LAST MONTH, the debate about equal pay in tennis raged. For days following Novak Djokovic’s suggestion that male players should be paid more because they attract a larger audience to the sport, reams of newsprint were devoted to the rights and wrongs of his comments. This month, however, an equal-pay dispute of far greater significance has emerged yet has failed to dominate the headlines in the same manner.

A few weeks ago, five members of the US women’s football team filed a wage-discrimination action against the US Soccer Federation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The players – Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, launched the lawsuit following the release of figures by the US Soccer federation that shows that the women’s team earn one quarter of their male counterparts, despite generating over $20 million more revenue.

The top five players on the men’s team make an average of $406,000 for playing for their national team each year, the women will make only $72,000 per year for the equivalent number of games. The men are rewarded with a bonus of $69,000 for making the US World Cup squad, the women only $15,000. When a male player makes a sponsor appearance for US Soccer, he gets paid $3750 while female players get only $3000. The list of discrepancies goes on.

In most countries, inequality in pay between male and female footballer players would be unsurprising, expected even. But this is why this case is so significant. The USA is the one country in the world in which women’s football overshadows the men’s game. The US women’s football team are reigning World Cup champions and have won the last three Olympic gold medals. They will be the favourites to retain their Olympic gold medal this summer while the men’s team has failed to qualify. When the women’s team won the Women’s World Cup last year, they attracted America’s highest-ever television rating for football.

Carli Lloyd, one of the players to file this lawsuit, wrote a pertinent essay in the New York Times last weekend. “We’re sick of being treated like second-class citizens. It wears on you after a while. And we are done with it,” she wrote. “Our beef is not with the men’s national team; it’s with the federation, and its history of treating us as if we should be happy that we are professional players and not working in the kitchen or scrubbing the locker room. The fact that women are being mistreated financially is, sadly, not a breaking news story. It goes on in every field. We can’t right all the world’s wrongs, but we’re totally determined to right the unfairness in our field, not just for ourselves but for the young players coming up behind us and for our soccer sisters around the world.”

The women’s team this week floated the idea of boycotting the Olympic Games in Rio, and thereby forfeiting the chance to defend their title, so strongly do they feel about this case. This is a ballsy move by the women’s team, but one that is fully justified. More often than not, the argument against equal pay is that more fans want to watch the men so therefore, they should get a greater reward. In many cases, particularly tennis, I don’t agree with this argument – as Billie Jean King said, it’s not about the money, it’s about the message. And by paying women less, the message is clear; they are worth less than their male counterparts. But while I do not agree with a discrepancy in prize money, I can see the logic in the argument.

In European football, the differential in the money generated in the men’s and women’s games is so great that this it is ridiculous to suggest that female players should be paid equally and indeed, I have never heard a female footballer peddle this argument. But this is why the case of the US women’s soccer team is so pertinent. They are a far more valuable asset to their federation yet still receive lower pay for their work. This is not a group of women asking for equal pay on the back of a shaky, questionable argument. They are basing their argument on bare facts and they are being denied equality because of sexism, plain and simple. There is no other explanation.

All too often, women have been on the receiving end of blatantly sexist decisions and while they may have dissented, they do not back up their complaint with their actions. And this is why the women’s threat to boycott the Olympic Games is such a heroic and brilliant move. Not many athletes would forgo the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal in an attempt to improve things for future generations in their sport. It remains to be seen if the women will have to go through with their threat of a boycott. Let’s hope they don’t. But more importantly, let’s hope that their gallant stance prevents such blatant and objectionable levels of sexism from being repeated.