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Soccer team lawsuit and Kaepernick decision change what’s at stake in pro sports

It’s not a playing field or a court, it’s a workplace

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. The players’ complaint listed a number of grievances, including pay inequality, unequal playing conditions and unfair ticket-pricing tactics. While media coverage zeroed in on a critically important aspect of this lawsuit, unequal pay, the national conversation largely overlooked the other vital grievances detailed in the USWNT’s complaint around workplace equity, safety and access to opportunity.

This conversation has to evolve if we want to actually achieve gender equity in professional sports.

It is not uncommon for media coverage of labor issues in sports to completely ignore key labor components of the story. For example, with Colin Kaepernick’s settlement coverage, the “labor” angle is almost completely overshadowed. Instead of talking about the alarming labor issues posed by the situation, such as the chilling effects that the alleged collusion has on athletes and the professional sports labor force, the focus of the inquiries was on Kaepernick’s status as a social justice leader: whether Kaepernick sold out his cause, whether he’s forfeited his legacy, or whether he’s won or lost.

The lack of focus on labor in conversations about sports is an understandable reflex. Conversations about union negotiations, pay disparities and amateurism aren’t heard. When most people think of a workplace, they rarely think of a playing field, basketball court, ice rink or locker room. Think about how often people imply that professional athletes don’t have “real” jobs. Or how media critics and fans criticize athletes for being ungrateful for their opportunity to “play” professionally when athletes express work-related grievances.

Even die-hard fans treat professional sports as a game rather than the industry it is. So it’s not surprising that when the media write about sports, it’s not through the lens of “labor.” Nor is it surprising that many fans don’t think of professional athletes as people “going to work.”

U.S. women’s national soccer team members stand arm-in-arm on the pitch wearing jerseys bearing the names of women who inspire them before playing England in a SheBelieves Cup match in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 2. The U.S. tied England 2-2 in front of 22,125 fans.

AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

This might seem insignificant, but it has major implications for questions about equity, especially women’s equity, in a field with such a pronounced gender pay gap. If we don’t think the work of professional female athletes qualifies as labor, not only do we minimize the workplace gender inequities, we also “forget” the legal frameworks that allow us to address these inequities.

When we don’t consider athlete grievances as workplace issues, it’s easier to dismiss the complaints as schoolyard squabbles without a clear path to justice.

Consider the criticism often faced by professional female athletes who request greater equity in their respective sports. Besides the USWNT players, athletes from the WNBA and women’s national hockey team spoke out about the need for equitable salaries, reliable transportation, reasonable facilities and visibility. Essentially, these athletes were advocating for what all of us want at work: the resources we need to be successful at our jobs, fair wages and equal opportunity to prove our value. Yet, instead of being met with support, critics glossed over the athletes’ points. The conversation adopted the tired (and misinformed) trope of questioning the legitimacy of women’s sports because they don’t produce the same profits as men’s leagues. Instead of having a much-needed conversation about more equitable working conditions and the integration of fair measurements of value — the kind of conversations that are common (and often mandatory) in the modern-day workplace — we had the same dialogue that we always do, based on an outdated equation of the “bottom line.”

Even die-hard fans treat professional sports as a game rather than the industry it is. So it’s not surprising that when the media write about sports, it’s not through the lens of “labor.” Nor is it surprising that many fans don’t think of professional athletes as people “going to work.”

This profit focus stymies efforts to make sports more equitable for women. Yes, salary is a component of an equitable workplace, but so are safe working conditions and access to opportunity. If we did more to highlight these elements of women’s workplace grievances in sports in the same ways we do in the traditional workplace, we could finally start improving the sports workplace for more professional athletes, especially in terms of safety and opportunity. For example, we could start to address problematic, harmful at-work behaviors such as sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse, unsafe working conditions, unequal working conditions and biased rule enforcement based on racial and gender stereotypes.

These behaviors would be unacceptable in a traditional workplace but are still tolerated in the sports workplace. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss the need for higher salaries for the USWNT and female athletes in general. In fact, I hope this conversation becomes more pronounced and nuanced with increased coverage.

We do, however, also need to acknowledge the fact that sports are the place where professional athletes go to work and earn their living. It’s not just about a platform or salaries, it’s also about safe playing conditions, equal playing conditions, fair ticket pricing, unobstructed access to employment opportunities, harassment-free work environments. When we ignore these other components that contribute to an athlete’s success, safety and security in sports, we seriously hinder the push for equity in athletics.

By intentionally making room for discussions about all the labor components of sports, we can open the door to address the inequities that exist in and around sports in more productive ways.

Ashland Johnson, founder of the Inclusion Playbook, is an award winning civil rights leader and former Division I athlete. She lives at the intersection of sports, social justice, politics, and good BBQ.