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Soccer and Sexism

The U.S. Soccer Federation took a positive step Tuesday

when it held a Manhattan news conference to announce April Heinrichs as the

coach who will take the women's national team into the Sydney Olympics in

September, and the 2002 World Cup beyond that. But federation leaders have yet

to prove they've learned anything from the extraordinarily stupid series of

gaffes they've commited since the women's team enthralled the country on the

way to its World Cup victory in July, and the '96 Olympics gold medal before

that.

The federation's latest pratfall was descending into an ugly, seemingly sexist,

labor dispute with the same Dream Team players who have done more for American

soccer than any homegrown athletes in the sport's history.

Basically, the USSF dared the team to go on strike rather than pay them

equitably - and strike the players did. The USSF still has a chance to do the

right thing Monday when it talks contract again with the athletes'

representatives. But there are signs that the federation's leadership still

doesn't get it. On Tuesday, secretary general Hank Steinbrecher wrote off the

women's longstanding unhappiness as "two communication problems." Speaking at

Heinrichs' news conference, Steinbrecher lamented, "I've been called the last

bastion of chauvinism since Bobby Riggs."

My first thought was, "Damn. I wish I'd thought of that line." But since I

didn't, allow me to second the notion.

Six months after the World Cup victory, the amateurs who run the federation

still have no idea how to handle the sweetest story in U.S. sports since the

1980 Olympic hockey team. Had the most recent salary negotiations gone as they

should have, last summer's sweethearts would've played an Australian tournament

two weeks ago to kick off the Olympic year.

Instead, they were goaded by their own federation into striking while a team of

mostly collegiate athletes filled in. And all because federation leaders

stalled for two months before finally sitting down to talk about a new deal in

December-then balked at raising the small stipends the national team women have

been paid.

Under their just-expired three-year contract, the federation paid female

national team members $3,150 a month to train and $250 for each game. The

female players now want modest raises to $5,000 a month and $2,000 per game,

both extraordinarily reasonable requests.

After all, since signing the last contract in 1996, all the U.S. women have

done is win an Olympic gold medal and a second World Cup, this time on U.S.

soil. They draw record crowds most everywhere they go. They've brought

incalculable media attention and new fans to their sport. They put soccer at

the absolute forefront of the women's sports movement in this country, and drew

in boys as well. Even Sports Illustrated, the Bobby Riggs of the publishing

world, had to take notice. SI, which traditionally has been unkind to women not

wearing swimsuits, made the soccer team its 1999 Sportswomen of the Year.

(Knowing how things run at the magazine, which I do, all I can say is, thank

God for focus groups, the commonfolk who made it all possible.)

The women's team did all that. And still their own federation leaders blew it.

They invited this strike over a few shekels per player.

And it was hardly the first slap in the face.

The '99 women's World Cup players received a $2,500 roster bonus for making

their World Cup roster - nearly 10 times less than the $20,000 bonus each

member of the men's '98 World Cup team was paid.

Had the men won the World Cup, each player would've totaled more than $400,000,

As it was, the men finished in last place but still took home $35,000 from the

federation, nearly three times the $12,500 bonus each member of the winning

U.S. women's World Cup team received. Had the women failed to make the '99

final, the federation initally proposed giving them no bonus at all.

Wouldn't you strike, too?

On Tuesday, Steinbrecher insisted the pay dispute has nothing to do with

gender. But the next moment another federation insider admitted, "There are

people who think granting equal pay would upset the men."

Yeah? And so? Clearly, this fight has always been tinged with sexism. It's

about the old way of doing things. It's about control.

The federation was upset the women stars rightfully chose to play their own

indoor tour after the World Cup rather than the federation's proposed

international tour to Egypt and South Africa.

The federation's handling of the head coaching situation was perplexing, too.

It waited more than two months after the World Cup to offer a new contract to

head coach Tony DiCicco, who resigned.

Choosing Heinrichs was a good start. She has presence and smarts. Now, what the

federation leaders need to do is walk into Monday's contract negotiating

session and tell the striking players, "We screwed up. We acted unconscionably.

And we won't let it happen again."

It's time to quit antagonizing these women. Quit making the sport a spectacle

for all the wrong reasons. Steinbrecher sparked hope for all that this week

when he said, 'The goal is to have equal pay eventually." But he needs to drop

the "eventually."

Pay the women what they deserve. Now.

Enough already.

New York Sports