Women’s World Cup a platform to spotlight players’ poor working conditions
It has been an important few weeks for women’s soccer, both in the United States and around the world. From Ada Hegerberg becoming the first female recipient of the Ballon d’Or, to the World Cup Draw on Dec. 8, the women’s game is revving up to take a limelight that only comes around every four years.
A lot has changed since the last tournament, which broke records of its own, and as interest in the game has continued to grow, the quality of play has improved alongside it. The next seven months promise to bring high-level competition to the global stage, and with that comes an exciting opportunity to showcase a talented pool of athletes who are driving women’s soccer forward.
But this World Cup must be about more than what happens on the field.
On Dec. 10, just two days after the Draw and all of the self-congratulatory talk by those presiding over it, people across the world gathered to celebrate Human Rights Day, an international day to acknowledge and fight for rights ranging from those like freedom of speech and the right to education, to those encompassing workers’ rights.
While on the surface, the two events don’t exactly seem connected, there’s an underlying irony in the occasions falling so closely together that mustn’t be ignored, because the reality remains this: we’re approaching 2019, and female athletes competing in the most popular sport in the world are still being treated like second-class citizens.
Despite the development in play, despite talk about growing the women’s game, about shrinking pay gaps, about an unprecedented commitment by overarching organizations to take the disparities between men’s and women’s working conditions more seriously; too little is being done to value and protect female athletes, and what is being done is happening slowly.
Elite players, those who millions will watch take the field in France this coming summer, face working conditions at both the club and international level that completely disregard their right to fair compensation, to protection in case of injury, and most importantly, to contracts that outline terms and conditions which cultivate stable environments. Top female athletes must no longer be forced to worry about things like whether or not they’ll be paid on time, whether or not they’ll find job security, and whether or not taking leave from their clubs to compete in a national team kit will ultimately amount to a pay cut because of a lack of adequate compensation at the international level.
These are the issues that all stakeholders in soccer – fans, announcers, coaches, organizers, and players in both the men’s and women’s game – have a responsibility to talk about openly over the next seven months, during the fleeting moments in which the whole world is listening.
Not only is it what’s right, but it’s critical to the future success of the game, because how is women’s soccer going to continue to develop if, in a survey of players competing in top leagues around the world, 90 percent say they could name at least one reason to hang up their boots prematurely?
The answer is simple: it can’t.
Players lack contractual rights and leverage
In December 2017, FIFPro released its first comprehensive report on women’s working conditions for players around the world competing at the elite level of the game. Weaved throughout the 50-page report were responses accounting for more than 3,000 players worldwide, and although the results were not entirely surprising, they marked a very necessary step towards hearing and addressing challenges plaguing female athletes.
The report, which was the first to collect global statistics on women’s soccer, found that despite the fact that a majority of women were competing in professional environments and enduring the responsibilities of professional athletes, only 18 percent of women actually had professional status according to FIFA’s criteria. FIFA does not recognize a ‘semi-professional’ category; therefore, 82 percent of women competing in the top league in their country are currently considered, by FIFA regulations, to be amateurs. That has its implications, one of them being on the use and presence of contracts.
Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of the report was that which provided a detailed look at the presence of written contracts in the women’s game.
The report reads, “with few opportunities for women in the professional game, it means that female players often accept short or informal contracts (e.g. verbal agreements) with poor labor conditions and high job insecurity.”
At the club level, only 53 percent of players reported having any form of written contract, compared to 92 percent of men. And while 53 percent of female players had written contracts, there exists extreme variation in the protections provided by those contracts.
Employment contracts, for example, those which should come with the greatest protections, were a minority, and in the case that a player did have an employment contract, the length of that agreement was almost always less than two years, providing little job security. Standard player agreements in the National Women’s Soccer League are almost always one-year deals plus an option. The report also noted that older players typically had shorter contracts and were therefore forced out of the game.
Furthermore, those being paid in the highest salary category ($4,001 to $8,000) had the greatest security in contract length.
When players are making little money and have shorter contracts (e.g. less job security), they are more likely to leave the game early, which is detrimental to development. Imagine if the same were the case for the men’s game. What if a young Kevin De Bruyne hadn’t been making millions while benched at Chelsea, and instead had been bringing in an average women’s salary, struggling to bring in sufficient income? Couple that with a lack of contractual protection and the Manchester City star might never have been. How many De Bruyne’s has to women’s game lost to circumstance? We’ll never know, but there are countless examples of early retirement for financial reasons.
Despite a year passing since the publishing of FIFPro’s report, the contractual rights and protections of top female athletes remain grim, and indications that steps are being taken to strengthen players’ rights are few and far between. Just a few weeks ago, for example, a Danish newspaper published the clause of a contract, which stated that players in the Women’s Super League, the top women’s professional league in England, could be fired with just three-months notice if they were sidelined because of a long-term injury.
And then there’s contracts at the national level where, “less than one in 10 national team players have a written contract in place,” according to the FIFPro report.
“Strikingly, 79 percent of national team players (with contracts) could not say what type of contract they had,” it continues.
Just the beginning
The U.S. women’s national team followed its historic 2015 World Cup triumph over Japan by taking the increased spotlight (the match was the most watched soccer game in U.S. history), and using the momentum to force changes of the the field. They filed a complaint against U.S. Soccer — their employer — with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a fight for equal pay and better conditions. They successfully negotiated an improved collective bargaining agreement.
That moment marked a monumental push for better treatment and fair pay that has continued in the U.S. over the course of the past three years, and has disseminated internationally, cultivating conversation and further interest in players’ rights. Norway became the first federation to pay its men’s and women’s national teams equally; New Zealand soon followed. Other federations have heard from their women’s teams: Denmark had to call off a Women’s World Cup qualifying match as part of a dispute between players and the federation.
Just last week, monumental action was taken when UEFA announced a seven-year women’s soccer deal with VISA that came to fruition in part by un-bundling sponsorship for the European women’s and men’s competitions. UEFA made the decision to separate the two last year in an effort to assign clear value to the women’s game.
Strides are beginning to be made, but the disparities in treatment of players between the women’s and men’s games remain major, formed over years of unequitable investment and opportunity. And they are countless. FIFA doubling the prize money for next year’s Women’s World Cup doesn’t address that the pay gap between the men’s and women’s tournaments has actually increased: 2018 men’s champions France received $38 million for their victory, while the 24 teams at next year’s Women’s World Cup will share $30 million between them. U.S. players, including Megan Rapinoe, have openly expressed their
“I think that they’re probably looking for pats on the back for the increase,” Rapinoe said in October. “They’re not getting any from here.”
Rapinoe, teammate Becky Sauerbrunn and U.S. head coach Jill Ellis have also been vocal about FIFA’s lack of commitment to using video review at the 2019 Women’s World Cup after introducing it for the men in 2018. They raised the issue again ahead of the World Cup Draw.
“The men had it at their World Cup,” said Sauerbrunn to the New York Times. “The women should have it at theirs.”
FIFA still hasn’t said whether or not it will be used at this summer’s tournament.
It’s ridiculous that we’re in a position to have to ask top athletes preparing to compete in the most important tournament in their sport, to think about anything other than playing the game. But now, while the attention is there, that is exactly what is needed.
The likes of Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe will continue to shed light on institutional levels of disregard and degradation. It is the responsibility of other key stakeholders to ensure that these stories are covered. The next seven months offer the largest platform yet to address the poor working conditions that women’s soccer players face in their professional lives, so that future generations don’t have to. The message is clear:
Speak up, now.