The Most Famous Low-Wage Workers in the Country

Players in the National Women’s Soccer League are speaking up about the abusive work environments that can develop when women are underpaid.

An image of a soccer ball as the filling of a Nabisco Oreo cookie
Meager wages make women more vulnerable to abuse and less empowered to speak up. (Getty; The Atlantic)

On September 14, Nabisco workers at a bakery in Portland, Oregon, who had been striking for more than a month to protest proposed contract changes were joined on the picket line by what might have seemed unlikely allies: players for the Portland Thorns, the city’s professional women’s soccer team. “The message you should take from that is that we’re workers just like anybody else,” Meghann Burke, the executive director of the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, said on the Burn It All Down podcast last month. “Of course we’re going to show solidarity to other workers who are in the same fights.”

Union members had feared that Nabisco’s changes would result in longer shifts, less overtime pay, and increased health-care costs, which led to a standoff with Nabisco’s parent company, Mondelēz International. Though the strike ended on September 18, when a new contract that included annual wage increases and no change to health-care benefits was approved by the union, the dispute was indicative of the kinds of labor issues that many industries are facing.

Americans don’t often see professional athletes as “workers just like anybody else.” For the NWSL, though, the comparison is apt. Despite the fact that many professional athletes enjoy celebrity status and massive paychecks, the majority of professional women’s soccer players in the U.S. has more in common with the Nabisco bakers than with LeBron James. And the low salaries that most NWSL players earn engender more than just pay inequality—they’ve allegedly created an environment where abuse of players by multiple coaches has flourished.

Recent reports by The Athletic and The Washington Post detail abusive situations on several NWSL teams: One coach, Paul Riley of the North Carolina Courage, was fired after two former players accused him of sexual coercion (Riley denied the allegations to The Athletic). Another coach, Richie Burke of the Washington Spirit, was also fired after multiple players accused him of verbal and emotional abuse (he did not immediately respond to my request for comment). And the league’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, was ousted following the revelations. The picture that has emerged illustrates work environments reminiscent of those in the lowest-wage industries in our society. Simply put, these industries tend to have more sexual-harassment claims, demonstrating that fair pay is about more than just money—it’s also about the amount of power workers have to speak up and stay safe on the job.

Although the average Major League Soccer player makes $398,725 a year, the minimum salary in the NWSL is $22,000 and the maximum is $52,500; the majority of the players earn $31,000 a year or less. The pay inequality faced by women athletes at the highest level has garnered national attention in recent years, as the U.S. women’s national soccer team has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over the wage gap. (National soccer teams, which play together just a few weeks a year, are run separately from professional leagues such as the NWSL). But typically missing from this conversation is a discussion about the kind of work environment that can develop when women are paid these low wages.

In 2017, Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, analyzed sexual-harassment complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2005 to 2015. Frye told me over the phone that though harassment happens in all types of workplaces, abuse is likelier to happen to women in industries with low wages. “Built into … the market system is not only a power imbalance but also a bias around which workers are valued and whose work we value,” she said. “Sometimes it’s women earning less than male counterparts in the same jobs, but also women earning less in predominantly female jobs because we assume those are less important and valuable … the women in food service, and teachers, and home-care workers, and nursing assistants.”

Meager wages make women more vulnerable to abuse and less empowered to speak up, according to Julie Goldscheid, a law professor at City University of New York School of Law who studies gender, violence, and economic equality. “The kind of stigma that goes along with sexual harassment or other forms of gender-based violence … just makes it all the more unlikely that you’re going to come forward,” she told me. The NWSL allegations, for instance, are becoming public only now, but the timeline for the alleged abuse goes back years. Though two former Portland Thorns players said that Riley sexually coerced them when he was their coach, just one, Meleana Shim, came forward to the team owner and human resources in 2015. Her claim was dismissed for a lack of “corroborating evidence.”

Fear of retaliation for speaking up is so high that about 75 percent of people who experience harassment in workplaces across the country never report it at all, per the EEOC findings. Indeed, two former Spirit players who talked with the Post about the alleged abuse they endured did so anonymously “because of concerns about retaliation.” And of those Americans who do report sexual harassment, more than 70 percent of them say they experienced some form of retaliation, according to a study by the National Women’s Law Center.

Frye said this connection between low pay and worker safety is a reminder that when addressing abusive environments, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence, we need multiple solutions. “I think people often don’t connect the dots,” she said. As the recent, chilling reports from the NWSL have proved, calls for equal pay have never been just about the money. Pay equality, or at the very least higher wages, is about giving workers the power they deserve, especially in workplaces where women and other marginalized people are routinely unheard, undervalued, and unprotected.