Doriane Lambelet Coleman is a professor at Duke Law School and a former elite track athlete.

The U.S. Soccer Federation filed a brief Monday in its long-running dispute against the U.S. Women’s National Team that misuses the law and science of sex and sport to support the federation’s position that the women’s team doesn’t deserve equal pay. Specifically, the federation argued that because men and women are physiologically different such that even the best female athletes can’t beat their male counterparts, the women don’t have as much “ability” and “skill” and so are properly paid less. The federation said the men’s team “requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength” and so the job of male players “carries more responsibility within U.S. Soccer.”

It’s difficult to understand how the federation got this so wrong.

The federation misused some of my work in developing its brief. I published an academic study in 2017, “Sex in Sport,” that considers the relevance of sex in different institutional contexts. My argument there was that to achieve sex equality in sport, which undoubtedly includes equal pay for male and female athletes, it is necessary to have policies that recognize, rather than ignore, sex and the facts of biological sex differences. If we want to be able to see and to celebrate fabulous female champions like the U.S. women’s team, competition needs to be segregated on the basis of sex or at least on the basis of sex-linked traits.

The whole point of separate events for women is that they produce the extraordinary value that female athletes and female sports generate for society. If any single women’s team has put that value beyond dispute, it’s the four-time World Cup-champion U.S. women. That team is the incarnation of what Title IX was designed to accomplish.

The federation’s filing uses my study’s reference to record-breaking Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky. It quotes me as "describing the scientific basis for ‘the average 10-12% performance gap between elite male and elite female athletes,’ ... and noting, by way of example, that ‘no matter how great the great Katie Ledecky gets . . . she will never beat Michael Phelps or his endurance counterparts in the pool.’”

If any single female athlete has made clear that athletic “ability” and “skill” are not synonymous with absolute “strength” and “speed,” it’s Ledecky. She is famously said to be “better at swimming than anyone is at anything.” I cited her in my argument for this reason, to illustrate that if women had to swim against men, we wouldn’t know or have the ability to benefit from the expressive effects of her extraordinary talent. Given this, it is incomprehensible that U.S. Soccer would suggest, as it does in its filing, that Ledecky is somehow less than the many men who swim faster than she does. Like the U.S. women’s soccer team, Ledecky produces value — including economic value — that isn’t remotely related to whether she can beat men. U.S. Soccer misuses Ledecky to argue, by implication, that because the female soccer players can’t beat their male counterparts, they are also less than and so don’t deserve equal pay.

The job of elite athletes who are on the national governing body’s payroll is winning games, titles and trophies in the division to which they’re assigned. Because of their different, sex-linked biology, women get there differently from men, including in some aspects of the way the game itself is played. But if they do get there, they’ve done the job and deserve the same pay. Should a female mathematician be paid less than a male mathematician if she solves the same problem in the same amount of time but we learn that her brain processes it in a different way? According to its litigation posture, U.S. Soccer would. And this would undoubtedly be wrong on the law.

Beyond the legalities of the equal-pay dispute, if U.S. Soccer doesn’t get that Megan Rapinoe’s value isn’t in being able to outrun some member of the men’s squad, or that the women’s team’s value isn’t in being able to outscore the men, it doesn’t deserve to be the national governing body for the sport. If it doesn’t get that its arguments insult not only elite female athletes but also all the little girls who aspire someday to be in their shoes, it should hand control over to someone who does. Blowback from some federation board members and sponsors this week led Carlos Cordeiro to resign as federation president, but U.S. Soccer is more than one man. No national governing body sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and ultimately by the nation should peddle, directly in litigation or indirectly through its policy choices, the harmful and outdated stereotype that women and girls are of lesser value than boys and men.

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