The U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team’s ongoing boycott of the women’s world championships ended the evening of March 28 after they came to a landmark agreement with USA Hockey.
The Women’s national team announced March 15 that they would be boycotting the championships that were set to begin on Friday as a protest against USA Hockey, citing unfair wages, unequal support of the women’s developmental program and lack of games and marketing events to further grow the fan base.
The past few years have seen an uptick in vocalization for changes needed in women’s hockey, including protests, work stoppages and demands that have ultimately been successful for women’s team players.
In addition to the recently resolved boycott, the players initiated a work stoppage in 2014 when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League required players to sign contracts the players deemed unfavorable, and they successfully demanded a shorter season from the National Women’s Hockey League in order to focus on the 2018 Olympics set for February in South Korea.
The efforts of the U.S. team come on the heels of the recent women’s marches across the country, and the National Women’s Day event, seeking to draw focus to the fight against gender discrimination and women’s rights.
All signs seem to suggest that the time is ripe for the women’s hockey team to use their platform to advance these causes. Other teams have done so as well.
Just last year, members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team filed a federal wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Five of the top players accused the U.S. Soccer Federation of wage discrimination, stating they earned as little as 40 percent of what the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team earned.
U.S. Soccer Federation officials pushed back forcefully and sued the union representing the Women’s National Soccer Team, seeking declaratory relief stating that the players’ union must abide by a collective bargaining agreement, which the union argued was invalid.
This dispute remains pending. There has been no decision on the EEOC complaint, and the women’s soccer team and the U.S. Soccer Federation are still in negotiations.
Support for the women’s hockey team has been overwhelming, including from their women’s soccer counterparts and several prominent NHL players. Several members of the U.S. Senate, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also sent a letter to USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body, calling for fair treatment for female players.
The senators wrote to USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean saying, “We urge you to resolve this dispute quickly to ensure that the USA Women’s National Hockey Team receives equitable resources.”
In their letter, the senators cited the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, a federal law that applies to governing bodies, including USA Hockey, 36 U.S.C. §220501 (2008).
Under the act, USA Hockey is “legally required to provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis.”
The act also refers to participation in “world championships,” which suggests that the women’s team is entitled to equitable support and encouragement in every aspect, including budgets, working conditions and development.
Before the agreement, USA Hockey paid Women’s National Hockey Team players $1,000 a month for six months every Olympic cycle and “virtually nothing” for the off-period. While the players did receive year-round support directly from the U.S. Olympic Committee, many of the players still held second or third jobs to support themselves, despite training full-time.
Additionally, while the men’s team can also play in the NHL, where the minimum salary is more than $500,000, the women’s league recently cut its salaries, which were already low at $10,000 to $26,000 per season.
Aside from increased compensation, a main point of contention for women’s team players was the money being allocated to a national team development program for youth boys. The program, which has yielded several NHL draft picks and hosts world championships at various age levels, does not invest the same resources for young female players.
Under the new agreement, the players will make around $70,000 per year, and could make six figures if they win the Olympic gold medal. In addition, the deal ensures each player will receive $2,000 per month during the life of the four-year deal.
The deal also includes the formation of a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group to advance women’s and girls’ hockey at youth levels. In addition, USA Hockey and the players will establish a committee to make recommendations on how to improve its marketing and public relations efforts to promote the women’s game.
Further, the deal provides the women’s nation team with travel and insurance protections that equal those of the men’s team, and the women’s per diem was increased from $15 per day to $50, matching the men.
It is unlikely the women’s team would have achieved such movement without the boycott, as the deal comes after over a year of negotiations. However, the relationship remains a tenuous one. It might be hard to soon forget that USA Hockey executives actively sought to find backup players to take the team’s place in the world championships.
Meanwhile, the women’s team remains marred in litigation and failed negotiations with the U.S. Soccer Federation. While the women’s soccer team has avoided strikes and boycotts thus far, the precedent-setting agreement between USA Hockey and the women’s team may suggest an alternative to litigation.
It remains to be seen whether the benefits of the boycott will prove to be a long-term solution for the women’s team. It is certainly possible to achieve equality in sports, or at least close to it, although it does take time.
Women’s tennis players in the U.S. began fighting for equal pay in the 1970s and, now, tennis is one of the few global sports that pays men and women the same amount in major tournaments.
For female athletes everywhere, the actions of the women’s hockey team appear to be a step in the right direction.
Hopefully, the deal will spur real change and increase efforts to market and grow sports for women. If so, it is likely we will see other women’s sports teams following suit.