such a team exists. This is where we are, 17 years past the point at which we were all supposed to be getting around in flying cars: where women are (slowly) getting the same opportunities as men in this industry or that field, sports remains the one area where they remain, as professional players, on the fringes. Or the fringes of the fringes.
Hockey, or to an Australian, ice hockey, is a good example of the divide. Women can play at high amateur levels, and the best of those can represent their countries at world championships and the Olympics, but the professional leagues offer no kind of way to make a living. The two nascent pro organizations, one based in Canada and one in the States, presently pay either nothing (the CWHL) or a little something (NWHL). The CWHL has said it hopes to be able to pay players in the next few years, but the NWHL, which began last season and was offering modest salaries of between $10,000 and $25,000, has already cut those in half this season, saying it needed to do so to keep the league from folding.
It’s not an easy problem to solve. The best female players in the world, as talented as they are, are trying to compete in a crowded market against huge, established leagues with long relationships with fans, sponsors and media. There is not a lot of oxygen left in the room. (And I’ll note here, that I’m guilty of perpetuating the imbalance, too. I’ve written about women’s hockey, but never given it regular coverage.)
The same is true in other sports. The women’s pro soccer league here pays relative peanuts, and many of the top players go to Europe and beyond to make a decent wage. The U.S. women’s national team went to court last year to fight for pay equivalent to that earned by the men’s team, one which is much less successful than them. The WNBA, which after two decades is the gold standard for success, still sees a considerable number of its players spend their offseason playing in Russia, where the compensation is much better than at home. Some American stars have at times skipped the local season because they are worn out, and if they have to pick one they go with the league that offers them more money.
Even in sports like golf and tennis, where there are viable leagues and major events and attentive media coverage, women still face questions about equitable compensation. Someone at Wimbledon will inevitably try to bait one of the more off-the-cuff male players into saying women don’t deserve equal pay, in hopes of taking that quote back to Serena Williams and causing her to spit fire.
The highest-profile women’s football league requires them to compete in something close to bikinis and shoulder pads, which is actually a step forward from the lingerie they used to wear.
The disparity between men’s and women’s sports is not about to be resolved soon, if only because the gap is so wide. But that’s what makes USA Hockey’s stance in the current fight disheartening. If that organization can’t figure out a way to prevent its best female players from being close to destitute in non-Olympic years, what message is that sending to young female athletes? The players, threatening to boycott the world championship that begins next week in Michigan, seemed to be headed toward a resolution, but said late Thursday they were disappointed with the latest USA Hockey offer. They say they need a deal that compensates them for all the time spent with the team in non-Olympic years, during which they are presently unpaid. That sounds reasonable. The men’s side is full of millionaire NHLers, so they don’t need USA Hockey’s money. Young male prospects are funnelled into a well-heeled national development team, an equivalent for which does not exist on the women’s side. Each side in the dispute has thrown around numbers that don’t seem to have much to do with the other side’s numbers, so it’s hard to determine the actual dollars that USA Hockey is refusing to give.
But does USA Hockey really need to argue this on value-for-money terms? These are your best players. They are going broke representing your country on the ice. Solve that problem.
Might they end up making more than anyone at USA Hockey was planning? Maybe so. But: world-class female athletes who might be, gasp, overpaid. Imagine that.