To be fair, pay for performance (Plain Dealer)

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Plain Dealer | February 18, 2000

To be fair, pay for performance

By Betsy Mitchell

I don’t know much about soccer. But what little I do know makes it seem fantastically difficult. A player runs at breakneck speed while dribbling a ball with either foot, only to stop, turn on a dime and look to the open space hoping a teammate will be where she is supposed to be. At the end of 90 grueling minutes, a single goal can be enough to experience victory — or defeat.

I first kicked a soccer ball this past fall. I had joined a light warm-up drill with our high school soccer team and asked the students to teach me how to kick a ball. The 19 girls stood in a circle under a brilliant blue sky, playing what seemed like a simple game of keep away. The players were in high spirits; they had just won in the first round of the state high school soccer tournament. They had triumphed in grand style, playing to a tie in regulation and then claiming victory in the shoot-out.

Does that scenario ring any bells? Say the U.S. versus China, Women’s World Cup, 1999?

A high school soccer team plays for pure enjoyment of the game. The athletes enjoy no adulation from stadium-sized crowds, or lucrative endorsement opportunities or monthly salaries or appearance bonuses. Their pursuit of sport for its own sake is a path I have embraced. I began swimming when I was a five-year-old at our local YMCA and didn’t stop until I was 24 and had achieved one of every kind of medal and record available. I coached my sport at the collegiate level and now work as a high school athletic director.

Because of my background in amateur athletics, I opposed the increasing blending of Olympic and professional sports. That fight, however, is long past. The new battle centers on not on whether athletes should be paid, but how much and in particular, how much players of opposite genders should receive when playing the same sport. 

The U.S. women’s soccer team raised this last question in dramatic fashion over the past few months. After their spectacular international triumphs this summer, the women challenged a pay scale that paid them well below their male counterparts even though the men traditionally dwell in the cellar of worldwide competition. The women’s team boycotted a series of games, and the national organization governing their sport ultimately conceded.

Earlier this month U.S. soccer announced a labor contract that makes the national team the highest paid women’s team in the world and guarantees women parity with the men’s team.

Why should we care how much money the U.S. women’s soccer team earns? Perhaps it is as simple as the legal concept of equal pay for equal work. Additionally, these soccer heroines’ paychecks are important because sports have become a particularly successful tool in breaking down gender discrimination in many employment and social arenas. If we do not reward or compensate our female role models well enough to allow their continuing participation, what will happen to the momentum of the Title IX movement of the past 25 years?

Title IX was not created to encourage competition between the sexes. It was created to mandate opportunity for women to pursue their athletic dreams and potential. In general, it saddens me to see women in athletics comparing themselves to men. That’s like comparing apples and oranges. In U.S. Soccer’s case there is definitely no comparison: On the highly visible world stage, the women win in grand style while the men founder.

The degree to which we support our national sports teams and athletes has a direct impact on their ability to achieve and on their potential. As much as I don’t like to see sports played for money, I do value high quality performances. I appreciate the dedication, sacrifice and the hard physical and mental work it takes to achieve on the international level. Without governing body support, athletes must work to support themselves taking valuable time and energy away from the full-time training required to succeed. The ingredients Olympic. Committee and its governing bodies for success in any field cost money. The U.S. should be challenged to demonstrate that they provide both comparable and adequate re- sources for men and women. Those resources must include salaries, along with top-notch coaching, training and resident camps.

Thanks in part to Title IX, soccer is among the many sports that has grown by thousands of female participants in the last 10 years. The logical display of this growth is success on the international stage. The current crop of U.S. soccer players did exactly what society wants and expects of any sports team: It achieved victory. Not only was their World Cup win accomplished with incredible endurance and technical skill, but heart and grace as well. 

If we expect gold medals from our national teams, we must support them in every way necessary to achieve success. With help from their female players, U.S. Soccer finally necessary to achieve success. With help from reached that realization.

Mitchell, a two-time Olympic swimmer, is athletic director at Laurel School in Shaker Heights.

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