- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Have you seen the latest Nike ad? A black woman athlete makes a plea for pay equity in sports. She pleads to the camera: "We play as hard, sweat as hard, practice as hard, as the men. But we aren't paid as much." Ahh, the injustice of it all. No doubt sales of women's sneakers will skyrocket in coming months.

The ad is no doubt inspired by the women from the U.S. World's Cup soccer championship team who are complaining the U.S. Soccer Federation doesn't pay them what the men are paid. Michelle Akers from the ladies soccer team has even brought her grievance to the White House. There ought to be a law against this discrimination, she has told President Clinton.

These days you can hardly pick up the sports pages and not read about women sports stars like Ms. Akers agitating for gender equity. Their demands sound reasonable: equal pay for equal work. But in reality the debate about ending salary discrimination in sports only unwittingly underscores the absurdity of the Clinton admininistration's "comparable worth" legislation that would apply to all occupations from secretaries to soccer stars.

Feminists point to the sports world as prima facie evidence of the lingering disparities in salaries between men and women. Female athletes are becoming walking billboards for the pay equity crusade. In professional tennis, the ladies are complaining that Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras are paid more than Lindsey Davenport and Martina Hingis. They're so upset over this injustice they have threatened to boycott either the U.S. Open or Wimbledon unless this pay discrimination is eradicated.

My friend Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal For Opportunity and someone who thinks Bill Clinton's legislative proposal for "federal pay equity" is a lot of bunk, nonetheless asks: "Why shouldn't the women who won the World Cup last July who are performing the same job as men, only better, make as least as much money as their male counterparts?" The obvious answer to Linda's question is that they don't do the job as well as men and certainly they don't do it better. The male professional soccer players are far superior in talent to the women. For gosh sakes, that's why they have a women's team in the first place.

The women tennis pros don't really want equal pay for equal work. They want equal pay for inferior work. There is a very practical reason why Pete Sampras, for example, makes a lot more money than Martina Hingis does. He is much, much better than she is. The day that Martina can return Pete's serve is the day she should get paid what he does.

If there is an injustice in tennis, it's that women like Martina Hingis and Monica Seles make millions of dollars a year, even though there are hundreds of men at the collegiate level (assuming their schools haven't dropped the sport) who could beat them handily. Yet these men make nothing. Venus Williams is a multi-millionaire not despite the fact that she is a women but precisely because she's a woman. She receives much higher pay than an equally skilled man. Isn't that precisely the opposite of what is meant by pay equity?

One solution to the alleged sex discrimination in sports is to get rid of the distinction between men and women's sports altogether. Every high school and college in America should have one football team, one basketball team, one badminton team, etc. We got rid of racial segregation in sports decades ago. Now it is time to get rid of segregation by sex. The top 10 or 15 or 20 men or women should make the high school or college team. Unisex squads would create a true meritocracy in sports: the only decisive factor would be talent. I notice that a few college football teams have already started to allow women place kickers to compete with the men which is exactly as it should be.

The fallacy of the pay equity issue in sports and all occupations is that it is predicated on the labor theory of value. If Martina Hingis deserves a salary equal to that of Pete Sampras because she "works as hard as he does," then I deserve the same salary and speaking fees as Paul Krugman, because I spend as much time as he does writing about economics. (Compounding the injustice is that he's paid more than me even though he is almost always wrong, and I am almost always right.)

If we reject the loony notion the government should decide how much workers are "worth," then we are left with the only time-tested way to determine salaries in this society, and that is the free market. The market does not somehow conspire against women whether they are executives, computer programmers, bus drivers, or tennis players. Diana Furchgott-Roth reports in her latest edition of "Women's Figures" that for graduates now entering the work force the pay differential between the sexes is almost nonexistent.

The U.S. Soccer Federation patiently explains that the main reason that women are paid less than the men is that men's soccer generates 3 times more income a year than does women's soccer. For the time being, and for better or worse, cash-paying customers are more interested in watching men than women play soccer. (For what it is worth, you would have to pay me to watch anyone play soccer.) As women's sports become more popular, the pay for women athletes has soared. It is quite possible that as viewership for women's tennis rises and falls for men (the high-tech titanium rackets are ruining the men's game), Venus Williams may start making more money than Mr. Sampras.

And when that happens it is going to be Pete whining in those Nike ads screaming for pay equity. With some justification, I might add.

Stephen Moore is an adjunct fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to National Review.

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