From one angle, financial compensation for athletes appears a rare island of social justice. The Forbes list of the world’s richest people skews heavily toward Caucasians, but the list of top-paid athletes inverts the racial wealth gap: Less than 30 of the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes are non-Hispanic whites.

Then again, the list of the highest-paid athletes has exactly one woman on it, Serena Williams, No. 63. In recent years, the disparity has become a minor cause among younger feminists. And now that the United States has again won the Women’s World Cup, their cause has turned into a national obsession, as Americans abruptly noticed that the pool of prize money available to their champions was less than 10 percent of what FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, offers the men. Members of the U.S. women’s team are also suing U.S. Soccer, their employer, for paying them less than the men’s team.

The pay gap is an outrage, outraged pundits proclaimed. Others fired back that the men’s World Cup last year generated $6 billion, of which the participants split $400 million, or about 7 percent of the total revenue. The women’s World Cup is expected to generate $131 million, of which the women’s teams are splitting $30 million, or about 23 percent of the overall revenue. Arguably, compared to the men, the women were actually grossly overpaid.

The U.S. women’s team’s boosters respond, undoubtedly with some truth, that the difference in revenue isn’t happenstance; it occurs in a cultural context where women are devalued. Their interlocutors point out, also with at least some truth, that women just aren’t as strong as men, or as fast, and thus, they argue, their soccer games aren’t as exciting to watch. 

I’ll leave discussion of the sport’s finer points to someone who can keep a straight face while using “soccer” and “exciting to watch” in the same sentence. Instead, I’ll open my copy of “Anarchy, State and Utopia” and note that philosopher Robert Nozick anticipated this question decades ago. 

In a famous thought experiment, Nozick used legendary basketball player Wilt Chamberlain to explore what happens when perfectly innocent individual choices produce a pattern of income distribution that we don’t like.

Nozick asks us to imagine that society has achieved what everyone regards as a just income distribution, at which point a basketball team offers Chamberlain 25 cents out of every dollar it collects if he will only come play for it. If Chamberlain takes his 25 cents from each of the dollars paid by a million fans, changing the income distribution, is it still just? After all, the people who paid that money had a right to it, and presumably also a right to give it away. By what right do we gainsay their choice?

The parallels to the Women’s World Cup are close, down to the relevant percentages. The fans who avidly followed the men’s tournament certainly weren’t doing anything wrong. And it’s hard to argue that each of them had a moral obligation to be exactly as interested in women’s soccer. 

Even if we could stop them from watching the men more than the women, should we? And if not, should we expect FIFA to pay the women’s soccer players  three times the total revenue of their tournament to produce an income distribution we like better? Or level the distribution at the other end, by taking money away from men who haven’t actually done anything wrong by playing well and attracting many fans?

It’s tempting to answer that the fan choices aren’t innocent, they’re sexist. But since we can’t peek into their hearts, to say that definitively, we’d have to assume that men’s greater speed, strength and endurance definitely make no difference to the sport’s quality. Fair enough, but then why do fans prefer to watch Megan Rapinoe play instead of the sedentary elderly who could presumably use some exercise?

Alternatively, maybe pay should be equalized precisely because biology is unfair. But that seems to be an argument for curbing the pay of all top-level athletes, who have to hit the genetic lottery just to get on the field.

It might be easier to focus on the distributions across society at large, rather than every individual industry, especially when fundamental biology is in play. Athletic competition has inverted racial wealth hierarchies so effectively precisely because it ultimately depends on biology, leaving relatively little room for cultural biases to affect outcomes.

Unfortunately, biology has been less generous to women in the matters of strength and speed, making sports a poor arena in which to battle our larger social problem.

Twitter: @asymmetricinfo

Read more: