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Sep 20, 2011

Originally published on Matador Sports on August 25, 2011. 

On August 8, 2011, Hope Solo, the goaltender for the US National Women’s Team (USNWT), tweeted the following:

“Being naked outside is very liberating….atleast [sic] I hope it will be @ESPN and @ESPNMAG!!! GAMETIME [sic] BABY! Ball up!”

For those living way off the pitch, Solo is an all-around badass. Partly due to her own career history–which includes some public back-talk to her coach after being benched during the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup–and partly due to her team’s come-from-behind story during the 2011 World Cup, Solo is about as well-known as female soccer stars get.

Since her Twitter message went to the masses, rumors have been flying that the athlete will appear naked in ESPN The Magazine’s upcoming 2011 “Body Issue” expected to be released in October. Rock on! Right?

Maybe. I want to see Solo naked as badly as the next person, but there’s something about these circumstances that leave me a little cold.

I don’t have a single moral objection to athletes sexing it up in exchange for money and fame. Sports are sexy, and athletes have extraordinarily photogenic bodies. Nor do I see moneymaker-shaking as women’s sole domain. Male athletes like David Beckham regularly appear nearly naked, fetchingly draped under a girl or a car or a bottle of perfume.

What is gendered, and what makes this story unsavory, is that we know that in America, female soccer players aren’t as well-paid as their male counterparts. In fact, in the US, female soccer players aren’t as well paid as taxi drivers, administrative assistants or grocery store cashiers.

Hope Solo and her teammates–those on the USNWT–earn an average salary of $25,000, with some only making a reported $200 per game. It’s not much of a living wage, but then it’s not what all soccer players are expected to live on. For male players in the MLS, salaries start with a base amount of around $32,000/year — a full 28% more than the women’s average. On the high end, some male players are being compensated in the millions.

This is not solely an American problem. Pay equity became a hot button issue earlier this year in Canada when the women’s national team asked for, but did not receive, salary information for the men’s national team. Media reported that female players were performing with no ongoing contract, often having to negotiate on a per-tournament basis up to game day. The dispute deepened when a Canadian Soccer Association document surfaced showing a budget of $1.5 million to pay male soccer players in 2013. There was no 2013 budget line for the salaries of female players.

One common explanation for the wage disparity in soccer is that the women’s game just isn’t as popular and, hence, lucrative, as the men’s. It’s the same argument that’s been trotted out to justify all manner of under- or unpaid women’s work in every sector: The work that women traditionally do, such as house cleaning, child rearing or, sometimes, goal tending, just isn’t treated as valuable.

During the final game of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, I was in an expat bar in Mexico surrounded by a cluster of enthusiastic sports fans swinging pints, clapping backs and crowding around a big screen expecting to see world-class soccer. We weren’t disappointed. The game ran a full 120 minutes plus penalty kicks, an unusually long exhibition of suspense and fortune reversals. In the pub, we gasped and hooted and threw our hands in the air. On Twitter, fans set a record with 7,196 tweets per second, more than double the 3,051 messages logged during last year’s World Cup final match.

The numbers don’t lie. You can compare them with male players, and you can measure their commercial viability, but female soccer players aren’t being paid right.

If women’s work is tin–that is, cheap, plentiful and all but invisible–then women’s bodies are gold: a go-to commodity in uncertain times. Like many women, Solo has a choice. She can hope for appropriate compensation in her chosen profession, or she can cash in.

Since the end of the Women’s World Cup, Solo signed an endorsement deal with Gatorade worth $100,000 annually, and if she is really going to appear in the Body Issue, it’s a safe bet that she’ll be paid handsomely. This is good financial news for her and for female athletes in general. Chances are, Solo’s commercial viability will help propel organizational recognition of the value of female sports stars. Politically, the forecast is less rosy.

In the end, I’d rather see her properly paid for her goal tending than for her body.

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