A Thought Experiment for #EqualPay

photo by P. A. Jensen

Imagine that women’s soccer takes off. Would we be talking about #EqualPay for the men?

For the uninitiated, the US Women’s Soccer Team is in the middle of a firestorm, and that firestorm is squarely in the gender pay gap. The players say that they do the same work as the men’s team, and should therefore earn higher salaries, like the men do. Of course, the men’s team is in a particularly bad slump right now, making their salaries seem peculiarly inflated. But never mind that—after the women recently won their second-straight World Cup, the smoke of their rhetoric erupted into flames.

Further fanning those flames is the apparent chauvinism of the market for sports-entertainment. But that market seems chauvinistic only by accident. It doesn’t need to be that way.

Let’s imagine it another way.

Say that US women’s soccer became more popular than US men’s soccer, if it isn’t already. This isn’t a pipe dream: as a game, soccer has several characteristics that would help it grow its fanbase, or perhaps even attract fans from the men’s game. First, men’s soccer is especially weak and unpopular right now. Second, as far as sports go, the gameplay in women’s soccer is especially similar to the men’s game (unlike, say, hockey, where the women’s game is fundamentally different because it doesn’t allow body-checking). Third, the level of athleticism in women’s soccer doesn’t truly undercut the spectacle of the viewing experience (compared to, say, basketball, where virtually every NBA player can dunk, compared to very few in the WNBA). Finally, soccer is accessible across socioeconomic lines, enabling a full-sized wave of fresh support (unlike, say, hockey and skiing, which require both serious money and/or specific geography).

So, soccer is a sport ripe for a women’s takeover because it’s a largely two-dimensional game (no one flying through the air) that everyone can easily start to play, and that the men haven’t fully dominated in America. As such, it’s not unreasonable to imagine a few especially charismatic athletes, perhaps who have defining fashion features (e.g. purple hair), taking the nation by storm in a well-known but under-played sport.

But then what? Would we still be talking about #EqualPay for the men? Doubtful.

This rhetoric about “the same work” and “#EqualPay” would not swing the other way. Nor should it. Somehow, if the women’s team made more money, everyone—probably literally everyone—would be fine with that. Why is that?

The answer involves the fatal flaw of the current #EqualPay movement, and other movements like it: its brand of “equality” isn’t actually about equality. True equality is a two-way street. Anything that is not a two-way street, then, is probably something else, even if it looks the part.

Indeed, athletics looks the part. Athletics appears to follow the same historical arc as other instances of genuine oppression: historic dominance by men, lack of opportunities for women, and the cultural rut that follows. But athletics is different than these other examples, in no small part because male and female athletes actually have different entertainment value, apparently for all viewers.

We’ve gotten confused about this. The current #EqualPay rhetoric seems to assume that women would be just as valuable entertainment commodities as men, if only they’d get the chance. If only they’d get the big television contracts. If only they’d get the endorsements.

But there’s evidence against this. Consider, for instance, attendance patterns for boys’ and girls’ basketball games in small towns in the dead of winter in northern Minnesota. Even when the boys’ and girls’ varsity teams play in a doubleheader, the boys will typically outdraw the girls, even if they’re the opening act. That’s not “oppression.” That’s just… different. In most sports, men produce a better entertainment product than women, and that’s why most people watch men.

Simply put, athletics highlights an instance where differences between the sexes are not due only to sexism. Or anything sinister, necessarily.

And in case that seems “unfair,” or even unlikely, here’s another hypothetical scenario to illustrate the point. Imagine that women played basketball before men did, and dominated TV for decades, and the men’s game come along more recently. Would we continue to prefer the women’s game to the men’s?

Probably not. Glibly, I’d bet the whole dunking thing would, you know, catch on pretty quickly. I think men would quickly dominate the market, outliers like the UConn women aside.

But because men did indeed play basketball first, and did indeed dominate the basketball market for decades, the situation looks similar to other patterns of real oppression, or at least lack of opportunity. So, our 21st-century sensibilities, conditioned to recognize that pattern, are trying to combat it.

And to get a sense of the futility of “combating it” in athletics, we can again consider basketball. The NBA subsidizes the WNBA, a league that has been around for decades and still hasn’t found its economic footing. This isn’t for lack of a labor pool: for decades enough girls have been playing basketball in dusty gyms across the country to fill a twelve-team league. And that all of those girls get the chance to do that is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But even after we go to great lengths to support girls’ and women’s athletics in high schools and colleges, why isn’t the WNBA taking off? Why does it have only twelve teams?

Or, why does professional women’s hockey have such a tough time, even in Canada, where the league just folded?

Not oppression, it would seem. Not lack of opportunity, either. Just a lack of a highlight reel compared to men. Women’s basketball and hockey seem to fail as pure entertainment, even cheap entertainment. That’s not about opportunity—that’s just show business.

But even as show business, the women might have the men beat in soccer. And seriously, as a guy who goes to women’s college hockey games (center-ice seats for twelve dollars!), I think that’s great. Let the women’s team make the millions. Give them the endorsements. Get more girls onto the field. Or “pitch,” of course.

But equality is a two-way street: if women started to make more than men, you still wouldn’t hear me talking about #EqualPay. Professional sports just doesn’t matter in that way—again, it’s just show business.

Sure, equality is a noble goal for our society. But remember, in professional soccer, every goal gets reviewed.



P. A. Jensen is editor of

He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.


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