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U.S. women's soccer salary increase represents long overdue score

When the U.S. women's soccer national team beat China to win the 1999 World Cup, the team made headlines around the country. The players became America's sweethearts and all of a sudden, women's soccer became a sport that people respected and watched, and it supposedly did wonderful things to help achieve gender equity in professional sports.

For many people, the U.S. team represented what was pure and good in sports - people playing purely for the love of the game.

But when the headlines hit the newsstands a month ago saying the same team refused to play in the Australia Cup because of a salary dispute, they were criticized for their lack of dedication to the sport.

The words "salary dispute" are two of the most ugly words in professional sports. They conjure up images of the NBA lockout in which professional basketball players squabbled over how many millions of dollars they would make in upcoming years.

So honestly, when I heard there was a salary dispute between the women and the U.S. Soccer Federation, I really didn't give it too much thought. These people probably were making more than enough money already, I thought. And I believed the USSF did the right thing by sending a team composed of college-age players to the Australia Cup last month.

But it wasn't until the dispute was on its way to being resolved that I realized how right the women were to boycott the Australia Cup.

Think about it. This is a team that has won the Olympics and the World Cup, both held in the United States. The squad has broken every record there was for women's sports attendance numbers and boasted a greater turnout than the U.S. men's team ever has achieved.

And yet these same women, named Sports Illustrated's Sportswomen of the Year in December, earned a total of $3,150 a month to train and $250 per game. They also received a $2,500 roster bonus for making the World Cup roster.

By my figures, that totals about $45,000 a year. And while that salary might not seem low in comparison with jobs across the country, these women are Olympians and have proven themselves the greatest athletes in the world in their sport.

And what did they get for winning the World Cup title?

They took home $12,500.

Again, the money is still a significant amount, but not when you compare it to what basketball or football players take home. It's definitely less than what the St. Louis Rams took home Sunday for winning the Super Bowl.

But maybe it's not fair to compare basketball and football to soccer. Soccer still isn't that popular in the United States. But how about comparing the women to what the men earned?

After all, if the women's soccer team brought equality to the professional sports world, shouldn't the salaries reflect it?

In theory, yes, according to USSF Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher. At the Jan. 18 press conference introducing former Virginia Coach April Heinrichs as the new U.S. team coach, Steinbrecher said, "The goal is to have equal pay eventually."

Unfortunately, the numbers still tell a different story. The men on the 1998 World Cup team earned a $20,000 bonus for being named to the roster. The men, who finished dead last, each received $35,000 for their efforts - and they would have taken home over $400,000 had they won the World Cup.

While the women's team definitely provided the first step to gender equality in sports, the pay situation doesn't exactly show young women in the United States that women and men are equal in terms of athletics.

And given the circumstances, the women are 100 percent justified in boycotting the Australia Cup.

The dispute finally came to an end Saturday when the team agreed to a five-year contract. The women, who began training yesterday for their exhibition Sunday against Norway, will receive about $130,000 a year in salaries and bonuses, The New York Times reported.

It's still not close to what the men are earning, but it is another step in the right direction.

Breaking through the glass ceiling never has been easy and the women's national soccer team definitely deserves more than they are being paid. But through standing up for themselves, the women's soccer team not only has shown the United States and the world that they deserve the same respect other teams receive, but made the USSF give in to their very reasonable demands.

I applauded the women for their accomplishments this summer. But after the conclusion of the "salary dispute," they should get a standing ovation.

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