Soccer dispute

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Dispute between Canadian women's soccer team and Canadian Soccer Association

On February 10, 2011, CBC Radio's The Current featured a 24-minute segment on a dispute between the Canadian women's soccer team and the Canadian Soccer Association about compensation issues.

It is worth noting the background of this issue, which had been explored elsewhere in media in recent days and weeks. Other organizations had noted the absence of a framework to determine how and when team members would be paid. Underlying those concerns were principles involving pay equity with the Canadian men's team. Making matters more difficult in achieving either a framework or parity was that the women's team had been unable to find out the nature of the men's team's compensation. It had enlisted legal counsel to help its fight.

The women's team was threatening a boycott of international competition if it did not reach agreement. That would include withdrawing from an imminent tournament in Cyprus and the looming World Cup, where the highly ranked Canadian team was expected to vie for a medal. (As it turned out, it did not advance past the round-robin portion of the World Cup.)

Host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Carmelina Moscato, a member of the team, and Jim Bunting, the lawyer working pro bono to gain an agreement with the association. In a second interview in the segment, Tremonti talked to Jason de Vos, a CBC commentator and former men's team captain.

In the first interview, Moscato talked about the momentum of the team under coach Carolina Morace, how the players had foregone club play this year to commit to the national team, and how it would be a very tough decision as a result to follow through on the boycott.

Morace was a central figure in this story. She had indicated in recent days that she would quit the team following the World Cup due to her own dispute with the Canadian Soccer Association, even though she was contractually signed until after the 2012 Olympics. The players indicated their support for her and said they would not play another international match if a long-term settlement with her were not reached. The program did not deal with this issue in detail. (A settlement was reached through the 2012 Olympics, but Morace nevertheless stepped down following the disappointing World Cup showing.)

Tremonti noted there was another issue, one that she acknowledged was not part of any threatened boycott: equity for men's and women's teams

Moscato noted that women received $1,500 monthly from Sport Canada if their annual incomes did not exceed $50,000, but that there was no compensation structure with the Canadian Soccer Association on such matters. In some cases the women's team would be negotiating with the association about their compensation for appearances and bonuses for performance during the actual tournaments themselves. Moscato said that was “very stressful.”

Tremonti introduced Bunting, who said the central issue was the pursuit of a compensation structure to “know what and when” women are paid to play for Canada. To do that he felt it necessary to know what the men were paid, but the association had not responded to his requests. It was his understanding that men got a certain amount each game.

Tremonti pushed him at that point to speculate on whether he thought men were getting more than women. Bunting said it could be “significantly more,” but he was clearly ambivalent about focusing on that issue and asserted he just didn't know what the men were paid.

Moscato said she didn't want to go as far as to say they were second-class citizens or anything “as dramatic as that.” She said the team had proposed a framework in 2009 but been ignored. She hinted it was unusual that a deal hadn't been reached, given that Canada was expected to gain a medal (a top-three finish) at the World Cup.

But she reiterated she didn't “want to make this a boy/girl, women/men thing” and that it was difficult to comment without an understanding of the financial situation.

Bunting noted that the issue had been dealt with in other countries. In the United States, he said the women's team had gained pay equity with the men's team.

Moscato said the dispute also involved a “matter of respect.” Tremonti noted Moscato was reluctant to say it was a matter of sexism and Moscato agreed.

Tremonti then pursued the issue of transparency, which Bunting said was central. Moscato also noted the unfortunate timing of the dispute, given the effort to bring the 2015 World's Cup for women's soccer to Canada. (The bid was ultimately successful.)

When the interview with Moscato and Bunting ended, Tremonti said the program asked the Canadian Soccer Association to participate in the segment but had been told no one would be available for a discussion.

She then interviewed de Vos, who said he sympathized with the players but that the issue was not as simple as it seemed. The men's and women's programs were quite different, he argued, because men's soccer had a long history of professional play and women's professional play was in its infancy. There might be 10 to 12 competitive national women's programs and four or five top programs, with Canada breaking into that upper echelon. But there would be well over 100 competitive men's programs.

Tremonti noted, however, that women were vying for the World Cup as a highly rated team while the men were ranked in the 80s worldwide, a point that de Vos acknowledged

He outlined what he understood as a framework for men's compensation, including appearance fees for each game that varied according to the importance of the competition.

Tremonti again noted the women didn't feel compensated adequately and that men were paid more. While de Vos said he was supportive of transparency, he returned to the issue of the financial differences in the scale of men's and women's soccer. If men qualified for the World Cup, it was worth $10 million to the Canadian program; if women qualified, it was worth $300,000.

He said the dispute needed to be resolved amicably without the threat of boycott. He sensed a will on both sides of the dispute to do so.

The complainant, Geoffrey Johnson, wrote February 13, 2011, to say Tremonti had not backed her claim that the dispute was rooted in allegations of sexism. “The only person in this interview to raise the spectre of sexism was Tremonti . . . She was determined to pursue it regardless of how her guests viewed the issue.”

Johnson said Moscato “never once mentioned sexism” and that Bunting said he did not know if there was an inequity in men's and women's compensation. He said Bunting was not interested in women getting the same as men but in getting a framework similar to the men's team's so they knew what and when they were paid.

Johnson said the “real story” was missed and he listed several questions: “Are the women really ready to quit? Who is on the committee representing the players in talks with the CSA? Is Moscato one of them? What is the state of the talks? Could this be the end of the careers of some outstanding players? What does FIFA (the international athletic body) have to say about this? Will it step in? What can be done about forcing the CSA to act? If the women did walk out, would it seriously damage Canada's hopes of playing host to the (2015) women's World Cup? What impact would that have on the women's game in this country?”

“It's an important story,” Johnson wrote, “and she allowed her gender bias to blind her to it.”

Pam Bertrand, the executive producer of The Current, wrote back September 14, 2011 and offered “sincere apologies” for the delay in corresponding. Bertrand disagreed with Johnson that there was a gender bias or what he termed a “women-as-victims agenda” on the program. “CBC is prohibited by federal regulation and corporate policy from advocating or supporting any point of view on controversial issues, certainly including this one.”

Bertrand said Tremonti's pursuit of the payment issue was pertinent in the funding dispute. She said Tremonti's question about whether women were being paid the same was important because “pay equality is an entrenched principle in Canadian law.” She noted that Bunting told the program he thought the men were being paid more but that the most important thing was the framework and structure used to determine their compensation be the same for women.

Bertrand said that Moscato and Bunting “seemed to skirt” the issue of sexism and that Moscato “chose to frame the issue, perhaps on Mr. Bunting's advice, as one of fairness not gender.”

“But was the existing unfairness the result of gender? Did the CSA (Canadian Soccer Association) see the women's side as somehow worth less? Did it see the women's game as inferior to the men's? Good questions. We could not ask the CSA directly, but we did ask if that was the way the women's squad saw it. In any reasonable listening, that is not an example of the ‘gender bias.'”

While it was important to let the guests express their views, “it is also an interviewer's responsibility to test those views, even challenge them on occasion, to question assumptions, to point out that there are other views, and that is what Ms. Tremonti did.”

Johnson asked October 2, 2011 for a review, saying that it was wrong for Tremonti to insist the money dispute had its basis in sexism. He said it would have been reasonable to determine if the women's team was being treated unfairly compared to the men's team but that Tremonti had pushed too far to extract answers.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices intersect with this complaint in several ways. One principle of the policy sets out the optimal tone of interviews, in that the journalism of CBC News should “treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect . . . We treat them even-handedly.”

The policy also sets a tone with regard to issues involving gender: “Our vocabulary choices are consistent with equal rights. Our language reflects equality of the sexes and we prefer inclusive forms where they are not prohibitively cumbersome.”

It adds: “We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. . . We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

It strives for impartiality: “We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

On issues of controversy, the policy states CBC ensures “divergent views are reflected respectfully” and “that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

Of relevance that this segment did not feature the Canadian Soccer Association, the policy states “when a person considered necessary to a story refuses to be interviewed or provide comment, in fairness to all parties, we advise the audience of the refusal. When appropriate, we also provide the reasons given.”

The policy also says CBC News does not hesitate to follow-up a story “when a situation changes significantly.”

Conclusion

The most significant concerns from the complainant were that the program was advancing an agenda and reflecting a gender bias. I did not agree on either count.

The segment attempted to widen a sports issue into one of greater relevance for an audience. Its specific effort, albeit without a great deal of success, was to determine if the principle of pay equity was being pursued and fulfilled. In so doing the program was not carrying forward an agenda but simply carrying out basic reporting on institutional conduct pertaining to an important social concept.

Rather than what the complainant termed a “women-as-victims” discussion, I concluded this was a “women-as-rightful-equals” discussion exploring if there was incongruence between the principle of equity and the practice of the soccer association. The line of questioning on this front was germane. Society has accepted the equity principle and it is journalism's responsibility to scrutinize its institutional implementation.

Just because the issue referenced gender did not make the discussion gender biased. Indeed, the program's interview with the former men's captain outlined similar challenges in earlier years for his team, making clear there were concerns across gender about the operational approaches of the association. In this instance, though, the development was only affecting the women's team, so its focus on the compensation framework and the wider context of equity was appropriate and in no way reflected a bias.

Even so, as a listener I acknowledge there might be reason to wonder how the issue of sexism might commingle with a financial framework dispute between the women's soccer team and the association. There was an opportunity to make this connection clearer.

The program would have done better to provide more background on the issue at the outset. Direct reporting of other public statements could have answered criticism that the program was too vague and generic in asserting “the disagreement is generating allegations of sexism in Canadian soccer.” In repeated listening I concluded the program assumed the audience understood more than it might have as the segment began. Setting the context more fully at the outset would have provided a stronger foundation upon which to build the theme.

It was possible, but not easy, to infer throughout the segment that there was financial inequity between the men's and women's teams. The women's team's lawyer speculated about inequity and certainly didn't deny it existed, but either he did not know enough specifically or was reluctant to dwell on what he did know. He would only say he understood that to be the case, only said so well into the segment, and would not elaborate. And the player would not venture there was a lack of fairness in the treatment of the two teams; she, too, only implied it. This made for a little blurriness.

Having said that, I concluded the program host made an earnest attempt to shed light on the issue, even if the participants weren't going there. There was nothing in this persistence that breached journalistic policy.

My larger concern was that segment would have benefited in the absence of the association from an explanation of its position. There was some, but not much, material on the public record to reflect its views that could have been employed in the questioning of guests. Given there was only one party to the dispute available to the program, it also would have been better to note much earlier than 16 minutes into the discussion that the association declined to appear.

Further, given how much time it furnished the issue, the audience would have benefited from a follow-up segment or information from The Current when the issue was resolved to satisfy the spirit of the policy.

I note that other CBC programs did update the issue, fulfilling the letter of the policy. While there was room for improvement, there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

The lengthy delay in the correspondence on this review suggests this Office needs to discuss with CBC how to track public complaints once they are with programmers. The customary standard of response by programmers to complainants is 20 business days, a fraction of this process.

One element of the complaint was not a matter for this review. Certainly there were many practical, relevant, newsworthy angles to pursue in this segment, and the complainant identified some of them. Audiences are often frustrated when a particular angle isn't chosen for a discussion. But the principle of editorial independence requires that CBC News alone determine the focus of its interviews.

An ombudsman's review has to evaluate if the focus was treated in accordance with policy on standards and practices. Only when there is an apparent exclusion of vital and relevant information in an interview might there be reason to question the strategy. This was not the case.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman