Time for Equality in Sport Is Now: US Women's Football Team Show the Way

In cricket in India, women receive just 10% of the annual contract value offered to men, in a comparable grade.

7 min read
Hindi Female

The US Women's National Team put a cat among the pigeons with a multi-million-dollar settlement with their national football association. The end of a five-year tussle between peeved players and a miffed bunch of administrators is an essential acknowledgment of the festering inequities that affect life, even at the top of the food chain.

Inequality is a malaise that affects human beings across the world, along the length and breadth of the socio-economic spectrum. Women in sport is a festering microcosm that allows for a distressing peek at its unhealthy DNA.

In the context of gender pay disparities, the USWNT settlement could be seen as yet another iconic moment in this centuries-old battle for equality and dignity. Less so for the money earned, and more importantly, for the way this was achieved by a determined bunch of women, who stood up and took charge of their own destinies.


In taking ownership of their battle, these women took the bull by the horns. And their brave actions shine the light on the pressing need for women to steer the narrative, disentangling their destiny from that of men. The 28 women fighting this legal battle for equality will be rewarded from an imminent $22 mn payout plus the institution of a $2 mn fund aimed at their post-retirement needs and charitable aspirations.

Ironically, even in 2022, this feels like just another pregnant pause in an arduous cycle of unevenly crafted battles.

In cricket in India, women receive just 10% of the annual contract value offered to men, in a comparable grade.

Megan Rapinoe holding the FIFA Women World Cup trophy.

(Photo: AP)

What About Indian Sport?

The issue has been festering in Indian sport, as in other spheres of life, for a very long time. In football, Aditi Chauhan highlighted the disparities in Indian football, but she could only lament in vain. The sport continues its wobbly relationship with women in India, who continue to suffer both for the lack of action as well as limited income opportunities.

Dipika Pallikal is a rare instance of an Indian athlete succeeding in the mission to achieve equal pay. She refused to participate in the National Championships, missing four (2012-15) in a row at the peak of her career. Pallikal returned to the tournament, when it finally offered equal prize money in 2016, winning her second nationals' crown.

Sania Mirza has been one of the most vocal advocates for equality in Indian sport. She has been able to make the case in lucid terms, on many occasions. Unlike Aditi, and to some extent Dipika, Sania had lesser dependence on the national federation for her career as a WTA professional.

In cricket in India, women receive just 10% of the annual contract value offered to men, in a comparable grade.

A file photo of Sania Mirza.

Image: PTI 

Cricket in India remains another glaring example of the disparity. The women receive just 10% of the annual contract value offered to men, in a comparable grade. Mithali Raj had advocated for a market-based approach to equality, suggesting that women cricketers needed to be paid better, but based on the revenues generated by them.

Such an approach demands for the custodian of the sport to provide an adequate platform and space for women's cricket. While there is no debate about the improving prospects of women in cricket, opportunities continue remain uneven for them.

Despite all the mind-numbing advances in science and technology, it appears that one half of our species has a deliberate interest in dragging this debate into quicksand. So many of our socio-economic structures are designed to maintain inequalities in matters pertaining to commerce and culture.


Gender Pay Gap

In a 2021 research report, Payscale noted that women in the USA make 82 c to a dollar for men. The Global Gender Gap Report 2021 noted that women in India languish at 62.5%.

The issue of unequal pay in Indian sport rears its wicked head ever so often, especially when the BCCI issues differentiated contracts to male and female cricketers.

Even in this present case, while US Soccer may have settled its dues with this uncomfortable arrangement, questions linger. The FIFA World Cup prize money for men in 2022 is set at $140mn while the size of the purse for women in 2023 is just $60mn. It will be intriguing to see how the men and women professionals representing the USA resolve this, working off an uneven, sticky FIFA mat.

Over the years, spurred by some pioneering work by Billie Jean King, Gladys Heldman and the eight women that made up the Original 9 with King, tennis achieved equal pay at the Grand Slam tournaments over a snail-paced 50-year journey. Their success, if you can call it that, and the painstaking time and effort it took is a grim reminder of the deep-rooted nature of socio-economic disparities that characterise our world.

Defining this problem as a battle for parity with men is not serving the women particularly well.

In cricket in India, women receive just 10% of the annual contract value offered to men, in a comparable grade.

Mithali Raj will captain India in the 2022 Women's ODI World Cup. 

(Photo: AP)

Inequality in Design of Modern Sport

Stretching the argument beyond football, scholars of anthropology, sociology and sports science have built a robust case to question the very design of modern sport. Some of their arguments underline the patriarchal hangover in the way sport is constructed, offering men an inherent evolutionary advantage.

The role of women has been socially constructed to address the care and nourishment of the family unit, while men have appropriated economically gainful roles that afforded them greater control over resources. Sadly, this basic structure remained unbroken even through a period of rapid progress during the 20th century. These effects linger even today, in sport and in life.

Much of modern sport has been designed by and for the male athlete. Women have been forcing their way into it, battling first for inclusion and then for equity.

In their seminal work on gender differences in physiology, Miller et al (1993) observe that women were approximately 52% and 66% as strong as men in their upper and lower bodies, respectively. These scholars suggested that much of this is owing to differences in the uneven distribution of lean tissue in the upper body.


Much of modern sport is designed to test the muscular strength, skillful excellence and endurance of athletes over a relatively short stretch of time. Such a construction disadvantages women, relegating their sporting interactions into the giant shadow of their male counterparts.

Consider this for an example. The winning male Olympian achieved a time of 10.30 s in 1932. It took a questionable era of performances by Evelyn Ashford (10.76s, 1984) and Florence Griffith-Joyner (10.49s, 1988) to even come even close to that speed, far less emulate it. While the men's record has progressed to 9.58 s, achieved at the 2009 World Championships, a 10.61 s sprint was enough to earn women's Gold at the Tokyo Olympics for Elaine Thompson-Herah, a full 32 years after Flo Jo set her wondrous time.

Earnings in sport remain similarly disparate.

Question of Governance

In India, politics and governance remain steep hurdles. There is barely any space for scientific argument or player power. The BCCI maintains absolute control over its contracted national players and domestic cricketers dare not speak, if they covet selection even at the state level. Even a seasoned cricketer like Mithali remains guarded in her words, despite playing at the highest level for more than two decades.

While Sania has always been a firm advocate of equality, some of the other tennis players fear speaking out for retribution from the AITA. The federation uses its power to select the Indian team to various competitions as a stick at every opportunity. Even some of the senior stars such as Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna have not been spared their wrath for speaking out of turn. No wonder the other aspiring women players barely even speak.

With over a century of remunerative sports data to pursue, it is evident that women are fighting a grim battle. And it is perhaps not even worth their time, which is just as precious as that of a man, if not more. That is not to say that these small victories do not matter.

Clearly, there is a need and evident value for women to persist and build on the decades of effort to reclaim their rightful place in sport and its rewarding ecosystem. However, in a constantly evolving world, there is also a dire need for women to write their own script, and to chart a new course, that is entirely of their own making. The USWNT has turned over another important leaf in the equal pay debate, but even more importantly, has underlined the importance for women to organise this debate on their own terms.

The time is ripe for women athletes to design their sport and determine its governance. Indulge the fans and engage with them on their own terms. For women to shape the narrative and own the debate, they need to organise and market their own sport. There is no other sustainable alternative to defeat the patriarchal machinations that seek to constantly diminish the place of women in sport.

The time is now.

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Topics:  Equal Pay 

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