Whom to call?
With the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team nearing another national championship, I wanted to talk hoops with someone. So I dialed up Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy during Tuesday night’s final. Yes, the same Dan Shaughnessy who drew the ire of UConn coach Geno Auriemma, the entire state of Connecticut, and women’s sports fans everywhere when he tweeted about UConn’s 60-point victory over Mississippi State earlier in the tournament.
“Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women’s game,” he wrote. “Watch? No thanks.”
When Shaughnessy picked up, I asked him if he was watching UConn play Syracuse in the title game. He was. Really. Then he quickly added that his opinion remained unchanged. But he put it all in a broader context.
“It’s not competition,” said Shaughnessy, as UConn pulled ahead by 33 points in the third quarter. “It’s got nothing to do with gender. It’s like the Dream Team in Barcelona. UConn is great, but I wish half of them were playing somewhere else.”
It’s the perspective of someone who sees competition as the most essential, fundamental part of sports. He’s been clear about that in his own column. Fair enough. But there’s an important context much broader than UConn or Tuesday night’s final. And it has everything to do with gender.
Too often we talk about what women’s sports isn’t, instead of what it is. In the process, success gets devalued, even criticized. That’s why a tweet about UConn killing the women’s game prompts such a strong backlash.
While UConn makes a perfect season and a fourth consecutive national championship look easy, that kind of long-term dominance takes talent, coaching, chemistry, and unrelenting drive. Four years is an incredible length of time to stay on top and to keep focused.
Ideally, such a reign pushes other players and teams to be better. The same could be said of the success achieved by the US women’s national soccer team and Serena Williams.
In recent weeks, UConn, the soccer team, and Williams have demanded greater respect for what they do. The World Cup-winning women’s team is trying to close the wage gap with the men’s side. In mid March, Williams called out a tournament director who commented that female players “ride on the coattails of the men.” The tournament director was forced to resign amid the controversy his remarks created. Bravo.
Maybe UConn, the soccer team, and Williams will prompt a change in how female athletes value themselves and how sports fans value female athletes.
Responding to Shaughnessy, Auriemma said, “Don’t watch. Nobody’s putting a gun to your head to watch. So, don’t watch and don’t write about it.”
More than Auriemma’s anger, I was struck by the subtext of what he said. Besides the coach’s defiant message, here’s what I heard: “We don’t have to be grateful for whatever we get.”
For too long, gratefulness has marked women’s sports. Female athletes are conditioned to be grateful for opportunities to compete at the highest level, to be grateful for earning money as professional athletes, to be grateful for receiving coverage. It happens on the women’s side of every sport. And it’s part of what motivates the soccer team in its fight for equal pay.
Appearing on NBC’s “Today” show to discuss wage disparity between the men’s and women’s national soccer teams, goalie Hope Solo said, “We continue to be told that we should be grateful just to have the opportunity to play professional soccer and to get paid for doing it. And in this day and age, it’s about equality.”
Last week, five national team players — Solo, cocaptains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, forward Alex Morgan, and midfielder Megan Rapinoe — filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint lays out disturbing differences in pay for male and female national team members. The women’s base pay plus compensation for friendlies (matches played outside tournaments) puts the inequality in the sharpest relief.
Top-tier women’s national team players receive $72,000 per year to play a minimum of 20 friendlies. They receive $1,350 for each friendly they win, and nothing if they lose or tie. So, if they win all 20 games, they receive $99,000 for the year.
The men receive at least $5,000 to play each friendly, whether they win, lose, or tie. If a male player loses all 20 friendlies, he still receives $100,000 for the year. If the men win or tie, they receive $6,250 to $17,625 per game, depending on the caliber of the opponent.
The numbers come to light after the US women claimed their third World Cup title last July. The final game drew 23 million television viewers, making it the most-watched soccer match in American television history. Following that championship, the women went on a victory tour across the US that brought in tens of millions of dollars.
“The women are actually outperforming the men financially, and are only making somewhere between 38 percent and 72 percent of what the men make,” said the players’ lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler. “That’s a very compelling case.
“I hope we’re on the cusp of recognition that women when they perform are viewed the same way that people would view men.
“I’d like to think that the world is coming to that recognition, not just in sports but in other areas of life as well.”
That said, the US women’s soccer team shouldn’t have to make a case for equal compensation. The UConn women’s basketball team shouldn’t have to defend its blowout wins.
Bottom line: It’s about respect. They’ve earned it.
Follow Shira Springer on Twitter at @shiraspringer