Title IX helped America win the World Cup; now it’s time to close the pay gap

By Betsy Butler

The U.S. Women’s National Team celebrates their 2019 World Cup victory
Photo via ussoccer.com

The writer is executive director of the California Women’s Law Center and a former California Assembly member.

Flip through any high school yearbook from a few decades ago, and you might notice something missing. Among the shaggy haircuts and bell-bottoms, you’ll see familiar images of boys in caps holding baseball bats or grinning behind football helmets. But you’d be hard pressed to find a team of girls posing on a basketball court or soccer field.

Thanks to Title IX, this has changed. When 20 million people tuned in to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team win their fourth World Cup title, most weren’t thinking about public policy and legal advocacy — but these forces were indeed present on the field.

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act. Among other things, the law required educational institutions receiving federal funds to make athletic opportunities equally available to boys and girls.

This means that the female athletes of today grew up in schools that were legally required to make sports available to them. The year Title IX was passed, just 28 high schools offered girls’ soccer teams. Only 700 girls participated. Today, over 12,000 high schools have girls’ soccer teams, and more than 390,000 girls are playing. Some of these girls will grow up to be Olympians and World Cup champions.

When sports are available, girls play. It’s a truth underscored by the proliferation of club soccer teams, which offer additional opportunities but can be costly. The Torrance-born American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) offers a more affordable option for many youth soccer players. Started out of a South Bay garage, it now engages 400,000 players across the country and has helped launch World Cup athletes — including Alex Morgan of the U.S. Women’s National Team, who got her start playing with AYSO here in Los Angeles County.

Girls are kicking soccer balls all over L.A. County. On the Westside, AYSO organizes players from Redondo Beach to Santa Monica, and everywhere in between. The same day the U.S. women won their fourth World Cup, a girls’ team from South Los Angeles — the Legends — became AYSO National Champions, making history as likely the first all African-American team to do so.

But even with a relatively low barrier of entry, not everyone has the resources to participate in sports off school campus, which is why California Women’s Law Center has spent three decades enforcing Title IX throughout the state. Regularly, we get calls from players, parents and coaches alleging violations and asking for our guidance. Accusations often center on disparity of investment and commitment — girls being forced to practice on dirt fields while the boys play on new turf, or lack of designated coaches for girls’ teams. Each year CWLC participates in two or three lawsuits defending girls’ legal right to play sports.

Title IX doesn’t just help secure World Cup titles and Olympic medals. Girls who play sports are more likely to graduate high school and avoid unintended pregnancies. They are less apt to use drugs. And they are more likely to get scholarships and obtain college degrees.
A college education leads to higher wages and increased job opportunities.

And with a persistent pay gap — experienced even by world-class athletes — giving girls every opportunity to succeed financially is critical.

Twenty-eight members of the U.S. Women’s National Team have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging they are paid less than their male counterparts, despite doing the same work. CWLC also represents plaintiffs in wage discrimination cases, so we know that athletes demanding equal pay are not alone. Working women around the nation are impacted, as illustrated by the impassioned chants of “Equal Pay” in the stadium after the U.S. won.

We’ve made progress since the 1963 Equal Pay Act, but not enough. Women now earn 80 cents on the dollar, and women of color experience a much wider gap; Latinas earn just 53 cents to each dollar a white man earns.

By demanding equal pay, the players on the U.S. Women’s National Team are carrying the tradition of legal advocacy forward. And groups like California Women’s Law Center maintain vigilance so that progress doesn’t backslide.

The current generation of girls can expect to play sports.

Let’s hope they can also expect to get paid equally.