California Lawmakers Fight For Equal Pay For Athletes In Contests On State Land

The legislation would force competitions held on state-granted land or property to reward male and female competitors equally.

Stunning hiking trails, world-class surf beaches and mild weather year-round make California a haven for triathlons, marathons and surf competitions. That’s why Democratic lawmakers are bringing the fight for equal pay to the Golden State’s public land.

State Assembly members Tasha Boerner Horvath and Lorena Gonzalez proposed legislation this month that would force competitions held on state-granted land or property to reward male and female competitors equally, closing the gender pay gap for many athletes.

The bill, dubbed Equal Pay for Equal Play, was inspired by a group of female surfers who fought for years to get women invited to a legendary big-wave contest at the Mavericks surf break in Half Moon Bay, California, which had been exclusive to men since 1999.

“In 2019, I don’t think I want my daughter or my son or any child in California, for that matter, to grow up and see this inequality on our state lands,” Boerner Horvath, a lawmaker from San Diego, told HuffPost.

“This is a great opportunity, especially as my first bill, to set the stage for what California’s values are and how we reflect them in legislation of our public land and how do we really make a difference,” she added.

If passed, the legislation would require organizations seeking state permission to hold an event on state property to guarantee that equal prize money goes to all genders. If equal pay isn’t being offered, officials would have to decline the request for an event permit or lease.

AB 467, as it is officially known, could affect a wide variety of events, including marathons, triathlons and outdoor competitions for surfing, swimming, biking and other athletic activities held on state property. It would also affect competitions at a smaller scale, including youth events like soccer games or skateboard competitions on state property.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King, who has focused her activism on the gender pay gap, threw her support behind the bill last week.

“My home state leading the way,” the tennis legend tweeted, along with an article about the bill.

California’s is believed to be the first bill of its kind pushing to close the gender pay gap for athletes at a statewide level.

Sarah Axelson, the senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, told HuffPost she wasn’t aware of any other states taking sweeping legislative action like this. Axelson, who has read only parts of the bill, said it looked promising.

“To have a state like California take the lead [in pay equity for athletes], even if they’re small steps … that’s still a statement to get people thinking that prize money does matter and pay equity does matter,” Axelson said.

But though the bill seeks equal pay, there is no language in it that requires the events to have male and female divisions.

Sabrina Brennan, the San Mateo County Harbor Commission president whose work getting women into the Mavericks surf competition inspired the bill, commended AB 467 but said there needs to be more focus on getting competitions to require events for both genders.

Brennan and her team lobbied the California Coastal Commission to add a requirement for a female division to its land-use permit policies in order for any contest to be held at Mavericks.

Their successful work eventually led the World Surf League to introduce a new policy requiring equal prize money for female surfers in 2018. Brennan was invited to speak at the State Assembly members’ news conference on the bill, but she said she was not involved with writing the legislation.

“This is all fantastic about equal pay, and we love to see our work codified. … But the piece that’s kind of missing from the bill is the part about equality, inclusion and equal access,” Brennan told HuffPost.

The California commissioner co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, an organization that advocates for the inclusion of all genders. They don’t support events that are exclusive to a single gender.

Brennan said the bill was lacking language that specifically called for the inclusion of both male and female events.

“We noticed that the bill was silent on [that issue]. I just want to make it clear that we [the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing] are not silent on that,” Brennan said.

“If you’re not included in the competition, you can’t get equal pay,” she added. “That’s a foundational element of being able to have equal pay. You can’t have equal pay if [the athletes are] unemployed.”

Though Brennan would like to see more legislation requiring both male and female events, she said she was encouraged to see AB 467 build off the work they did for female surfers at Mavericks.

“It just makes us feel like we don’t have to ... fight that fight again. It’s done,” she said.

While high-profile cases for equal pay have made headlines in recent years ― the U.S. women’s national soccer team, for example, received full pay parity with the men’s team after filing a complaint ― Axelson said equity in other sports often goes overlooked.

“There are a lot of sports that are moving in the right direction or are already there with pay equity, but certainly there is plenty of room to grow,” she said.

AB 467 “certainly has the potential to influence the conversation around pay equity and bring sports into that conversation as well,” Axelson added.