Sexism, soccer, and struggle

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I explore the struggle for equality being waged by the Canadian women’s national soccer team.

Strikes. Protests. Boycotts. Tunisia? Egypt? Bahrain? How about the Canadian women’s national soccer team?

The team’s spat with the Canadian Soccer Association has sparked a players’ revolt. Two issues lay at the heart of the dispute: The first is coach Carolina Morace’s desire to have more control over the team’s budget; a good idea given a history of nepotism and financial mismanagement in the CSA that would make an Arab dictator blush. And the second is the CSA’s differential treatment of the women’s and men’s teams which should be named for what it is: sexism.

Looking to improve their compensation package, the women demanded to know how often and how much the men’s team gets paid. The women are paid on an ad-hoc basis, tournament by tournament, and sometimes are still negotiating pay days before a big game. The men of course are on more secure financial footing.  How secure, the CSA won’t say, which leads me to believe that the disparity between the two teams is as great as the women suspect.

Talk about gender inequality in the workforce: the women are akin to casual day labourers, negotiating wages with every new job. Remarkably, this precariousness hasn’t impacted their work on game day: they are ranked among the top women’s teams in the world. The same cannot be said of the men, currently 84th, just better than Mali but not quite as strong as Macedonia.

With the CSA refusing to cede to either demand, the women announced that they would boycott the upcoming women’s World Cup, a tournament the players will have likely dreamed of playing in since childhood.  Furthermore, they announced a player strike, refusing to participate in any international game leading up to the World Cup until the CSA gave them the respect they deserved (The U.S. women’s team went on strike a few years back and won pay equity).

While the CSA has opened contract negotiations with Morace and looks likely to secure her services beyond the World Cup, at the time this column went to print there’s been no resolution on the issue of player compensation. With Morace and the CSA in talks, the team called off their boycott and got themselves a lawyer. They will file for arbitration with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, whose mandate is to sort these types of things out in a ‘responsible’ manner (i.e. not boycotts and strikes).

We’ll have to wait and see if the legal strategy proves fruitful. As any well-schooled trade unionist knows, there’s nothing like the withdrawal of your labour to get the bosses attention. But should they go back on strike, it’s not like the players will be away from the daily drudgery of the factory; they would risk missing the biggest event of their sporting lives. The CSA knows this and it puts the women in a weak bargaining position.  If I were them, I’d explore some other channels: a letter writing campaign by soccer players across the country could apply pressure on the CSA and continuing to generate media attention, publicly shaming the association, won’t hurt either (A little solidarity from the men’s team would be nice!).

This affair is just the latest to expose the Canadian Soccer Association for what it is: an old-boys club whose administrative inertia and political infighting has produced an underachieving men’s program and an abysmal youth development scheme.  The success of the women’s team has come in spite, not because of, the Canadian Soccer Association. Too bad they can’t break from the old patriarchs altogether and establish a Canadian Women’s Soccer Association based on feminist and egalitarian principles. But in a game with only eleven players, we can’t all play left-wing.

Published in Canadian Dimension May/June 2011

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